In Swinging London the bodies of several wealthy old men have been fished out of Thames. Bumbling Scotland Yard Commissioner Sir Arthur (Hubert von Meyerinck) is set to rule them all suicides, not realizing the victims were actually strangled to death by a homicidal gorilla! Or rather some goon in a ratty gorilla suit. Luckily sharp-minded Inspector Perkins (Horst Tappert, future star of cult detective series Derrick) suspects there is something more sinister afoot. When a mysterious doll inscribed with strange writing is found with the latest victim, Susan MacPherson (Uschi Glas) a social worker proficient in African dialects, joins Perkins and his smitten sidekick Sgt. Pepper (Uwe Friedrichsen) – minus the rest of the Lonely Hearts' Club – to investigate further. Together they unravel an elaborate mystery that involves respectable lawyer Henry Parker (Albert Lieven), a bogus criminal rehabilitation charity called 'Love and Peace for People', sinister nuns, murderous blackmailer Edgar Bird (Ralf Schermuly), and the long-lost heiress to a vast fortune.
Pulp thriller writer Edgar Wallace's 1924 novel The Dark Eyes of London was first adapted into the like-named 1939 British film with the legendary Bela Lugosi. The film proved especially popular in Europe where a young Jess Franco co-opted the name of Lugosi's character, Dr. Orloff, for his own horror movie The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962) and various sundry permutations thereof. In Germany director Alfred Vohrer remade the film as The Dead Eyes of London (1961), one of thirteen films he made in the so-called 'krimi' sub-genre of horror-crime thrillers adapted from the novels of Edgar Wallace. With The Gorilla Gang, also known as Der Gorilla von Soho (The Gorilla of Soho), Vohrer revisited the same plot, ditching the shadowy neo-expressionist black and white cinematography of the original for garish comic book colours that suit the goofy story. Whereas in earlier versions the 'monster' was a hulking blind henchman, this time it is a hideously deformed former crime boss in a gorilla suit.
That first glimpse of the gorilla suit, which occurs barely a minute in, should be enough to separate seasoned trash film fans from the lightweights. Viewers will either recoil in disgust or embrace this kitsch load of nonsense like a long-lost friend. In West Germany the Edgar Wallace series proved enduringly popular and ran from the mid-Fifties to the early Seventies, occasionally overlapping in terms of style and content with the more flamboyantly gory and sexy Italian-made giallo thrillers. Indeed the next-to-last Edgar Wallace krimi: What Have You Done to Solange? (1971), a co-production between Italian and German studios, was basically a giallo. In contrast to the gialli, the krimi series featured reoccurring protagonists from film to film who were a lot funnier and therefore more personable. Audiences warmed to the cosy familiarity of Sir Arthur's pomposity, Inspector Perkins' sharp wit and Sgt. Pepper's comical mishaps. Interestingly although the heroes are drawn as comic characters, with the exception of Sir Arthur, they are also competent sleuths. Even Jimmy Pepper, who spends half his screen-time making a fool of himself trying to woo the lovely Susan, exhibits solid instincts, resourcefulness and deductive reasoning. While there are faint traces of satire in the depiction of Sir Arthur as a hot-tempered, lecherous incompetent who regularly upholds the innocence of 'respectable' yet clearly corrupt establishment types, his portrayal is largely affectionate. For all their racy nudity, sex and violent murders, the Edgar Wallace films are products of the establishment and removed from the more challenging products of then-incipient New German cinema movement.
As with many a krimi The Gorilla Gang is an odd but appealing mix of pulp fun, cosy comedy and lurid thrills (look out for the seedy bar where naked women and muscular dudes pose as living sculptures!) set in a fantasy vision of London where Edwardian archetypes intermingle with mods and dolly-birds in fetish mini-dresses and other charming relics of the Swinging Sixties. Vohrer paces the film a little slower than other entries. As always though the real pleasure lies not in the plot, which is absurdly convoluted, but the weird detours, witty dialogue, colourful characters and strange little eccentricities strewn along the way. The cast are uniformly charming, in particular steely-eyed Horst Tapper and button-cute Uschi Glas, both series regulars. It is worth watching for the lively finale and hilariously surreal and suggestive coda alone.