❉ Dan Roberts wallows in the dark misery of the grotesque Murders In The Zoo, one of Lionel Atwill’s best performances.
“Directed by A Edward Sutherland who had little exposure in this genre, Murders In The Zoo is a fast paced and tight film. This was one of the last horror films to be made before the Production Code was enforced so it really does have an all or nothing feel to it.”
Eureka’s recent quadruple set of “creeping horror” excited me for one reason and one reason only. Murders In The Zoo. I’d seen it years ago and it left one indelible image – probably the same one as anyone else who has ever witnessed this twisted and nasty grand guignol.
The image is of course of the character Taylor running towards the camera with his chin splattered with blood from the needle wounds inflicted by Lionel Atwill who had sewn his mouth shut. It isn’t something that fades from memory.
The rest of the films in the box I’d seen and indeed own on a region 1 box set which I’d specifically purchased for Man Made Monster (1942) and The Black Cat (1941). So I knew I’d be duplicating them. Despite this, the notion of wallowing in the dark misery of Murders In The Zoo was too much to resist.
I’ll get the other films out of the way first which oddly in different articles the reviewers have placed as being the best of the lot. I can’t see it myself.
Horror Island (1941) was made by Universal as a companion picture to Man Made Monster (1941). There’s not much horror as its more of a pirate treasure hunt on a dark and misty island. So there’s plenty of atmosphere and a multitude of colourful characters but it’s quite light hearted and entertaining enough. Horror certainly isn’t high on its agenda. Leo Carrillo gives a flamboyant performance as the sailor Tobias Clump and is probably the star of the show. Directed by the multi-talented George Waggner the success of these two films paved the way for him to direct the infinitely better The Wolf Man (1941).
House of Horrors (1946) aka Joan Medford Is Missing should have been a great showcase for one of the icons of cult horror cinema: Rondo Hatton. If you’ve never heard of him then you’ve probably seen him or somebody made up to look like him. Born in 1894, Rondo began to suffer from acromegaly which left him horribly disfigured. He was persuaded by director Henry King to give up journalism and become an actor making his debut as an “ugly man” in Charles Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Naturally in true Hollywood fashion his face made him the perfect “monster”. There have been various moral discussions about whether this was exploitation. I’d like to think given Rondo was a journalist he had enough intelligence to realise he could make a decent living from his appearance rather than being duped by some cynical big-shot producers.
The film itself I found to be quite flat and never really evokes any menace. You only need to compare this to his first performance as “The Creeper” or the ‘Oxton ‘Orror as Inspector Lastrade calls him, in the Sherlock Holmes film Pearl of Death (1944). Pitted against Bails Rathbone’s Holmes he is a near silent menace with a penchant for breaking backs along with an understandable infatuation with Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers).
Rondo played “The Creeper” or indeed a version of the character five times and each time a little more humanity is revealed. Sadly this has the effect of weakening the menace. In all honesty, The Creeper, was only ever a henchman with a simple job of murder. We don’t always need a back story.
Rondo sadly died before being able to see either of his last two films but his image lived on in the 1991 adventure film The Rocketeer. Tiny Ron Taylor plays the henchman Lothar who is the spitting image of Rondo. I am in no doubt this reference rocketed over most people’s heads back then as it does now. What do you mean you’ve never seen The Rocketeer?! Do it now.
And now we come to Night Monster (1942). Directed by Ford Beebe with his typical efficiency derived from huge experience making cheap westerns and cliffhanger serials, it isn’t a bad little horror film which tells the tale of a monster lurking around a house near a swamp. There is a fine collection of characters at the house all of which have a distinctive category to fulfil. Most notably is Leif Erickson who plays Laurie the chauffeur. He’s the most lecherous and slimy character I ever come across. Some of his leers would give Jon Voight in Anaconda a run for his money. Marvellous!
Top-billed Lionel Atwill plays one of a trio of surgeons who have been invited to offer further treatment to Curt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) who has been left with only one arm and no legs. Then there is his sister who thinks she’s going insane and has called for external help in the shape of Dr Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey). There is also the gothic staple of the creepy housekeeper Miss Judd (Doris Lloyd). The typical square jawed hero is Dick Baldwin played by Don Porter. A writer of paperback thrillers which I always think is quite a lazy piece of characterisation. Writers are often played as well balanced, moral and brave but I think a more accurate portrayal is Jack Torrence in The Shining!
The surprise ingredient is Agar Singh played by Nils Asther. An Indian mentalist who performs mental tricks including the materialisation of objects from distant places. He’s Indian in a Hollywood sense so he clearly has some dark make up and wears a turban. This might make some squirm but you have to appreciate the context – this is the 1940s, not present day.
Despite being star-billed Lionel Atwill is the first guest to get murdered. Then one by one the other house guests end up being attacked by this unseen creeping monster.
The twist, sorry I’m going to spoil the ending, is that the limb lacking Curt Ingston has managed to create synthetic appendages through the power of his own mind in order to walk and murder.
HOLD ON A BROAD BEAN PICKIN’ MINUTE! (I don’t grow cotton).
This is the plot of Doctor X (1932). Isolated house. Selection of medical specialists. Synthetic limbs. Nothing like recycling a good plot. The same cannot be said of the atmosphere.
After watching most if not all Universal horror films from the 1930s and 40s, nobody does storms like them. Wind, rain, thunder and lightning are always well presented and laid on thick. Here though they are a little below par. Even the swamp mist seems a little thin which is a shame. It isn’t a bad film and is very well executed. If you compare this to Sherlock Holmes film The Scarlet Claw, the director Roy William Neill, makes the fog and swamp come alive. Budget could have a part to play but the swamp and fog are such a big part of the film it seems odd not to play on them. Ford Beebe never comes across as the most patient of film makers though so perhaps he was being squeezed for time.
The big negative is with Bela Lugosi and it’s the slightly depressing aspect to the film. Lugosi gets second billing and plays Rolf the butler. Now he’s played a butler before in the Ritz Brothers’ “comedy” The Gorilla (1939) and then in his very last film The Black Sleep (1956) but here is a character so lacking in menace at all it makes you wonder why he took the role. Lugosi’s addiction issues are well documented and his slide into z-grade films was well on its way. Was it the cash? Was it a bet? Contractual obligation? I only bring this up because here was an actor who had been the scene stealing Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Ghost of Frankenstein (1941) and who only ten years before had provided us with the first true cinematic incarnation of Dracula. Following it up playing the Poe obsessed Dr Vollin in The Raven (1935) and flaying Boris Karloff alive with much glee in The Black Cat (1934).
There is also no doubt about his acting ability. You only have to see Columbia’s rare diversion into horror with the Dracula-esque The Return of the Vampire (1943) in which Lugosi rolls back the years to give one his best performances. Yet here he is playing a butler who does little else but pull a few faces and does butler duties. I’m not joking when I say there is one scene where all he does is knock on a few doors and answer the phone. It’s so very sad.
And on to what is in my mind the main event. The grotesque and nasty Murders In The Zoo (1933). This was Paramount’s third foray into the horror genre following Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1931) and Island of the Lost Souls (1932). They weren’t a studio associated with this genre but had seemed to grasp the mettle of adapting classic literature rather than relying on pulpy screenplays. Murders In The Zoo marks a departure of this formula and boy do they go all the way in.
The plot is very simple. Lionel Atwill plays a “sportsman” Eric Gorman who is transporting his latest cache of wild animals from India to the zoo he supports. His wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) is desperate to leave him and in true pre-code style seems to be having affairs all over the place just to escape his clutches. This was the reason behind the opening scene I mentioned earlier. Taylor had tried to kiss Evelyn. Eric had spotted this and decided to have revenge. Sewing up his lips and leaving him to the tigers, whilst being unable to scream.
Atwill plays Gorman with a psychotic zeal far beyond being a simple villain. His choice of murder is usually animal based with the venom injecting head of a decapitated mamba he keeps in his pocket being his first choice. Failing that, he’ll just leave it to whatever man eating animal is near to him. Then there is the treatment of his wife who is trapped in an abusive marriage and desperate to leave him. His wife is clearly distraught after the death of her lover but Gorman attempts to rape her and it is quite clear his deranged mind isn’t limited to murder but there is certainly some perversion in there too.
“I want YOU to kiss ME…” Atwill says in his reptilian manner while clutching her body with his lusting hands.
It’s one of Atwill’s best performances. In some ways his Gorman shares traits with Count Zaroff in A Most Dangerous Game (1932). Both hold a belief in the purity of hunting and a natural selection along with a desire to make love after the kill. Once again sex and death form the base motivation. Both characters are a critique of masculinity in its purest form. The hunter gatherer along with the strong virile male are negative traits rather than a sign of strength. Both characters are also visibly wealthy which in the 1930s would have generated instant animosity. References to the Depression are made clearly and sympathetically while Gorman acts untouched and without empathy by the poverty inflicting those around him.
Elsewhere we are treated to a young Randolph Scott playing a zoologist and Charlie Ruggles as the “comic relief” journalist – much like Lee Tracy in Doctor X (1932). I’ve never been a fan of this type of role but he does offer one lovely piece of pre-code comedy. While cleaning out a cage he comes across the escaped Mamba and panics. At the end of the scene with the snake removed from the cage he is asked if he’s ok. His reply: “Do you know the name of a good laundry?”
You can guess what he means by this.
Directed by A Edward Sutherland who had little exposure in this genre, Murders In The Zoo is a fast paced and tight film. This was one of the last horror films to be made before the Production Code was enforced so it really does have an all or nothing feel to it. The atmosphere is menacing and claustrophobic and is highlighted no better than the scene where Gorman’s wife finds out about the mamba head and decides to take it to Randolph Scott who lives and works at the zoo. It’s a great ten minutes without much dialogue but plenty of tension, ending with the Mrs Gorman’s untimely demise in the jaws of a crocodile.
An interesting aspect of the film is the opening credits. Like many films of the time there is a sequence where the main characters are introduced often looking into camera, much like in a theatrical programme. There is nothing unusual here apart from each character is prefaced with an animal of similar characteristics. I wonder if this is a veiled reference to the infamous Island of Lost Souls (1932)? Without a doubt there is a comparison with the simplicities of the animal kingdom compared to the seemingly complicated world of humanity. Gorman admires the animals he has captured and goes on to say “ I love them – their honesty, their simplicity, their primitive emotions. They love, they hate, they kill.” He sees or at least want to see himself with the same philosophy and impose it wherever he is.
As a box set I’m still not sure about it. There is a certain lack of cohesion but similarly there is indeed a threat of creeping horror, but it is a thin thread. If you are into pre-code films then Murders In The Zoo has to be on your list. The other films are really too much of a mishmash to appeal on their own so maybe grouping them together was the right thing to do. The set does have an excellently written booklet which is worth reading through. The essays by Craig Ian Mann and Jon Towlson are very informative and do add to the enjoyment of all the films.
I think that sews it all up nicely.
❉ ‘Creeping Horror’ (Eureka Classics) Blu-ray was released 17 April 2023 and is available to order from the Eureka Store, RRP £26.99.
❉ Dan Roberts is usually found protecting his vegetables and watching wildlife. Every so often he manages to write something, usually about old films you’d forgotten about or didn’t know existed. Follow him on Twitter: @trampilot