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Starburst Magazine Issue 406 - Out Now

Murders In The Zoo

PrintE-mail Written by Cleaver Patterson Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The Fright of Your Life - by Cleaver Patterson


In a clearing, deep in the jungles of French Indio-China, three men are busily employed in a particularly unpleasant act. Crouching round the struggling body of a fourth, whose pitiful groans go unheeded, the leader of the group busies himself with needle and thread, whilst his henchmen restrain their victim.

 

Eric: A Mongolian prince taught me this, Taylor. An ingenious device for the right occasion. You'll never lie to a friend again.  And you'll never kiss another man's wife.

 

As Eric and the natives leave, Taylor, with his hands tied behind his back, manages to crawl to his feet, and stumble through the undergrowth.  At last we see why the unfortunate man cannot cry out for help.  He shall be forever silent as his lips have been sewn together.

 

Later that evening as Eric arrives back at the expedition's base camp, he is greeted by his wife.


Evelyn: Where's Bob Taylor?

 

Eric: He went off to Salavan.

 

Evelyn: Alone?

 

Eric: Well after what happened last night I imagine he felt he shouldn't stay with us.

 

Evelyn: What did he say?

 

Eric: He didn't say anything ......


 

 

MURDERS IN THE ZOO

Paramount USA

1933   62 mins


Director: Edward Sutherland; Writers: Philip Wylie,

Seton I. Miller; Cinematographer: Ernest Haller

Cast: Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill), Evelyn Gorman (Kathleen Burke), Bob Taylor (Edward Pawley, Peter Yates (Charlie Ruggles), Jerry Evans (Gail Patrick), Dr. Jack Woodford (Randolph Scott), Roger Hewitt (John Lodge), Professor G. a. Evans (Harry Beresford)


'Lionell Atwill as the insanely jealous husband is almost too convincing for comfort, and Kathleen Burke as the wife suggests the domestic terrors of her life capably. Judged by its ability to chill and terrify, this film is a successful melodrama' - New York Times Review -(April 3, 1933)


'What strikes is the wonderfully lurid nastiness of the film' - Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review (Richard Scheib)


There is something about films from the golden age of Hollywood horror, which their modern counterparts, in all their colourful realism, cannot achieve.  Perhaps it's because the said films had not the means to shock audiences with vivid on-screen gore, that they relied more heavily on suspense and drama.  The suitably jaw dropping (literally) opening scene from 'Murders in the Zoo', though climaxing in the grisly revelation of Taylor's fate, owes as much to the build up as to the final denouement.  Despite not actually seeing what Eric is doing, it doesn't take an expert to work it out.  In fact, upon it's first release in 1933, it was this jungle scene and its depiction of DIY stitching that disturbed audiences most, and was to get the film banned in Britain.


That's not to say that the rest of the film isn't equally upsetting.  Atwill plays the psychotic big game philanthropist, with the relish which made him one of the mainstay villains of pre-war horror, along with Barrymore, Karloff and Lugosi.  He wastes no time in despatching anyone who either eyes up his wife, as in the case of the unfortunate Taylor and back home her lover Hewitt, played with suave charm by the accomplished actor, and later real life Governor of Connecticut, John Lodge, or stands in his way.  He eventually rids himself of his unfaithful wife, by throwing her from an ornamental bridge into the zoo's crocodile pit, and it's only luck, in the melodramatic Hollywood style of good conquering evil, that Randolph Scott's young scientist hero is saved from becoming another of Atwill's victims, by being miraculously resuscitated by his feisty girlfriend played by Gail Patrick.


In fact both Patrick and Burke's characters, in their own ways, are prototypes for the modern, independent woman.  Burke is as at home around a jungle campfire, as she is hitching up her evening dress so she can climb into her husband's study and discover exactly how he has killed her lover.  And Patrick is more than capable of holding her own as the lab assistant who manages to keep her cool whilst all around are losing theirs in the breathless finale.  Save for Atwill, the other male characters in the film are rather ineffectual.  The 'light relief', provided by the annoyingly camp humour of comedian Charlie Ruggles, though seemingly pre-requisite for horror films during this period, grates, whilst the presence of matinee idol Randolph Scott appears somewhat incongruous amidst the grisly goings on.


Ultimately however, the film belongs to Atwill. The dispassionate aloofness with which he despatches his hapless victims, is as chilling as any graphic depictions of murder, and it's  unfortunate that after 'Murders in the Zoo' and 'Mystery of the Wax Museum' the same year, he seldom got another opportunity to display this skill for subtle suggestiveness.  In later years Atwill was reduced to authoritarian supporting roles, such as Dr James Mortimer in the 1939 Basil Rathbone classic 'The Hound of the Baskervilles’, before a sex scandal in the 1940's brought about the demise from which his career never really recovered.


Cleaver Patterson






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Comments  

 
0 #1 Mr Cheese 2011-05-22 11:02
This sounds amazing, definitely hunting out a copy. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
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