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Paramount Pictures released one of the most potent shockers in the early 1930s cycle of horror films, presenting elaborate monster make-ups and pre-code scenes of torture in Island of Lost Souls (1932), starring Charles Laughton. Their follow-up thriller, Murders in the Zoo (1933), lacks any supernatural horrors but nevertheless fully deserves to be placed alongside other studio and independent horror productions of the period such as Freaks (1932), White Zombie (1932), and Mad Love (1935). It boasts stylish art deco design, atmospheric cinematography, several tense murder scenes, and above all, a standout performance by Lionel Atwill as an outrageously sadistic and callous killer.
Murders in the Zoo opens with one of the most shocking scenes in 1930s horror cinema. In French Indochina, big-game hunter Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is seen using needle and thread on a fallen colleague he is not tending to a wound however; the man rises toward the camera, his hands bound behind his back and his lips stitched shut. Gorman has sentenced a man to die in the jungle because he kissed his wife. Back at camp, Gorman's wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) asks him if the man said where he was headed. Gorman replies, "He didn't say anything," and nonchalantly lights a cigarette. Gorman and Evelyn return to the States aboard a ship packed with a menagerie of animals that the millionaire hunter has caught for the zoo. On board, Evelyn barely disguises a relationship with Roger Hewitt (John Lodge); Gorman takes note of it. The zoo is facing financial trouble, so the curator, Professor Evans (Harry Beresford), hires Peter Yates (Charles Ruggles) as a press agent, even though Yates is an alcoholic with a fear of animals. Evans' daughter Jerry (Gail Patrick) works in the zoo's medical lab with her fiance, biochemist and toxicologist Dr. Woodford (Randolph Scott). At a fund-raising banquet held in the carnivore house of the zoo, Roger is seemingly bitten by an escaped poisonous snake, but Evelyn suspects that the attack was the work of her maniacally jealous husband.
Murders in the Zoo was directed by former silent comic A. Edward ("Eddie") Sutherland, who engaged in pratfalls as one of the original Keystone Cops for Mack Sennett, and later directed such high profile comedies as Mississippi (1935) and Poppy (1936), both starring W. C. Fields, and Laurel and Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939). In spite of his obvious preference for comedy, Sutherland generates a sinister and moody atmosphere in Murders in the Zoo, one punctuated by several sudden shocks. The mood of the film is greatly helped by evocative black and white cinematography by Ernest Haller, who would go on to several Academy Award ® nominations (and a win for Gone with the Wind ).
As was typical with many horror films of the era, the studio sensed the grimness of the subject matter and injected a dose of "comedy relief." During this period, perhaps only director James Whale was able to strike the ideal balance with gallows humor in such films as The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Most other attempts were ham-fisted and intrusive, as anyone who has seen Ted Healy in Mad Love can attest. Here, the unsubtle asides are provided by the talented comedic actor Charlie Ruggles, who does his best with strained material dealing with drinking and a fear of animals. The scenes with Ruggles do not harm the picture irreparably, but it is unfortunate that the producers weren't satisfied with the subtle black humor that was already present. As Gorman, Lionel Atwill not only provides the chills, he also gets away with some darkly amusing dialogue, as when his wife accuses him of having something to do with a deadly snake attack during a dinner party: "You don't think I sat there all evening with an eight foot mamba in my pocket, do you? Why, it would be an injustice to my tailor."
By the time Murders in the Zoo was produced, Lionel Atwill was already an old hand at playing villainous roles in horror films. He began with Doctor X (1932) for Warner Bros. and followed it with The Vampire Bat (1933) for the independent Majestic Studios, and Warners' Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). The colorful actor easily made the transition from such leading parts as these to supporting roles in A-list films like Captain Blood (1935) and Boom Town (1940). His unforgettable turn as the one-armed Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939) assured that he would appear in every subsequent film in that series, as well as in other Universal shockers, such as Man Made Monster (1941). His final Universal feature was Lost City of the Jungle (1946); he died the same year after a bout with pneumonia.
In his article on the actor ("Dark Passions: The Sublime Villainy of Lionel Atwill" in Monsters from the Vault, Vol. 6, No. 13), Mark Clark writes that, "although notorious for lapsing into arch theatrics, Atwill performs here with the quiet, coiled striking power of a beast tracking its prey. He glides effortlessly across the screen, speaking volumes with a barely perceptible change in tenor in his voice, unveiling his character's hidden passions with a simple, unguarded glance." The author calls Murders in the Zoo "the quintessential Lionel Atwill film," and makes a good case for the actor exhibiting multiple shadings in the villainous role. For example, in the scene at the alligator pit, "Gorman pleads with his spouse: 'Everything I've done I've done because I love you. If I lacked the courage to kill for you, I couldn't expect you to go on loving me.' Atwill delivers these lines with an unexpected note of sweetness and with absolute conviction in their mad logic...Atwill's strangely touching work in this scene suggests that Gorman's egomaniacal possessiveness springs from deep-seated fears of inadequacy. He's overcompensating for his inner neediness with jungle bravado."
The New York Times reviewer seems to have appreciated the comedy relief offered in Murders in the Zoo, which he calls "a particularly gruesome specimen" of the horror genre. "It happens that the director has been almost too effective in dramatizing these cheerless events, and one is thankful for the generous footage given to Charles Ruggles as a timid and bibulous press agent for the zoo. Those who demand their leaven of romance even in horror pictures are likely to find Murders in the Zoo inadequate in this direction... Lionel 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." The writer for The Los Angeles Times held a similar opinion: "Roars, shrieks, and cackling of the wild animals on the screen at the Paramount yesterday were echoed to an amazing degree by the audience, at times driven to a mild state of hysteria by scenes in Murders in the Zoo."
In his book Classics of the Horror Film, one of the first serious critical takes on the genre, the well-known film scholar William K. Everson had high praise for Murders in the Zoo, writing that "...in comparison with the physically repellent obsession with gore and clinical detail that has marked recent horror films, Murders in the Zoo seems a model of decorum, and if there is any tastelessness at all, it is primarily in the healthy vulgarity of some of Charlie Ruggles' comedy... Primarily, of course, it is a showcase for the bravura nastiness of Lionel Atwill, who, apart, from relishing every line and nuance, also managed to suggest general tendencies towards unspecified depravities which his scripts never intended. The gleam that came into Atwill's eye, the sneer of his lips, his quick dismissal of unspeakable things that had happened off-screen before the story got under way, all of these little acting ploys somehow turned him into an unwholesome killer as well as an illegal one!...It's a slick, fast-paced and well cast production."
Murders in the Zoo provided only the second film role for Kathleen Burke following her debut as the Panther Woman in Island of Lost Souls. Her casting in that film was the result of a long and successful publicity stunt by Paramount, the Panther Woman Contest. The contest was far-reaching and involved up to 60,000 entrants at participating movie theaters across the country. Local judging narrowed the field to about 300 women, many of whom even made screen tests at the cinemas in their city. Each of the four finalists in the contest (Burke from Chicago, Illinois; Vera Hillie of Detroit, Michigan; Lona Andre of Nashville, Tennessee; and Gail Patrick of Birmingham, Alabama) ended up with a contract with Paramount. Gail Patrick may not have gotten the Panther Woman part, but she not only co-starred in Murders in the Zoo, she went on to have the longest career of any of the contestants. Patrick appeared in over sixty films, including such standouts as My Man Godfrey (1936), Stage Door (1937), and My Favorite Wife (1940). She left show business in 1947 and became a clothing designer, but returned a decade later as the co-producer (with third husband Cornwell Jackson) of the long-running TV series Perry Mason (1957-1966).
Director: Edward Sutherland
Screenplay: Philip Wylie; Seton I. Miller; Milton Herbert Gropper (additional dialogue, uncredited)
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Music: Rudolph G. Kopp, John Leipold (both uncredited)
Cast: Charlie Ruggles (Peter Yates - zoo press agent), Lionel Atwill (Eric Gorman), Gail Patrick (Jerry Evans), Randolph Scott (Dr. Jack Woodford), John Lodge (Roger Hewitt), Kathleen Burke (Evelyn Gorman), Harry Beresford (Prof. G.A. Evans)
by John M. Miller
Sources:Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson (Citadel Press)
The Films of Randolph Scott by Robert Nott (McFarland)
"The Panther Women of Island of Lost Souls: Passing through the Fourth Wall into the World of Local Fame" by Gary D. Rhodes, Monsters from the Vault, Volume 10, Number 20
"Dark Passions: The Sublime Villainy of Lionel Atwill" by Mark Clark, Monsters from the Vault, Volume 6, Number 13