Directed by Richard Thorpe [Other horror movies: Murder at Dawn (1932)]
Prior to touching upon my thoughts on this serial, I first wish to discuss why I included it on this site.
As those who spend a lot of time on IMDb know, there are many films that are listed as ‘horror’ half the time, the other times not. Jaws goes back-and-forth as if it’s a feature of the film. And plenty of movies that should be listed as part of the horror genre aren’t (Stripped to Kill from 1987 wasn’t listed as horror when I first saw it, but is now).
My point being that ‘horror’ is a very malleable genre. The 1918 German film Die Augen der Mumie Ma has been called a horror film so often that, despite it’s more thriller-feel, I think it’ll forever be branded horror (and more so, forever disappoint those expecting horror). Right now, one of the three main genres for King of the Wild is horror on IMDb, so even though horror makes up maybe ten percent of the serial, I still feel it’s worth talking about, and touching upon what horror aspects there were.
With that out of the way, let’s get the obvious done with first – because this is a serial (12 episodes, totaling about three hours and 47 minutes), and because this is a pretty low-quality serial, this does feel as though it drags and drags, pulling out new cliffhangers at the end of each episode to easily be overcome at the beginning of the next one, repeat and repeat. I liked much of it, but boy, did it drag.
There’s a bunch of moving pieces in this serial, which, if you’ve ever seen a serial, you would probably expect. Only a few really stand out, though, including the main character, played by Walter Miller, and a villainous Arab played by *get ready* Boris Karloff. Karloff playing a stereotypical Arab character throughout this serial was something of a treat. It felt utterly ridiculous at times. The other main antagonist, played by Tom Santschi, was a bit more believable. Everyone else did moderately fine, but no one really stood out, aside from maybe Nora Lane, who played Miller’s love interest.
Most of the horror, or what people back then may have seen as horror, comes from Bimi, an ape man controlled by Santschi’s character. He’s powerful, prone to violence, and attacked multiple characters on the orders of his master, and a few episodes ended with his hairy hands reaching down to strangle an unsuspecting member of the cast (in typical 30’s horror fashion). There were some pretty threatening scenes with him, so I’m not too bothered by the inclusion. Though far more adventure in feel, leopards consistently jumping out at characters too was a legitimate worry throughout the serial.
And that’s mainly what this serial is, to be sure – adventure. I’ve never seen anything fit that genre more appropriately than this in my life. You get multiple locations, altercations with savage African tribes, not to mention criminal Arabs (this serial had the racial sensitivities of The Birth of a Nation), leopard attacks, sinking steamers, jungle action, some lava, and a mysterious diamond mine. Action, too, as the ape man and animals were rather fierce, along with constant brawling between characters, and more than a few deaths by gunshot.
There were some fun sequences throughout, such as escaped leopards prowling a ship at sea, causing it to sink, and a great scene with a skeleton and a burning sword, but let’s be real – in total, this serial runs for three hours and 47 minutes. No amount of fun sequences or likable characters can make up for that, especially when it’s primarily an action and adventure serial with horror on the back-burner.
The most widely available version of this serial is beat up. The audio quality isn’t great, nor, for that matter, is the picture quality, and it definitely feels like it’s on the lower end of productions, even for the time. If you know what you’re getting into, though, I think, for the most part, those aspects can be overlooked.
King of the Wild can be an enjoyable ride, but it’s a long and tedious one, and some of the characters don’t quite get the viscous ending you may hope for. I’ve seen this whole thing twice now, and while I still found it an okay experience, unless I’m watching this with a group of friends, it’s probably nothing I’d sit through for a third time.