Directed by A. Edward Sutherland [Other horror films: The Invisible Woman (1940)]
This is one of those classics that I’ve been wanting to see for quite some time, and I’m decently happy with how this one ended up, especially given that it came not from Universal, whose dominance in horror at the time was unparalleled, but Paramount (Island of Lost Souls, from the previous year, being a big hit for them). Murders in the Zoo isn’t amazing, but it was a pretty good film.
What helps is the somewhat more violent scenes we got occasionally, such as a man getting his lips sewn shut in the opening (a very strong opening, I thought, and I can imagine audiences back in the day finding that distasteful) and a man pushing a woman into water teeming with crocodiles (alas, we don’t see the scaly bois feast, but I liked the idea).
I don’t think that Charles Ruggles made for a great lead (he was generally a comedy lead, and in fact, this was his sole horror film), because that whole scared-of-every-single-animal trait got a bit old. I don’t hold that against him – he had to follow the script as to his character – but I don’t think he was the best lead possible. Luckily, the other lead, Lionel Atwill, is a horse of a different color.
Atwill, who has been in quite a few horror films (such as Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Vampire Bat, The Gorilla, Mark of the Vampire, Secret of the Blue Room, among others) was pretty great here, and really had a menacing and occasionally mad aura. He made for a strong antagonist, and I enjoyed his creative ways at getting revenge.
In other news, Randolph Scott (this and Supernatural, from the same year, made up the sum of his horror appearances) made for one of those characters you wish you’d see more of, the same which could be said of both Gail Patrick and John Lodge. Kathleen Burke (most famous for the aforementioned Island of Lost Souls) was pretty good also, and while a woman in a time where strong women weren’t common in horror, she did well for herself (although I would have advised against telling Atwill’s character that she’d tell everything she knows – that never works out well).
Given that this film is just over an hour, there’s not necessarily a whole lot to digest here, and you never really have time to feel bored, or that the film’s dragging. High-lights for me include the quality opening of the film, along with the dinner held at the zoo and the woman being thrown to the crocodiles. I must admit the ending too was of good stock – saving himself from the lions and tigers only to meet a slithery boi – so no complaints there.
Murders in the Zoo is a pretty strong movie, and one of those horror classics I think has largely been overlooked, which is a shame given the somewhat darker tone of the film along with Atwill’s performance. If you’re into black-and-white horror, and this is at your disposal, go for it.