Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Cuckold and His Snake: "Murders in the Zoo"

Even by the freewheeling standards of the Pre-Code era, Murders in the Zoo pushed the limits of taste and common decency. Although it was released in 1933, Murders in the Zoo remains, in the words of Leonard Maltin, "astonishingly grisly." A large part of comes from screenwriter Philip Wylie, a novelist and polemicist who once wrote of the terror of "momism," or the American habit of worshipping the mother and women in general as sacred objects. According to Wylie, strong men caving in to the demands of women is an affront to the established order and worse still, it enfeebles men and turns them into sniveling and "kept" shoeshiners who go out of their way to keep the missus from being peeved. In sum, had he lived long enough to see it, Wylie would've considered Everyone Loves Raymond a Satanic construction designed to kill masculinity once and for all. (And yes, to answer your burning question, Wylie did marry. Twice, actually.) 

Ostensibly, a 66-minute horror film is not the usual place for grand discussions about the battle of the sexes, and by all appearances, Murders in the Zoo does not present Wylie's hatred for momism, weak men, or overbearing women. Then again, the film's heroine (played by Kathleen Burke, the exotic-looking Hoosier who played the Panther Woman in The Island of Lost Souls, which was also written by Wylie) manages to elicit sympathy only because her husband, the wealthy hunter Eric Gorman (played by horror stalwart Lionel Atwill) is so vile. If Atwill's character had had any redeeming qualities, then audiences, especially the audiences of the 1930s, would've hated Evelyn Gorman as an adulterer. 

Because the film barely eclipses the one hour mark, all synopses must therefore be brief. So, briefly, Murders in the Zoo details the lengths to which Gorman will go to strike out against his wife's admirers and lovers. In the very first scene, which gives the audience a heaping helping of exoticism by setting the action in French Indochina, Gorman, with the help of some natives, dishes out some torture learned from a Mongolian prince when he uses a needle and thread to sew up the mouth of a man who had in the unrecorded past kissed his wife. Director A. Edward Sutherland decided not to pull away from this barbaric scene and even gave the newly sewed-up man a close-up cameo. All these many years later, the scene still comes across as gruesome. 

After Gorman's close-mouthed compatriot gets eaten alive by tigers, the Gormans decide to leave Asia for the States with an impressive menagerie. Gorman, as a billionaire naturalist, is keen on selling his captured animals to a zoo run by Professor G.A. Evans (played by Harry Beresford). The only problem is that the zoo is in tatters, and Gorman's tigers, lions, monkeys, and snakes are only going to further sink the zoo into debt. But luckily the good professor finds a solution. Publicity -- that's the ticket! Enter Peter Yates (played by the ham Charlie Ruggles), a drunk rounder who's apparently done every job (and done them all poorly) and has even managed to fill a portfolio with his many exploits (which include standing next to Niagara Falls). Despite concerns about Yates's drinking, Professor Evans hires him and immediately assigns him the task of generating interest in Gorman's return from overseas. Sadly, the silly Yates, who always seems blotto throughout the film, even when he sheepishly coos "Oh my goodness" at anything and everything, becomes a major character. This means that there's a lot of low comedy and dumb gag laughs in Murders in the Zoo, an otherwise bleak picture about a serial killer and his two-timing wife. 

In more serious matters, Gorman begins to plot his next murder while still traveling across the ocean. His target is the handsome and rich Roger Hewitt (played by John Lodge), who is so wrapped up in Mrs. Gorman that he fancies marrying her and joining her for a honeymoon in Paris as soon as the divorce goes through. After Gorman calls on Hewitt and notices that his coffee cups bear traces of lipstick, Gorman sets in motion an elaborate murder that takes places during a Satyricon-like feast ringed by the fearsome beasts recently brought back from Indochina. 

While the gala was Yates's idea, Gorman seizes the opportunity to kill Hewitt by releasing a green mamba, a deadly snake from Southeast Asia, underneath the table. Well, that's what Gorman wants people to think. In truth, Gorman uses an infernal device -- a mechanical snake head full of incurable mamba venom -- to scratch Hewitt's leg, thereby infecting his bloodstream. Within minutes, Hewitt is dead. 

Evelyn, who has been suspicious of her husband since the beginning of the film, now knows that he is a killer. The pair trade barbs and accusations at the Gorman mansion, and while trying to avoid her husband's wrath, Evelyn breaks into Gorman's desk and finds his murder weapon. She then promptly wraps it up and heads for the zoo, where Dr. Jack Woodford (played by the Hollywood hunk Randolph Scott) and his girlfriend Jerry Evans (played by Gail Patrick) are hard at work developing an antitoxin for the green mamba's bite. 

Evelyn is just dam unlucky, it seems, for Gorman manages to catch up with her and disposes of her body by throwing her over a bridge that crosses the zoo's alligator pit. Evelyn is promptly chewed to bits. When two boys fish a piece of Evelyn's dress from out of the alligator pit, Gorman reacts to the news by accusing Woodford of criminal negligence (Gorman also blames Woodford for Hewitt's death because the mamba had last been in his custody). 

Since he's the leading man, it's up to Woodford to save the day. He does it through some zoological detective work. Specifically, Woodford notices that the bite marks that killed Hewitt do not line up with the width of the green mamba's fangs. The width of the fangs that killed Hewitt were wider, therefore something other than the mamba killed Hewitt. Woodford, in a moment of incredible stupidity, calls Gorman in order to hint that he's found a discrepancy in the case. An equally suspicious Gorman brings his little toy along, and when he learns that Woodford has come to the correct conclusion, he cuts the good doctor in a way that turns the scene into a relatively gory display of coldblooded murder. Gorman then kills the mamba and places it next to what he thinks is the corpse of Woodford. But alas, Woodford and Evans have manufactured an antitoxin, so Woodford gets to live.

Gorman, on the other hand, finds himself on the wrong end of the law. The zoo becomes a killing field as Gorman tries to escape by letting the tigers, lions, and leopards loose. This just delays the inevitable, however, and while trying to avoid the big cats, Gorman locks himself in with a boa constrictor and dies from a slow squeeze. 

Murders in the Zoo is a very dark picture told at a breakneck pace. And unlike the much celebrated The Island of Lost Souls, which discusses some pretty heady issues while operating on the surface as a dirty little adventure film, Murders in the Zoo is Grand Guignol with nothing to say and everything to show. This is cinematic violence done with a leering grin. Murders in the Zoo is old school horror that proves that our grandparents were just as depraved as the rest of us, and maybe even more so. After all, Murders in the Zoo, which allows its antagonist to get away with an awful lot before finally finding his comeuppance, assaults its audience twice: the first time with the crimes of Eric Gorman, and the second time with the God awful goofs of Peter Yates. If you ever watch the movie, you'll learn soon enough which one is worse. 

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