Murders in the Zoo (1933): Animal Instinct

Professor Evans: Do you know anything about animals?

Yates: Why, they’ve been my constant companions many a night! I mean…

postIf you invented a time machine, sent your favorite giallo auteur or sleazy ’80s horror director back to 1933, and turned him loose on the Paramount lot, Murders in the Zoo is pretty much what you’d get. 

Every time I revisit Murders in the Zoo, I ask myself how the hell the cult classic made it past the censors, even the lenient pre-Code censors. You’ve got to hand it to director A. Edward Sutherland (perhaps best remembered as Mr. Louise Brooks). He pulled out all the stops on the loony organ to produce this demented toccata and fugue in the key of WTF.

Forget your monsters, your mad scientists, your ghostly menaces. This giddily offensive horror thriller focuses on an outwardly ordinary human being—who happens to go around executing people in the most gruesome ways imaginable. The horror of Murders in the Zoo is natural, not supernatural.  We’re talking paleo-grindhouse, ur-slasher.

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As Eric Gorman, a millionaire adventurer and closet psychopath, Hollywood’s champion villain Lionel Atwill delivers a restrained, self-possessed performance. Pathologically jealous of any man who looks at his knockout wife, Gorman transplants the law of the jungle—or his own perversion of it—to civilization. When asked how he feels about the wild animals he collects, Gorman replies, “I love them. Their honesty, their primitive emotions. They love. They hate. They kill.” (If anyone ever says this to you, back away slowly…)

Screen Shot 2013-10-07 at 12.29.40 AMWoe to Gorman’s sinuous spouse (Kathleen Burke, the “Panther woman” from Island of Lost Souls) when she falls hard for another man! Discovering the dalliance, Gorman theatrically poisons his wife’s lover at a gala benefit for a zoo and blames the death on an escaped snake. Charlie Ruggles as a nutty press agent, Randolph Scott as a noble toxicologist, and Gail Patrick as Scott’s fiancée-assistant all scramble to save the zoo from public outrage and financial ruin.

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Although the film seems to offer up a comic protagonist (Ruggles) and a moral protagonist (Scott), these characters are, to some extent, duck blinds. The movie belongs to our antihero, Gorman. It’s his narrative that drives the plot forward.

The audience also shares the knowledge of Gorman’s crimes from the very beginning of the film, one of the most shocking, concise openings in all of pre-Code-dom. A map flashes onscreen, giving the location of French Indochina. A series of ominous, establishing dissolves bring us into a jungle, where a group of men are huddled on the ground. In a closer shot, Gorman crouches beside a prone man we cannot see and appears to be sewing something as he nonchalantly explains, “A Mongolian prince taught me this. You’ll never lie to a friend again—and you’ll never kiss another man’s wife.”

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Finishing with his work, Gorman and his party walk towards their transport elephant. We get several cuts back and forth between Gorman and his lackeys departing and the trussed-up victim, who struggles to get to his feet. Sutherland deftly delays a reveal until the last possible moment…

Finally, the unknown man stands, in the background of a long shot. Slowly, slowly, he staggers towards the camera. And only then do we realize the extent of Gorman’s sadism with this indelible image.

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Armed with this early insight into Gorman’s dark side, the audience can perceive the bestial stirring of his “primitive emotions” under the veneer of charm he projects to the world, as he deceives the other characters. The camera frequently singles Gorman out with a reaction shot that offers a chilling clue to his state of mind, as he calculates his next misdeed. In one particularly alarming instance, he lingers in a doorway, after the cheerful pack of zoo employees has taken their leave. The camera tracks into his face and we can practically hear the wheels turning.

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We also savor the rush of Murders in the Zoo’s loopy, cataclysmic finale with Gorman. Instead of staying with the pursuers, the camera hovers around the villain, as he releases all of the big cats from their cages and stands watching them with Colonel Kurtz-esque serenity.

Gorman’s ease in the heart of chaos reminds me of another gentleman hunter of 1930s horror: General Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, who slakes his personal bloodlust by hunting humans. However, no matter how much the audience might admire Zaroff’s panache, he still comes across as a delusional nemesis, a megalomaniac who seeks to elevate himself above all other beings.  Gorman, by contrast, lives in the animal world, stalking his prey without any larger philosophical overtones. He seems to have returned to a deep-seated part of mankind, a vestigial aggression that most of us resist and deny.

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The Most Dangerous Game remains a splendid adventure largely because of how effectively the perils of the protagonist are managed. Murders in the Zoo, however, stands apart as a very different kind of thriller for the way it makes us share the experience of the bad guy.

The viewer is drawn into a bond of complicity with the multiple murder. As Hitchcock would do so masterfully in Psycho, Sutherland makes us sweat it out with Gorman, creating an uncomfortable alliance of perspective and semi-sympathy. Only we and Gorman grasp the full gravity of the situation as other characters turn up clues to his guilt. The prospect of his unmasking makes us tense—in spite of ourselves. In fact, the strange identification that Sutherland weaves between the viewer and Gorman is not unlike the mixture of wariness and fondness we feel before a proud, dangerous, animal in a cage.

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The film actually introduces its characters with novel twist on the common 1930s practice of including footage of each character at the beginning of the movie as part of the credits. A shot of each role’s animal equivalent (we might say spirit animal nowadays) dissolves into a shot of the actor playing the role. Goofy Charlie Ruggles is a seal. Wise doctor Randolph Scott is an owl. Kathleen Burke is—surprise, surprise—a sinuous big cat. And the voracious, dignified tiger dissolves into… Gorman, of course.

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Murders in the Zoo thus hints, none too subtly, that humans are kidding themselves if they think they’ve risen above the animal kingdom. In the exuberant stock footage of dancing bears, macho elephant seals, and maternal elephants that the movie cuts together, we recognize sparkles of personality, of qualities that homo sapiens often believe belong only to them. Conversely, Sutherland casts a droll zoological gaze on the herds of fluttery society elites and the flocks of querulous children that appear in the film.

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As if the subversive context weren’t bad enough, the film’s unabashed seesawing back and forth between pleasure and disgust foreshadowed a brand of horror that wouldn’t come into its own for decades. Now, Thirteen Women, made the year before Murders, deservedly gets a lot of credit as an early iteration, and possibly the genesis, of the slasher genre, but at least that film could sell itself as a serious women’s picture with legit literary source material. Murders in the Zoo abandons all pretense of social validity in favor of a delirious, regressive killing spree, peppered with alarming doses of anarchic humor.

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Of course, combining humor with horror is nothing unusual; almost every scary movie of the 1930s did it in some measure. However, Murders in the Zoo doesn’t offer comic relief so much as comic disturbance. The wisecracks and sick jokes pop up relentlessly, often at awkward moments, denying us the full cathartic power of the fear that the film also provokes.

The film’s general attitude towards death— just another opportunity for innuendo—can be summed up by Gorman’s bemused reaction when his wife accuses him of killing her lover: “Evelyn, you don’t think I sat there all evening with an eight-foot mamba in my pocket? Why, it would be an injustice to my tailor!” Yup. People die. That’s too bad. How about a jocular phallic double entendre?

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To a certain extent, Murders in the Zoo depicts violence as funny and cartoonish. The series of pulpy, improbable demises, jumbled as they are with extended sequences of absurd hijinks, distance us from the ugliness of death. We’re basically dealing with a screwball comedy diabolically cross-pollinated with revenge melodrama.

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If not for one saving grace moment of silence and respect, when our good-guy archetype Randolph Scott delicately escorts Kathleen Burke’s character away from the corpse of her lover, I might call the movie itself positively amoral.

So, if I conclude that Murders in the Zoo was ahead of its time, please don’t suppose that I mean that entirely as a compliment.

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Oh, the Humanity! Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Leave it to Paramount. As if all the great Lubitsch comedies and Von Sternberg dramas they cranked out weren’t enough immortal genius for them in the 1930s, the sparkling, sophisticated studio managed to match Universal at their horror game with Island of Lost Souls. And how!

Directed by Erle C. Kenton, this classic stands out as probably the most violent in the pantheon of 1930s nightmare pictures. With cinematography by Karl Struss—the director of photography partially responsible for the ethereal wonder that is Murnau’s Sunrise and the magician behind Fredric March’s no-cut transformation to Hyde—Island of Lost Souls is also one of the most fiercely beautiful horror films of all time, replete with reflections, complex shadow effects, and rich low-key lighting set-ups.

Most of all, the film presents perhaps the most frightening monster of the early talkie horror cycle: Dr. Moreau, whose smug superiority and utter lack of human traits, even as he tries to instill “humanity” in others, make him a chilling parallel to every 20th century dictator.

The People Have Spoken

Hey, boys and girls, here’s a fun fact for you! In 1939, on the eve of World War II, Photoplay magazine polled studio contract stars about their opinions on key political and social issues. Here’s a snippet from the final write-up, “What Hollywood Is Thinking”:

“PHOTOPLAY’S second question was, ‘Do you advocate the sterilization of mentally unfit persons?’  

“To this, eighty-seven percent and one-half percent of the women and ninety-four percent of the men said yes.”

I just want those numbers to frame my take on Island of Lost Souls.

Now, I find that the fantastic qualities of many horror films and the suspension of disbelief that they (supposedly) require too often strips these classics of their due position in the history of cinema. But with such a resoundingly high population in Hollywood favoring eugenics in the 1930s… well, you tell me how outlandish Dr. Moreau’s visions are.

(Incidentally, I’m not the only person to link eugenics with Island of Lost Souls—there’s a bit about it in Angela Smith’s Hideous Progeny, although, as always, the observations in this post are my own mad creations.)

The Reasoning Animal

I have to applaud the bravery of horror as a genre.

Shocker flicks, of the kind that flourished in the 1930s, persistently suggest the fallacy of certain overly optimistic ideals, the heritage of the Enlightenment. Ignorance is so totally not the only evil.

Man is capable of very good things, but he’s also capable of the blackest, most vile deeds—whether he happens to be a respected scientist or just some dumb bully. As man gets smarter, guess what? He doesn’t necessarily get nicer.

Charles Laughton’s performance as Dr. Moreau highlights the uncanny contradiction of the evil genius, the concept that the best of mankind might be the inextricable flip side of the worst. His hilariously ironic manners, his custom of drinking tea out of delicate china and silver, and his genteel colonial wardrobe all emphasize the fact that he is the shining example of certain cultural virtues and ideals.

Why, he’s even created his own warped little version of a social contract, as we discover in the famous recitation of The Law scene. However, the feverish back-and-forth cutting reveals how much this Law is merely a tool for keeping the rabble separated from the Creator of that Law.

“Are we not men?” The monsters wail below, even though they seem crushed by the shame of the knowledge that they cannot ever be men in the eyes of their maker. It’s always somebody else who makes the laws, isn’t it? Moreau’s litany reminds us of the kind of lofty over-expectations that a dictator-controlled society resorts to in an attempt to mold its citizens right out of their personhood.

The shadowy low-angle shots of Moreau in the The Law sequence also tie into the depiction of another character in the film—the brutish ship captain, often shown from below, a hulking drunk who only feels like a big man when he picks on the helpless.

When we first meet Moreau, we’re somewhat relieved by his snappy politeness, but we soon learn that he’s no different than the thuggish captain, who delights in a smaller-scale version of the submission that Moreau expects and commands from his “natives.”

However, my favorite moment in the whole movie occurs when Moreau introduces the vulnerable Lota, the Panther Woman, to Parker. Of course, he’s hoping to breed them for his sick, morally irresponsible experiments. Any other mad scientist would say something sinister and chuckle to himself.

Moreau, like a matchmaking mother, claps his hands and cheerfully says, “Well, I’ll leave you two young people alone together!”

Seized by voyeurism masquerading as scientific interest, Dr. Moreau keenly watches the results of his breeding experiment.

Unlike so many overtly intense or frantic mad scientists, Laughton opts for a kinky coyness. For instance, he lounges on his own operating table while gleefully explaining his life’s work.

Laughton conveys that Moreau isn’t just fueled by a single-minded passion for progress and discovery, like the modern Prometheus Dr. Frankenstein who seems to value the results of his experiments more than the ghoulish process.

No, Moreau deeply enjoys his work as a form of sublimation. I mean, come on now, we’re dealing with a man who dedicated his life to cultivating prodigious flowers and asparagus. You don’t have to be Georgia O’Keefe to figure the symbolism of these indecently gigantic plants!

Breeding giant orchids. A totally normal ambition.

Giant asparagus. Which, by the way, is my new favorite insult…

The stunning cinematography augments Laughton’s already spot-on performance—while also betraying him as the petty, frustrated tyrant he is. When Moreau first explicitly mentions to Parker how he feels like God, his obscured face, barely lit from below, imparts a ghoulish aspect so that we understand just how far he is from anything that could be considered godlike. He doesn’t want to make beings in his own image. He doesn’t want to create. He wants to mutilate.

Delusions of grandeur: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

If the Island of Lost Souls offers a moral equal and opposite to Moreau, befuddled Parker doesn’t measure up to that role—Lota, the Panther Woman, does. She epitomizes all the warmth, courage, and self-consciousness her creator never had.

For instance, once Parker notices Lota’s claws and recognized her animal origins, she hides in her room, staring at herself in the mirror. Kathleen Burke was chosen for this role out of 60,000 girls and, man, did they ever pick the right woman for the job. She communicates the genuine pathos of the body hate and self-loathing that every woman I’ve met experiences at least once in her life. Suddenly, Moreau barges in, jerks Lota around, collapses, and proceeds to sulk about his failure.

For a fleeting instant, the viewer almost expects the doctor and his creation to commiserate. Then she starts to cry. And he starts to laugh—for her tears mean that he’s managed to make a creature with the emotions of a woman. The joy that he derives from her sorrow succeeded in shocking me more than all the pre-Code exploitation value in the rest of the movie.  The fact that Moreau cannot regard Lota as a being deserving of dignity and consideration proves that, in a fine twist of irony, she possesses more humanity than he.

Do Look Back: The Legacy of Island of Lost Souls

At the end of the film, Montgomery rows the non-animal hero and heroine of the film away from the island as it goes up in flames and tells them, “Don’t look back.” However, I think that’s exact what we should do—look back at this movie, the time it came out of, and its influence.

I have no way of proving this, but I suspect that Orson Welles saw this and stowed away a few ideas for his searing, brutal low-budget Macbeth. If you’ve seen it, I think you’ll agree that this shot of Dr. Moreau’s “natives” peering out at the new arrivals strongly foreshadows similar shots of the witches in Welles’ adaptation.

The frequent tracking movements, slowly creeping around Moreau’s lair set a new standard for unbalancing motion in a film. The potential for the tracking shot as a disconcerting horror tool was later elevated to high art in other stories of dehumanization or darkness triumphant, like Olivier’s Hamlet and Last Year at Marienbad.

Indeed, whenever a movie tries to conjure up a shadowy, impenetrable place of evil, you can see visual echoes of Island of Lost Souls. Seriously, try to imagine Kurtz’ compound in Apocalypse Now without the lush shadows, balletic camerawork, and the twisted cult of personality that Kenton’s film fused into an enduring, coherent esthetic. The mixture of exoticism, expressionism, and amorality works so well as a kind of archetypal unit that we’ve been coming up against it ever since.

Father of Kurtz?

I also doubt that very many movies released after 1932 have depicted torture in a way not influenced by Island of Lost Souls. Good directors know that, even if you do want to eventually go all-out in showing torture violence, you should introduce it off-screen first to build anticipatory terror. It’s just a smart suspense technique. And this movie does it the best I’ve ever seen.

Parker is eating dinner with Montgomery and Moreau. All of a sudden, we hear a cry. Ling, who, the movie has intimated, is probably not totally human, looks up in its direction, wild with elemental fear.

Then we get this magnificent shot of Moreau’s face emerging from behind Parker’s profile as he reassures him. Laughton’s moon of a face seems to “wax” and come alive with wickedness and we, the audience members, conclude that something horrible is going on.

And remember, 1932 was still early days for synchronous sound. So, this masterful use of the soundtrack not only to stretch the world of the story beyond the frame, but also to interject more tension and fear into the situation earns major respect from me.

This motif of off-screen violence returns at the very end, when the man-animals attack their creator in his own laboratory. The unseen torture scenes serve as book-ends to the film and reinforce a chilling symmetry. The animal revolution does not bring a regression to a state of barbarism and cruelty, since Dr. Moreau incarnated both of those things perfectly well. The refined doctor and the bloodthirsty animal-men share the desire to inflict pain—except that we can understand vengeance more easily than sadism in the name of science.