(1933)2.5Hans J. WollsteinIts penchant for European-flavored filmmaking notwithstanding, Paramount proved almost singularly ineffective in their attempts to duplicate the classic 1930s horror films of that other "old world" studio, Universal. Island of Lost Souls (1933) has a following among connoisseurs, but Charles Laughton's overripe performance and a wasted Bela Lugosi detract from the overall enjoyment of that seminal classic. Murders in the Zoo, however, doesn't even have Lugosi, but relies on Lionel Atwill, always a worthwhile acquaintance, but not enough of a genre star to secure the film immortality. Aside from this, Murders in the Zoo is really nothing but a melodrama about a jealous husband killing off his wife's admirers. That he does so in the most gruesome way possible is another matter entirely and doesn't qualify Murders as horror in the accepted connotation of the term. But the studio did advertise Murders in the Zoo as a horror flick, relying heavily on the notoriety of Kathleen Burke, the much publicized "Panther Woman" of Island of Lost Souls. The interesting Miss Burke is dispatched by her icy husband into a pool of alligators, a fate a modern viewer may wish on the far more deserving Charles Ruggles. Unlike Universal, who used such comedy characters as Una O'Connor as momentary relief from the terror, Paramount allowed the redoubtable, and top-billed, Mr. Ruggles to dominate far too much footage with his befuddled shtick, not all that surprising considering that Murders in the Zoo was directed by comedy veteran Edward Sutherland. A young Randolph Scott and future Perry Mason producer Gail Patrick are uncomplicated as the romantic leads, but the sight of Miss Burke's first paramour, his mouth brutally stitched together by Dr. Atwill, is still as shocking today as when his one close-up caused the film to be banned in such diverse countries as Australia, Sweden, Latvia and Germany. "Where is Bob Taylor," asks Miss Burke afterwards. "Well," answers Atwill, "after what happened last night, I imagine he wouldn't want to stay with us." "What did he say?" "He said nothing!"
Insanely jealous of his wife, wealthy zoologist Lionel Atwill uses his knowledge of animals to dispose of any would-be rivals. Atwill brings his latest collection of wild animals to a major metropolitan zoo. Here he continues his homicidal ways, dispatching his wife's lover (John Lodge) with the severed head of a poisonous snake. When his wife (Kathleen Burke) gathers up enough evidence to go to the police, Atwill unceremoniously dumps her in the zoo's alligator pit. A young animal specialist (Randolph Scott) and the zoo owner's daughter (Gail Patrick) suspect foul play and get the goods on the villain. Attempting to escape, Atwill accidentally locks himself in the python cage, and.....Despite the drunken comedy relief of Charlie Ruggles, Murders in the Zoo is a genuine spine-tingler, from its first scene--in which Atwill sews a man's lips shut and leaves him to be devoured by jungle wildlife--to the last.