Murders in the Zoo

04/21/2023 08:18

Film: Murders in the Zoo

Year: 1933

Director: A. Edward Sutherland

Writers: Philip Wylie and Seton I. Miller

Starring: Charles Ruggles, Lionel Atwill and Gail Patrick



This is a movie that I discovered when searching Letterboxd for horror from 1933. What I didn’t realize was that this is a lesser talked about Universal film. It is interesting that I bought a boxset that has this and all four films in it feature Lionel Atwill. He is an actor that I’ve grown to like the more that I see him in things. I also didn’t realize how many he did until recently as well. The title gave me an idea of what this would be about, but that is the extent of what I did know ahead of my watch.

Synopsis: a monomaniacal zoologist is pathologically jealous of his beautiful but unfaithful wife, Evelyn (Kathleen Burke). He will not stop short of murder to keep her.

Something I wanted to give credit to start is the opening. We are seeing the actors being matched up to different animals and I thought that was a good touch. The movie then shows us Eric Gorman (Atwill) punishing Bob Taylor (Edward Pawley). Eric caught Bob talking to his wife. They might be having an affair, but that doesn’t matter. Eric sews his mouth shut like we saw with a native tribe. Bob is left in the jungle of Indo-China, according to the map.

Eric is there collecting animals for a zoo back in the United States. He is quite good at what he does. Eric’s wife, Evelyn, is also there with him. She is concerned what happened to Bob. The group soon learns this poor guy was most likely killed by a tiger.

It then shifts over to a sea vessel bringing the animals to the US. We get to see even more that there is no love between Eric and Evelyn. She talks to a Roger Hewitt (John Lodge), but she warns him that if her husband sees, it won’t be good for him. Eric then appears. There is an interesting back and forth as Eric wants to show off the animals he collected to Roger, despite how late it is.

We are then in America. The movie gives us zoo footage and we get to know the other characters involved. There is Peter Yates (Charles Ruggles) who is a former newspaper guy. He wants to take on being the publicist for the animals. He is accepted into that role to help bring in more money. There is Dr. Jack Woodford (Randolph Scott) who cares for the animals. He is helped by Jerry Evans (Gail Patrick). I take it that they’re an item. The last character to introduce is Professor G.A. Evans (Harry Beresford). I believe he runs the zoo along with Eric.

It is decided to help fundraise by having a dinner. This takes place in the cats’ house. Peter is running things. The seating arrangements are interesting with Eric sitting across from Evelyn and Roger. Things take a turn when Roger is bit by something. The results seem to be from a snake, a mamba. Eric blames Jack and thinks he’s careless. Jack goes about clearing his name and Evelyn has her suspicions. The deaths don’t stop there.

That is where I’m going to leave my recap and introduction to the characters. Where I want to start is that I love this concept. I’m a big fan of going to the zoo and then setting a movie like this there where the animals being used as a weapon is good to me. We also have a solid cast of characters as well. If I do have a gripe about this overall idea, we learn too quickly the truth which ruins the mystery. It is more seeing the characters trying to prove who is doing it along with their innocence. The low runtime hurts it there for me as well.

Let me then go to the strongest part here which is the acting. Atwill is such a good villain here. When we first meet him, we see how savage he is. That just continues to grow with the different things he does. He just plays this role so well there. I’d also say that Patrick, Scott, Lodge and Burke are also good. They’re entangled with things going on, none necessarily by choice. It is more for survival. Ruggles adds comedy here. I don’t necessarily need it, but it was fine. I’d say that the rest of the acting rounded this out for what was needed.

Where I’ll then go would be the fleshing out additional things with the story. First, I don’t blame Eric for wanting to get revenge on his cheating wife. We never see it explicitly, but I’m guessing that she is. I don’t like that she is going behind her husband’s back. I also don’t think he should be killing because of it. Things that happen here make sense, since I believe the Hayes Code would force the characters to be punished. With that taken care, I’ll say that again I love the settings. Going from the jungle to the zoo makes for good sets. Even though we don’t see it, I love that the animals are used as a weapon. Part of that is just lack of a way to do it practically. This does have a bit of filler with animal footage. I can overlook it though as it works. Credit then to the editing as well as the cinematography. It is fine without standing out. The animal noises also help the soundtrack.

In conclusion, this is a well-made movie. It does come with slight issues for me, but that is more of the era than just this film. I love the concept. Setting this first in the jungle and then in the zoo is great. I think Atwill makes a good villain with a solid cast around him. This is well-made. If I have an issue, I wish they would build a bit more of a mystery than what we got. It doesn’t ruin the movie, I just think that it could have deepened it a bit more. This is still a lesser talked about Universal film that I’d recommend a viewing if you like films from the era.


My Rating: 7.5 out of 10