I don’t know about anyone else, but in my experience Direct TV and rain go together not at all. So it came as no surprise to me—following a stormy evening—when my attempts to record A. Edward Sutherland’s Murders in the Zoo (1933) off TCM resulted in a good deal of freezing-up, colored blocks, strange sounds and the ever-popular “Searching for Signal” screen. Unsurprised, but thoroughly annoyed. However, the showing was in part to promote TCM’s partnering with Universal to bring out a box set of five loosely defined “classic” horror movies—part of their “Vault Collection”—that had yet to make it to DVD. Naturally, I did the only sensible thing. I immediately ordered the set.
Having been thwarted in my desire to see Murders in the Zoo, I was determined to rectify things as soon as possible, meaning that I ponied up for expedited shipping. Imagine then my less than delighted response to receiving a backorder notice shortly after the arrival of my order confirmation notice. I was therefore agreeably surprised when a couple days later I had a shipping notice, and even more pleased when I had the films in hand in under a week. As backorders go, it’d be hard to ask for more. As box sets go, I could say much the same—especially when I realized that this was close to being an historical event in terms of movie geekdom.
With this set, it’s now possible to own virtually every horror picture made by Universal in the first (1931-1936) and second (1939-1946) waves of classic horror. There are some curios missing—The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946) and The Cat Creeps (1946)—and the stupefyingly dismal Paula DuPree Ape Woman trilogy remains only represented by Captive Wild Woman (1943). And the mystery films that sometimes filled out the “Shock Theater” programming of the 1960s languish in vaults—and occasionally on the tables of grey market dealers at film conventions—but the run of major and some not so major Universal horrors is out there.
There’s an irony to this, since the film that prompted me to go ahead and order this set is not a Universal horror, but a Paramount one that Universal acquired—along with nearly everything else Paramount produced between 1928 and 1947—under the auspices of MCA years ago. That it’s also the best film in the set has more to do with the fact that the first wave of horror was superior to the second wave than it has anything to do with the studios. That Universal has yet to dole out the horror movie jewel of their Paramount holdings, Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933), probably comes under the heading of the realization that it’s the only way to sell those miserable Paula DuPree Ape Woman movies on down the line. (You don’t honestly think anyone bought their Wolf Man box set to get She Wolf of London , do you?)
What do you get for your 50 buck investment? Well, aside from Murders in the Zoo, there’s The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942), The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), The Mad Ghoul (1943) and House of Horrors (1946). They come in a reasonably sound—though pretty unspectacular—package. By way of extras, there are some scene stills, publicity stills, lobby cards and posters—all of which are inconveniently anamorphically enhanced for widescreen TV. That’s a pretty odd move when you consider the movies themselves aren’t—and oughtn’t be—enhanced for widescreen. You also get some sketchy and not entirely correct onscreen production notes. (It’s very clear in The Strange Case of Dr. Rx that the gorilla played by Ray “Crash” Corrigan is called Nbongo, not Bongo as the notes keep insisting..)
Enticing? Not very. But you also get the films themselves, and they’re very enticing indeed if you’re a fan. With the exception of Murders in the Zoo these aren’t exactly the cream of the crop, but that’s almost beside the point in terms of liking them. Let’s be honest, if you really love classic era horror, you also love—or at least have a soft-spot for—the lesser luminaries. That’s especially true for anyone who watched these movies on TV growing up. In that regard, if fact, these 1940s B pictures are apt to have more resonance for some fans than Murders in the Zoo, since it was never a fixture on the “Shock Theater” circuit.
Murders in the Zoo benefits a good deal from Paramount’s production gloss and the fact that it’s a pre-code film. A year or so later and its grotesqueries—like the close-up of the man with his lips sewn shut, the cavalier disposal of Kathleen Burke into a pool of alligators, and Atwill’s comeuppance—would have been toned down considerably to satisfy the Breen Office. It’s an odd film to come from director A. Edward Sutherland, a man mostly associated with W.C. Fields movies and lighter fare. The only thing remotely comparable in his filmography is the very strange Secrets of the French Police (1932)—complete with its corpse turned into a statue a year ahead of Mystery of the Wax Museum—but even that isn’t really a horror picture. Murders in the Zoo very much is a horror film—with large doses of comedy.
The film is a bit of a weird concoction, since the studio opted to build it around comic actor Charlie Ruggles as a press agent with a drinking problem, despite the story being all about big game hunter Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) dealing with his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) apparently endless string of boyfriends—in the most drastic manner possible. Ruggles, in fact, gets billing over Atwill, though Atwill gets special “and” billing on the opening credits. The reason isn’t hard to fathom. Ruggles was a Paramount contract player, while Atwill had been called in as a horror star thanks to Doctor X (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). It was in the studio’s interest to promote Ruggles. And even though comical drunks are harder to accept today, Ruggles certainly has his moments in the film and is much better than a lot of so-called comic relief in horror movies.
The film opens with the infamous lip-sewing business in French Indo China (of all locations), but quickly moves to New York and the zoo of the title, which Gorman presents with a raft of fresh animals brough back from his trip. (Presumably, he went to more places than French Indo China, since his collection is more diverse than that port of call would allow for.) In the meantime, Mrs. Gorman has picked up a new boy toy (John Lodge), whose presence excites Gorman to further lethal hijinks. But since this isn’t the jungle, he has to have a plan—and what a plan it is. He decides to off his rival with a portable snake-head filled with the venom of the deadly green mamba (a specimen of which he’s brough back). How, you ask? Well, at a posh fundraiser dinner at the zoo where it will be discovered that the mamba has escaped—thereby framing the hapless serpent with murder. Yes, of course, it’s preposterous, but that’s part of the fun.
Alas, Mrs. Gorman uncovers the truth and ends up on a hot date with alligators. (Yes, Gorman could have done this God knows how many boyfriends ago and saved himself a lot of exertion.) Ah, but he hasn’t reckoned with the real mamba being found and the wily Sherlockian deductions of heroic zoo herpetologist Randolph Scott, who thinks to measure the spread of the mamba’s fangs against the marks on the dead man’s leg. Much excitement ensues, including a spectacularly nasty ending for our villain—one that would have easily made my favorite deaths list for Halloween had I reseen the film recently.
Leaping ahead and into actual Universal horror, we have William Nigh’s The Strange Case of Dr. Rx (1942)—an oddball little film that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. I’d have probably sprung for this set on the strength of this without Murders in the Zoo. And why not? I’ve already shelled out about 30 bucks over the years to grey market dealers for some watchable, but not very good copies. Seeing it with all its glossy sheen intact—this is one really great looking B picture—may not be revelatory, but it’s certainly a great pleasure to realize I’ve never seen it look this good.
There’s always been a certain amount of resistance to Dr. Rx on two counts. First of all, it was heavily marketed as a Lionel Atwill movie, and, yes, Atwill as Dr. Fish receives second billing. He also receives three brief scenes with dialogue and one or two non-talking bits where he merely looks suspicious. As his name implies, the character of Dr. Fish is a red herring. (These days that little footage devoted to a name actor would have assured his guilt, but back then it merely meant the studio was cashing in on a name while only paying the actor for a couple days’ work.) More to the point is the fact that—apart from a hooded madman scene with some Frankensteinean lab equipment, a gorilla and some chatter about a brain tranfer between the imperiled hero and a gorilla—the movie is really a mystery and not a horror film. It is, however, a good deal of fun.
In reality, Dr. Rx is a kind of “Thin Man” affair with Gothic Horror trappings. Patric Knowles and Anne Gwynne play a detective and his mystery-writing girlfriend/wife. He’s involved in finding out who is behind the Dr. Rx killings—involving a vengeance-drive maniac who disposes of obviously guilty, but acquitted, murderers—and she becomes just as determined to stop him for his own good. Much of the film is played for comedy. Rumor has it that Knowles and Gwynne made up much of their bantering dialogue, but one suspects the ad libbing didn’t stop there. Also in the cast (though shockingly not billed on the opening credits) is the black comedian Mantan Moreland, who unleashes his very un-PC (but often very funny) schtick on the film—and a lot of it sounds like Moreland’s own material. Add to this, Shemp Howard as a dumb cop and the humor level is surprisingly high.
It’s also a nicely designed film. (I wouldn’t in the least mind living in the studio’s idea of a modern (1942 modern) posh New York apartment.) Plus, the mystery—despite its painfully obvious red herrings—is nicely developed. When you factor together the chemistry between Knowles and Gwynne, Moreland’s comedy, the terrific look of the movie, the hooded madman/gorilla scene and a brisk running time of 66 minutes, it’s a little miracle of a movie. In truth, it’s a shame that this kind of film has completely disappeared from screens today.
You get a lot more Lionel Atwill, but a lot less movie in Joseph H. Lewis’ The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942). The fact that the movie was directed by Joseph H. Lewis means that it does boast a certain atmosphere. He uses Atwill in much the same way he had used Bela Lugosi the previous year in Invisible Ghost, which is to say that he likes to fill his frame with Atwill looking very sinister indeed and leering in on his intended victim. In fact, he likes this so much, it crops up three times. Atwill plays an outlaw scientist, Dr. Ralph Benson, who inadvertently offs a human guinea pig (Hardie Albright) in an experiment in suspended animation that goes awry. This, by the way, is the film’s only sequence that has anything to do with Market Street. Once the cops are closing in, Benson climbs out a window—and is next seen (having paused somewhere to shave off his beard) onboard a ship headed for the south seas.
Whatever The Mad Doctor of Market Street lacks in terms of horror, it makes up for in sheer incident. We’re not on the ship for much longer than it takes Benson to off a detective and the romantic leads (Claire Dodd and Richard Davies) to fall for each other. Soon, the damned thing is on fire and our main characters—add Una Merkel as Dodd’s dithery aunt, Nat Pendleton as a moronic prizefighter and John Eldredge as a cowardly ship’s officer—find themselves on a tropical island. The natives—headed up by the legendary Noble Johnson (the native chief in King Kong)—think the white folks have brought evil spirits that are causing his wife (Rosina Galli) to lay dying. Naturally, he decides to set them on fire—till Benson shoots the old gal full of adrenalin when she expires and bring her “back to life.” This gets him set up as the God of Life.
It’s all on the silly side. One can only marvel at the advanced musical compositions of the islanders, not to mention their rituals, which look like LeRoy Prinz dance numbers out of a “Road” picture. It’s not bad, but it’s ultimately a little on the tepid side. Suspended animation and bogus raisings of the dead simply have limited appeal, I think. In its favor, Atwill enjoys his villainy and gets the most out of looking menacing or lecherous as the plot dictates. Curio seekers will note that the film has an extended—and so far as I know, unique—version of Universal’s stock music for the ending credits.
More to the point is James Hogan’s The Mad Ghoul (1943)—a film that debuted a scant eight days after its director’s death. Perhaps he was afraid of the critical response, which was predictably not kind. Indeed, the film received one review from a British critic, which may be the finest outburst of critical acumen I’ve ever seen—“To be a ghoul must be disconcerting enough. To be a mad ghoul must be the height of personal embarassment.” Who can dispute this? Certainly not the lackluster David Bruce in the title role—a bland actor briefly thrust into quasi-stardom by what was known as “victory casting.” (The war had caused a shortage in viable leading men.) How bland is Bruce? Well, let’s put it this way, when he turns into the extremely annoyed ghoul of the title he looks the worse for wear (thanks to effective Jack Pierce makeup), but he seems only slightly less animated and personable than in his human scenes. It’s no wonder that the leading lady (Evelyn Ankers) spends the entire movie trying to dump him.
What the film has going for it—apart from taking itself agreeably seriously and not downplaying its grimness—is George Zucco as the libidinous and unhinged Dr. Alfred Morris, who turns Bruce into the ghoul. Zucco is at his utterly amoral, Satanic best here—gleefully out to prove his crackpot experiment while openly lusting after the leading lady. The experiment is of the loopy variety that is best not examined too closely. Seems Dr. Morris has divined that some ancient civilization or other (probably the Mayans from the look of things) had come up with a poison gas that produced the illusion of death, but one that could be rectified with the aid of a fresh heart and some chemicals. The exact point of this is unclear, but Morris has recreated (how is not addressed) the gas and the antidote and has monkeys at his disposal. So he taps a student (Bruce) to do the necessary cardiectomy on an ungassed monkey and manages to revive the gassed simian.
Naturally, he’s not satisfied with this. He wants to do it on a human being—and, well, he has the hapless student at hand, and anyway the student stands between him and the object of his lust. So ol’ Doc Morris gasses the lad, turning him into a zombie-like creature (why is not addressed), and then makes him get a heart from a fresh grave and uses it to revive him. But wouldn’t you know it, the effect is transitory, so we get a spree of grave-robbings and even a few murders to keep him going. It’s amusingly twisted nonsense that seems better than it is because of Zucco’s ability to seem privately amused by the whole thing.
That brings us to Jean Yarbrough’s House of Horrors (1946). The film isn’t worthless. Martin Kosleck gives a notable performance as a deranged sculptor of the cubist school, but otherwise the film mostly manages to offer up the improbable combination of half-heartedness and desperation. According to the opening credits, it “introduces” Rondo Hatton as “The Creeper.” Considering that Hatton had already played that character in the Sherlock Holmes picture The Pearl of Death in 1944, it’s hard to understand how this introduces him. Anyway, it’s largely interchangeable with his other Universal horror appearances in Jungle Captive (1945) and The Spider Woman Strikes Back. In other words, he’s big hulking guy with unfortunate features and a propensity for breaking spines.
The truth is that Hatton actually looked like he does in the films, thanks to a glandular disease called acromegaly—a popular B picture affliction we’d seen in Black Dragons (1942) and The Monster Maker (1944). The difference is that Hatton really had the condition and the studio was happy to cash in on his misfortune. There’s no denying he was an impressive screen presence, but he can’t be viewed as much of an actor. He tends to say, “Stop screamin’,” a lot to women who object to having their spines broken, and is fairly good at that. House of Horrors, however, gives him considerably more dialogue and it’s not pretty. But then, neither is the film. It’s watchable and it has its interest as part of the death rattle of the Universal horrors, but it’ll be the least played disc in the collection.
Even if you’re not a horror fan, this new deal between TCM and Universal is very promising. Coming up next is a three film Cary Grant set, which isn’t really so much a Cary Grant set as it is three movies that can be marketed that way. The Devil and the Deep (1932) is really a Talluljah Bankhead movie co-starring Gary Cooper with Charles Laughton as her sadistic husband. Grant merely has a small role as her pre-Cooper boyfriend. The Eagle and the Hawk (1933) is an anti-war film that stars Fredric March with Grant very much in second place. The Last Outpost (1935) at least stars Grant, but it’s not a film of his you ever hear referred to. I haven’t seen it, but there may be good reason. The other titles, however, are a very welcome addition to DVD—and when you think what else Universal owns that hasn’t made it to home video, the prospects are tantalizing indeed.