Sunday, 18 November 2012
Black Zoo (1963)
Black Zoo was Michael Gough’s third starring role for producer Herman Cohen, and as always Gough slices the ham as thickly as possible. The result is a treat for horror fans.
Unlike his earlier movies for Cohen, such as the excellent Horrors of the Black Museum, this 1963 production was made in the US.
Gough plays Michael Conrad, a zoo owner with a few psychological problems. In fact he’s completely and murderously insane. He is obsessed with his zoo and his animals, and he is obsessed with maintaining control over his wife Edna (Jeanne Cooper) and the 17-year-old mute boy named Carl who acts as his assistant and general dogsbody.
Whenever he feels that his zoo is threatened, as it is most definitely threatened by greedy real estate agent Jerry Stengel, Michael deals with the threat by having his perceived enemies killed by his favourite animals - a couple of lions, a tiger, a black panther and a couple of cheetahs. Or occasionally by his gorilla.
The local police are surprisingly unsuspicious when a series of brutal murders take place in various parts of LA, even when the medical examiner insists that the victims were attacked by animals. It takes a remarkably long time before the penny finally drops for the Chief of Detectives (Edward Platt, best-known as the Chief in the Get Smart television series). But will the police catch up to mIchael before he kills again? And will his wife, who runs a chimp act at the zoo, be his next victim? And what is the secret behind Carl’s inability to speak?
All this sounds crazy enough but this movie offers even more fun in the form of a religious cult of animal worshippers.
And if all that isn’t enough to whet your appetite there’s also the great Elisha Cook Jr, one of Hollywood’s most memorable character actors, as a deranged animal keeper. And the crazed zoo owner plays the organ for his favourite big cats while they lounge about on his sofa! There’s even a guy in a gorilla suit, so really this movie has everything a horror fan could possibly wish for.
Michael Gough gets to do what he does best - overact outrageously. Even when he’s putting up a charming front and keeping the lid on his maniacal tendencies you can sense that all is not quite right with this guy. He’s just a little bit too charming and the craziness beneath the surface is just a little bit too obvious. Michael Gough always understood that there’s no such thing as too much overacting in roles like this one. He’s an absolute delight.
Director Robert Gordon keeps the pacing tight and there’s a wonderfully atmospheric and bizarre funeral for one of Michael’s children (as he calls his animals) and a wonderfully wacky meeting of the religious cultists.
There’s no obvious animal cruelty in this movie. There is a scene where a tiger gets shot but we don’t actually see the animal get shot and one assumes (and hopes) that the creature was merely anaesthetised for the scene.
There’s also no gore. In fact given the subject matter the level of violence is very low. This is not a movie to see if you want to be scared out of your wits. It’s a movie to be savoured for its potential for high camp fun, and fun is exactly what it delivers.
The movie was shot in the Cinemascope aspect ratio and colour and the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a superb anamorphic transfer with the colours being noticeably and delightfully vivid.
This is an offbeat horror movie that can certainly be recommended and for Michael Gough fans it’s a must-see.