Robert Gordon, 1963
Starring: Michael Gough, Jeanne Cooper, Rod Lauren, Virginia Grey
Producer Herman Cohen churned out a number of semi-successful horror films from the late ‘50s to the early ‘70s, including I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Blood of Dracula (1957), How to Make a Monster (1958), The Headless Ghost (1959), the Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper film, A Study in Terror (1965), a horror-influenced western, Django the Bastard (1969), Joan Crawford’s last film, Trog (1970), and even a late period giallo, Watch Me When I Kill (1974). He also made a trilogy of horror films with prolific British actor Michael Gough (Americans of my generation will know him as Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman films): Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Konga (1961), and Black Zoo. While it is the most inferior of the trilogy, Black Zoo is still an interesting entry in early ‘60s horror and will delight fans of moody, atmospheric Roger Corman films and/or Hammer movies from the period.
The owner of a private zoo, Michael Conrad, has a dark secret. A local investor is trying to buy out his property for a vast sum of money, but Conrad is more interested in the welfare of his animal children, which include a gorilla, a bear, and chimpanzees, but are mostly comprised of a variety of big cats, such as leopards, cheetahs, mountain lions, tigers, and lions. His “children” are loyal and have been trained to defend Conrad to the death, resulting in several murders of people who get in his way. He is also part of an animal worshipping cult. When one of his beloved tigers is killed, Conrad starts mentally deteriorating and becomes increasingly abusive to his wife and Carl, a mute boy who works at the zoo, with tragic (though totally predictable) consequences.
Director Robert Gordon (It Came from Beneath the Sea, 1955) does a dependable job recycling some of Cohen’s favorite themes -- Cohen wrote the script with Aben Kandel, one of his regular collaborators. This is an oddly paced cross between a horror film and a thriller, but doesn't quite live up to the superior Horrors of the Black Museum. Despite a number of murders -- almost all of which are perpetrated by animals and make for some of the best scenes of the film -- this is a relatively bloodless affair. The utterly unsurprising twist ending is perhaps supposed to make up for this, but falls short.
The acting is average with the scenery-chewing Michael Gough carrying the film. It’s a shame his character is such a bastard. Jeanne Cooper (The Boston Strangler, 1968) gives a solid performance as his long suffering wife, though she has little to do other than argue with him or lead a chimpanzee performance. Rod Lauren is decent as the downtrodden Carl, though I wish more had been done with his character and his budding romance with an art student. There’s also a brief performance from Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon, House on Haunted Hill). All of the animal actors are also great, are photographed beautifully, and have a surprising level of interaction with the actors.
Honestly, not a lot happens in Black Zoo and I can only recommend it to fans of understated ‘60s horror. Sadly, a lot of the film is taken up with lengthy conversations -- between Conrad and his wife, between several police detectives and so on -- that cause the film to drag for the second half. I blame this all on the script, which is a slow, clunky endeavor. With that said, there are a few great set pieces, my favorite of which is a foggy, nighttime funeral procession for a tiger that would fit right in with some of the best atmospheric '60s horror films. The wonderful opening hints at a level of promise the film is never able to deliver on: a man’s dead body on the ground, in the rain, among animal cages. There is also a random scene with an animal cult and I wish more had been done with this. There is some lovely cinematography, excellent use of color, and director Gordon makes the absolute most of a series of indoor sets for the zoo.
Even though it can't be called a classic, or even really a good film, I enjoyed Black Zoo. Fortunately, Warner rescued it from their archives and it is now out on a basic DVD, should it spark your interest.