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Welcome to the Michael Gough School of Dramatic Acting where subtlety is as foreign as class is for Roseanne Barr. Gough teams up with producer Herman Cohen for one more time(previously making Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga together). The result is a fun if not flawed film. Gough plays Michael Conrad the owner of Conrad's Animal Kingdom and one man accustomed to getting his way in life. Seems to also have quite a good relationship with his zoo pals, especially the big cats: a lion, a lioness, a pair of cheetahs, a tiger, a black panther, and also a fake looking gorilla(George Barrows AGAIN!). Gough plays organ music to his animal friends in his living room, belongs to a cult group of animal worshipers, and uses his friends to kill any personages that get in his way. To say Gough overacts is an incredible understatement. He bellows his lines with ferocity in scenes that do not need such vigour, but he is always fun to watch. The film is really very interesting as the cats are real and they have been trained very nicely. The acting, aside from Gough, is uniformly good with a nice performance turned in by Rod Lauren(The Crawling Hand) as a mute assistant forced to aid Gough. Jeane Cooper is lovely and does well as Gough's wife, and the character acting of Elisha Cook, Ed Platt, Virginia Grey, and Jerome Cowan all enhance the film. Make no mistake though, even though he wildly overacts, Gough is the film's main attraction. You have to look a ways to find a more over-the-top performance and a bigger slice of ham! The film also boats a wonderful scene where a tiger gets buried. Amidst the swirling fogs and moody backdrops, Gough, with mute assistant and wife, gives a eulogy before all the big cats. Effectively eerie.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This forms a sort of trilogy with star Michael Gough's previous films
for producer Herman Cohen, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959; although
I own the VCI SE DVD, I don't have time to revisit it at the moment)
and KONGA (1961; a second viewing will follow shortly). Being the only
one still unavailable on disc has made it the least-seen of the three;
consequently, I have had to make do with a copy sourced from a worn
16mm print replete with 'jumps' and 'misframing' that make the human
figures unnaturally elongated...and, no, this wasn't the result of my
watching the thing fitted to a Widescreen TV monitor!
Similar to his previous Cohen efforts, Gough is a stark raving mad zookeeper who uses his animals to dispose of his foes; he also (literally) entertains his animals tigers, lions, cheetahs, etc. with his piano playing skills inside his living room! Unlike its predecessors, surprisingly enough, BLACK ZOO was shot in Hollywood with a mostly American cast and crew; this made for the endearingly odd sight of watching quintessentially British actor and horror film icon Gough share scenes with familiar character actors like Elisha Cook Jr., Jerome Cowan and Edward Platt. Director Gordon is likewise an American, of whose work I have now watched 2 efforts (1955's IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA), own another (1947's BLIND SPOT), and have just rented one more (1973's THE GATLING GUN)!
There are 6 deaths in the film altogether: a snooping reporter is disposed of via a tiger mauling right in the very first sequence (shot remarkably similar to the famous unseen panther chase in Val Lewton's CAT PEOPLE another link to that film is the subplot, albeit not subsequently resumed, involving a trio of girls who turn up at the zoo to sketch the animals); construction entrepreneur Cowan's invitations to sell out his property, share in the profits and visit a new striptease joint fall on Gough's deaf ears (while a lion proceeds to fell Cowan off-camera!); sadistic cage-cleaner Cook teases the zoo's star tiger one time too many, shoots it to death in self-defense and gets thrown into the lion's cage for his crime by an infuriated Gough!; the concerned agent of Gough's wife (who also performs a chimpanzee act during zoo visits) entices her to go back on the road with a circus troupe but finds a big hairy surprise waiting for her in the garage back home!; Gough himself expires when his long-suffering mute animal handler (revealed to be his own son and being incapacitated by witnessing his mother getting savaged by a lion at Gough's command!) snaps at the latter's beating of his wife for deserting him and chokes him to death in a rainy confrontation on the zoo grounds. Without the viewer realizing it, the film inventively opens with its very closing shot and, in fact, I had half-jokingly taken Gough's lifeless body (seen in a high-angle shot) for an overturned cow at the beginning!!
Other highlights of the films include: a quiet dinner that admirably turns into a histrionic battle of wits between Gough and his wife over his mistreatment of the son that peaks with the latter smashing the food casserole (so proudly prepared by the wife incidentally, Jeanne Cooper is quite impressive throughout and, surprisingly for me, this is the 8th title I've seen her in with 11 more in my unwatched pile!) on the kitchen floor; the night-time funeral procession given to Baron (the star tiger) attended by Gough, his family and a handful of big cats (not just reminiscent of SUNSET BOULEVARD  as is the afore-mentioned circular nature of the narrative, after all but also eerily shot by cinematographer Floyd Crosby as if he was lighting one of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations)!; another rite in which a tiger-skin-wearing Shaman (the head of an animal worshipping cult to which Gough belongs) transfers Baron's soul into a baby tiger he is presented with.
The deliciously theatrical Brit thespian Michael Gough is at his
scenery devouring best in the role of Michael Conrad, owner of a
private zoo that specializes in big cats. Michael is insanely devoted
to these creatures, and is also mad enough to sic them on any nuisance
in his life - including an extremely pesky realtor (Jerome Cowan). He
keeps his wife Edna (Jeanne Cooper, 'The Young and the Restless') and
mute employee Carl (Rod Lauren, "The Crawling Hand") completely under
his thumb, to boot.
Very nicely shot in Panavision by Floyd Crosby, the man who was who doing such exemplary work on those Roger Corman Poe pictures during this time, "Black Zoo" is decent, but that's mostly due to Gough. Overall, director Robert Gordon ("It Came from Beneath the Sea"), working from the script by Aben Kandel and producer Herman Cohen, just doesn't make this that much fun. It might have helped if the animals had been let loose upon a couple more victims; as it is, the story is only mildly entertaining most of the time. Still, there's camp value in the presence of an obvious "man in a costume" styled gorilla (played by George Barrows), the absurdly touching funeral for one of the big cats, and in the laughable meeting of a cult of cat worshipers called The True Believers - a definite highlight of silliness. And those felines appear to be extremely well trained.
Unlike Gough, much of the cast is required to play it straight, and it is delightful to see such familiar faces as "Maltese Falcon" cast members Cowan and Elisha Cook Jr., Edward Platt ('Get Smart'), lovely Marianna Hill ("Messiah of Evil", "Blood Beach"), Byron Morrow ("Colossus: The Forbin Project"), and Warrene Ott ("The Undertaker and His Pals").
This is fairly enjoyable schlock that might play well alongside another Cohen-Gough collaboration, "Konga".
Six out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This outstanding horror film is a delightful surprise among the new
wave of horror that went beyond spooky creatures of the night or even
the warming of what nuclear power could do. Michael Gough, a forgotten
successor to Karloff, Lugosi and his contemporary Vincent Price, is
well regarded by cult fans, but overshadowed by even Christopher Lee
and Peter Cushing. Here, he's a zoo keeper obsessed with the love of
his fur lined family. Anybody who will dare hurt them will
Gough is married here to future soap diva, Jeanne Cooper, and she plays a younger version of her "Young and Restless" character Katharine Chancellor. She's just as troubled and drunk as Kay was in her first years, and like Kay, you can't help but want to protect her. Gough is abusive to her, but there's more to him than meets the eye. Keep your handkerchiefs out to wipe off the drool over the mute but hunky assistant, Reed Lauren, Gough's much abused caretaker.
Veteran actor Jerome Cowan gets the first eyeful of Gough's vengeance by trying to force him to sell him the zoo land, giving Gough a memorable line as he explains why Cowan must pay. The photography is colorful and editing brisk, with genuine thrills and a bit of supernatural innuendo as well. Everything about this film is very unique, and it is a fascinating discovery. Veteran actress Virginia Grey has a great cameo as a friend of Cooper's who tries to tempt her away (which results in a delightfully silly exit), and her "Y&R" co-star Jerry Douglas has a small part as well.
This was actually the first time George Barrow himself worked for
Herman Cohen. The first time out, KONGA, Barrows sent his ape suit over
to London. When it returned the worse for wear, he decided he'd never
do it again.
BLACK ZOO was shot in Hollywood. For producer Cohen to have arranged for a foreign actor to come to Hollywood and take a job that could have been done by any number if US actors must've been quite an argument to both SAG and the Imigration Department. "Sirs, you must understand, my script calls for the zoo keeper to be the maddest, most outlandish, least subtle character ever to grace the movie screen. We just don't have an actor anywhere in the country who can do this. There is no one n the world who can out-mug Mr. Gough. I know, I've used him twice, and every time he gets bigger and badder."
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