Review Date: October 4, 2011
Released by: Warner Bros
Release date: October 4, 2011
Widescreen 2.35 | 16x9: Yes
Now hereís an odd little curio. Black Zoo
is ostensibly a horror thriller but by the time itís over it winds up as more of a twisted domestic abuse drama with thriller elements peppered throughout. Itís a lot better than youíd expect, not that the title would give you any reasonable expectations. Black Zoo
almost defies description and will likely subvert the expectations of audiences anticipating a conventional, straight-ahead thriller. The story has elements that could have been seamier and more exploitative but theyíre handled with a certain amount of restraint and the whole film is given a surprisingly slick visual polish. If I were to go back in time to before I watched Black Zoo
and tried to describe it to myself, I would probably think I was lying.
Outwardly, Michael Conrad (Michael Gough
) seems like a stand-up guy. He runs a large private zoo, Conradís Animal Kingdom, in California. There he spends his days caring for, and educating guests about, his animals. His wife Edna (Jeanne Cooper
) also works at the zoo as a chimpanzee trainer and she and the chimps in her care perform a stage show to the delight of zoo visitors. This outward face is a faÁade, however. Conrad is a vile excuse for a human being: heís abusive in every way possible to his long suffering wife. His mistreatment of her has driven the poor woman to drink, which only enrages Conrad even more. Worse, he treats the mute groundskeeper under his care, Carl (Rod Lauren
), as less than human. Michael forces Carl to dine alone every night and prohibits him from having any contact with other people, including cute young art student Audrey (Marianna Hill
) who shows romantic interest in Carl. He cares far more for his cats than for any human beings and, after night falls and the guests go home, he lets them out of their cages to lounge about his houseÖand uses them to perform other, more sinister deeds.
When slimy land developer Jerry Stengel (Jerome Cowan
) shows up at the Conrad Zoo and starts pressuring Conrad to sell Ė including threatening the lives of Conradís animals- then the darkest half of the demented zookeeperís personality is revealed. He accepts an invitation to the developerís home and, once inside, allows one of his lions in and siccs it on the man, who is torn to pieces on his own living room rug. The attack baffles the police, who wouldnít in a million years suspect the seemingly kindly proprietor of a family institution like a zoo. After exacting revenge on a cruel caretaker that murders one of his tigers after he goaded it into attacking him, Conrad takes solace in a bizarre, animal-worshipping cult that gives him a new tiger cub to train into a killer.
Edna has long suspected Conrad of nefarious activity, though she never knew exactly what he was up to. When a friend of hers disappears and is later found beaten to death by what looks like an immensely strong animal, she puts two and two together and decides to take Carl and her chimps and leave Conrad for good. Of course, the possessive Conrad is not about to let go of her, the animals or his mute whipping boy. Conrad accosts them as they are leaving in a rainy confrontation that leads to a revelation about Carlís past that will force the gentle mute to finally confront his tormentor.
Modern viewers are probably most familiar with Michael Goughís role as the kindly Alfred Pennyworth in Warner Bros Batman
films from 1989 to 1997. His role is Black Zoo
stands in stark contrast to that more paternal character. Michael Conrad is a thoroughly despicable and almost totally unredeemable character. He had my sympathy at the start; as stern as he acted, he seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of the animals in his care. When a slimy land developer tries to muscle him out of his land, you feel bad for him. Then he reveals his darker side as a man whoís willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. Heís a judgmental, puritanical lout, emotionally, verbally and physically abusive to both his wife and his ward, Carl. Gough commands the screen during his scenes. His outbursts are shocking in the abruptness and they seem to come from a genuinely dark place. His swings from kindly zookeeper to demented madman are frighteningly believable.
really had me off balance from the get-go. The movie opens with a tiger attack of surprising ferocity and follows it with a mauling by a lion, another tiger attack and even a graphic and vicious beating by gorilla. With the exception of the gorilla, a very obvious stuntman in a rubber suit, all the animal attacks are shot with real animals. It took me aback since I was expecting the typical close ups, fake paws and cutaways to stock footage. Even though the attacks lack the graphic gore weíve come to expect they still pack a surprising punch.
Iím not a huge fan of zoos in general. I understand the benefits they provide for researchers and the awareness they raise with the general public, but I really wish they werenít necessary. Still, if the zoo sets in Black Zoo
are an accurate indication of what zoos were like in the 1960s, then theyíve come an impressively long way since then. I appreciated that, even in a movie about killer tigers, a strong emphasis is placed on treating animals with respect and dignity. Thatís a very forward-thinking attitude considering this movie was filmed before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964.
doesnít seem like the kind of project a major studio would put its resources behind (especially in 1963), but you wouldnít know it from looking at it. While there are some tell-tale frayed edges that betray a small budget for the most part Black Zoo
has an impressive amount of polish to it. The zoo sets, all built indoors, are expansive and mostly convincing. The set decoration is lush and colourful and well served by the widescreen cinematography. With the notable exception of Hammer films, Iím used to genre films of the period looking like they were filmed for $8 in Roger Cormanís garage. Black Zoo
ís attractive visuals were a pleasant surprise.
For all the good in Black Zoo
, however, it has one huge strike against it: the story is an utter mess. There are at least half a dozen plotlines that are introduced only to be completely dropped. A subplot about the police investigation surrounding that animal attacks is woven throughout the film but goes nowhere, hints given early on about Michaelís possible dark designs for Carlís future are never revealed and a really off the wall scene involving animal worshippers feels like it was taken out of another movie. And then there is the animal footage, which is impressive for its day but is allowed to play out far longer than needed to make a point. Itís like the crew spent all their time and money on filming the animal scenes and then rushed through the rest of the script, filming the fewest number of scenes required to assemble a halfway coherent movie. They succeeded at that: the movie is halfway coherent.
Surprising for what mustíve been a low budget horror exploitation title, Black Zoo
was shot in color and 2.35 Panavision. It isnít exactly a jewel in the crown of the studioís archive, but itís given a fantastic transfer in this manufacture on demand release. The visual palette is full of rich, highly saturated colors that pop off the screen. Occasional, brightly lit day scenes look overly contrasty but thatís typical in films of the period.
There is the occasional flickering in the image and the expected flaws during transitions are also present. The print is in remarkably good shape, with very sparse nicks and scratches. The most noticeable defects are a couple of instances where the frames look they have tears in them, but every flaw is of the blink-and-youíll-miss-it variety. All of Black Zoo
ís deficiencies are totally expected and completely forgivable in a film of this vintage.
Iím not going to expend many superlatives on the audio. The audio for Black Zoo
is presented in Dolby Digital Mono, and itís exactly what you would expect; no more and no less. Thankfully free of hiss and crackle with dialogue thatís always intelligible and a score that never clips, Black Zoo
doesnít falter in its audio presentation, nor does it impress.
Unfortunately, thereís no trailer included in this release. Too bad; I was really interested in seeing how the distributors sold this film before its release.
is an odd little movie. It was far better than I expected, though not quite good enough for an across the board recommendation, especially given the premium charged for these manufacture on demand titles. Hammer fans interested in seeing Michael Gough give a forceful performance in a villainous role should probably check it out and fans of animals on the loose stories might get a kick out of it, as well.
Movie - B-
Image Quality - B+
Sound - C+
Supplements - N/A
- Running time - 1 hour and 28 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital Mono