DirectorA. Edward Sutherland, Joseph H. Lewis, William Nigh, James Hogan
Release Date(s)1933/1942/1942/1943 (July 23, 2019)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures/Universal Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: C+
- Overall Grade: B
Scream Factory continues where they left off with their previous Universal Horror Collection, this time providing us with a set of films that mostly feature one of the horror genre’s least-talked about personalities, Lionel Atwill. Covering efforts that span from 1933 to 1943, the four films include Murders in the Zoo, directed by A. Edward Sutherland (or as he’s credited, Edward Sutherland); The Mad Doctor of Market Street, directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Invisible Ghost); The Strange Case of Doctor Rx, directed by William Nigh (Mr. Wu); and The Mad Ghoul aka Mystery of the Ghoul, directed by James Hogan (the Ellery Queen mystery series). These movies make up the Blu-ray release Universal Horror Collection: Volume 2.
In Murders in the Zoo, Lionel Atwill is Eric Gorman, a zoologist newly-returned from the jungle with many rare animals for public display in a failing zoo that continues to lose money. Hired to give the zoo positive publicity in the eyes of potential patrons is Peter Yates (Charles Ruggles), and running the zoo is Professor G.A. Evans (Harry Beresford), Doctor Jack Woodford (Randolph Scott), and his girlfriend and assistant Jerry Evans (Gail Patrick). While preparations to bring in more business are underway, Gorman is more interested in the activities of his adulterous wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke), who has taken a shine to their friend and colleague Roger Hewitt (John Lodge). Insane with jealousy, Gorman finds a way of disposing of Roger and making it look like a snake attack. It isn’t long before Evelyn begins to suspect that Gorman is up to no good, and he’ll do whatever he can to keep everyone from finding him out.
Interestingly enough, the plot of Murders in the Zoo is not a whodunit in the least. We know what’s going on right from the get-go as two jungle natives assist Gorman in holding a man down, tying him up, and sewing his mouth shut that Gorman is crazy and is willing to get rid of anyone who interferes with his marriage, unbeknownst to his wife. As the film is pre-code, it’s a little more risqué than other horror films of its vintage, though the studio and censors (including the theater owners who projected it) attempted to tone it down at every turn. Atwill is menacing in the lead role while Ruggles is the generic comic relief, portraying a recovering alcoholic who is afraid of animals, which has a humorous payoff at the end. There’s genuine suspense to be had, including a late-night foot chase between Gorman and his wife Evelyn after she learns his secret, as well as the film’s final minutes during a fight between several loosed lions, tigers, and pumas which tragically resulted in the death of one of the pumas (though the footage was never used). And like all of the films in this set, it’s a brisk one hour story, yet effective and engaging.
In the follow-up, The Mad Doctor of Market Street, Atwill returns as Doctor Ralph Benson, a medical scientist who is willing to murder people in order to test his theories of suspended animation and reviving the dead. After becoming a fugitive, he boards a cruise ship bound for New Zealand, whereupon he assumes a new identity. After setting fire to the ship, he and the other passengers take to the sea, with only a portion of them surviving and all winding up together on a small island with Benson. Convincing the natives that he can bring people back from the dead, including a native woman who seemingly dies in front of them, they do as he asks, including taking the marooned passengers prisoner so that his diabolical experiments may continue.
This film plays upon The Island of Doctor Moreau idea of an evil scientist doing awful things to humans for his own selfish gains, but in this instance, the doctor is, more or less, a serial killer – even giving his victims their own point-of-view shots when he’s about the anesthetize them. And by the end, it turns out that he doesn’t seem all that interested in doing what he says he wants to do, which is to learn now to prevent death. Once the natives realize that he’s a phony, they put him to task to revive a dead person by sunrise or they’ll throw him on a burning pyre. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well. The shipwrecked passengers are, unfortunately, unremarkable, including Una Merkel as the ditzy Aunt Margaret (the film’s comic relief), Richard Davies as Jim, Claire Dodd as Patricia, and Nat Pendleton as Red. Showing great screen presence is Noble Johnson as the native chief, who is always portrayed as a serious man with a lot of depth to his character. The film lacks the suspense needed in order to make it effective, but Benson’s comeuppance is more interesting than most low budget evil doctor stories before or since.
Next up is The Strange Case of Doctor Rx. In it, a famous private investigator named Jerry (Patric Knowles) is hired to look into a series of murders that are being committed by someone known as Dr. Rx, who always leaves a note on his victims with his insignia. Against the advice of his newly-wedded wife Kit (Anne Gwynne), he takes on the case, soon learning that all of the victims were criminals who were acquitted for murder. Following Jerry closely is the mysterious Dr. Fish (Lionel Atwill), as well as his former partner Captain Hurd (Edmund McDonald) and his bumbling new partner (Shemp Howard), all of whom are hounding his every move.
The Strange Case of Doctor Rx is not so much a horror film as it is a noir-ish murder mystery, and unfortunately, it wastes the talents of people like Lionel Atwill, who is barely in the film at all and is only given a handful of lines of dialogue. It ultimately doesn’t matter much as most of the actors purportedly ad-libbed many of their lines during the production anyway. The mystery itself is not all that intriguing, and the payoff is less than satisfying. The film also feels as if it’s trying to get its story over with quickly, or it doesn’t know which aspect that it wants to focus on more, relying less on red herrings and more on confusion, which is never a good thing in any mystery story. The performances are ok, though Knowles and Gwynne make a terrific on-screen couple, but the film as a whole is quite poor.
Last but not least is The Mad Ghoul, which is the only film in this set that doesn’t feature Lionel Atwill. In it, Doctor Alfred Morris (George Zucco), a university professor and scientist, discovers an ancient Mayan nerve gas and wishes to try it out on a human subject. Meanwhile, his assistant Ted (David Bruce) is becoming obsessed with a young singer named Isabel (Evelyn Ankers), who was initially in love with Ted, but has now outgrown him during the course of her success. Eager to take advantage of the situation, Morris exposes Ted to the nerve gas which turns him into a mindless ghoul, fully willing to do Morris’ bidding. They follow Isabel to her touring performances and during the evening, the pair rob graves for humans hearts, the fluids of which sustain Ted’s survival. Getting in the way of Morris’ plans to take Isabel for his own is her pianist and love interest Eric (Turhan Bey), but before Morris can get rid of him using Ted, newspaper reporter Ken McClure (Robert Armstrong) sniffs them out and helps in stopping them.
While The Mad Ghoul appears to be a generic Poverty Row production with little to no substance, it’s actually a well-executed shocker with surprising moments of suspense. The story, specifically the nerve gas and how it works, are a little complex at first, but it’s all window dressing to hang a Frankenstein’s Monster type figure on (who even has the slight appearance of the big green guy). The performances are fine, mostly especially from George Zucco and Robert Armstrong, the latter of whom takes part in perhaps the most sinister moment in the film, which is too good to spoil. Although the overdubbed singing performances by an uncredited Lillian Cornell are splendid, they ultimately felt too long in a film that only has 66 minutes to do its business. All in all, it’s a mostly entertaining endeavor, better than most of its ilk (meaning its storyline). With good cinematography by Milton R. Krasner, it’s certainly worthy of inclusion.
Scream Factory brings these films to Blu-ray for the first time with excellent presentations. The transfer for Murders in the Zoo appears to be slightly older, but is a fine one nonetheless. It’s in good condition with lines and minor speckling leftover, but otherwise stable and clean with decent levels of fine grain, allowing detail to poke its way through efficiently. Grayscale is ideal with good delineation, separating blacks and whites with little to no bleeding. Contrast and brightness levels are also suitable without making things appear overly bright or blown out. Transitions are the weakest areas of the transfer, but are built-in to the original presentation.
For The Mad Doctor of Market Street, a more recent transfer has been used, at least judging by the quality. It’s a much stronger black and white presentation with tighter levels of grain, deeper blacks, and sharper detail without appearing artificial. Like the previous transfer, transitions stick out, and scratches and speckling remain, but there’s much more depth and clarity to be had. On the other hand, its most obvious flaw is its use of grainy, damage-ridden stock footage, which comes baked-in, but is thankfully brief.
The ancient master provided for The Strange Case of Doctor Rx contains a questionable presentation. It looks to have been a heavily damaged element judging by the amount leftover staining that runs faintly through the center and edge of the frame. DNR has been applied heavily here, making backgrounds appear smeary, though some detail does mange to get through and characters appear clearly in the frame. There are also occasional density issues, giving off a mild flicker, while black levels contain mild crush. This is easily the least of the transfers offered in this set, but it’s not so poor that it can’t be enjoyed regardless.
The master provided for The Mad Ghoul is of similar quality to Murders in the Zoo, which is to say quite good. It’s from a more recent transfer that’s much sharper with solid levels of grain. Detail is also strong, particularly in close-ups, and most especially on David Bruce’s monster makeup. Delineation is also ideal, though there is mild crush to blacks. Transitions are soft as well. Mild density issues crop up from time to time, which are more evident during darker scenes when a minor bit of flicker makes itself known, but besides a few scratches and speckling, it’s a potent presentation.
The audio for all of the films in this set is presented in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH. For Murders in the Zoo and The Mad Ghoul, both presentations are relatively similar. They are narrow but clean, lacking any obvious damage besides extremely mild hiss. Dialogue, score, and sound effects all have good presence without sounding distorted. The audio for The Mad Doctor of Market Street, similar to its video counterpart, offers more fidelity than the other soundtracks. Music, particularly native drums, exhibit bass activity, as does the jazz band aboard the ship. It’s also the cleanest of the four tracks, offering plenty of clarity for the various elements. For The Strange Case of Doctor Rx, hiss is more prevalent than the other films, but the elements are clear without sounding muddled, nor is there any other obvious damage.
MURDERS IN THE ZOO (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/B-/B-
THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/B+/B
THE STRANGE CASE OF DOCTOR RX (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): D/C-/C+
THE MAD GHOUL (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/B-/B-
This set also offers a few extras, though they’re not quite as impressive as the first volume. For Murders in the Zoo, there’s a new audio commentary with author and film historian Greg Mank, which is quite screen-specific and covers the film’s cast and crew in detail, particularly Lionel Atwill; and an animated image gallery containing 23 promotional photos, lobby cards, and posters. For The Mad Doctor of Market Street, there’s the film’s trailer and an animated image gallery containing 80 promotional photos, lobby cards, and posters. For The Strange Case of Doctor Rx, there’s Gloriously Wicked: The Life and Legacy of Lionel Atwill, a 19-minute interview with Greg Mank, who is Lionel Atwill’s biographer, going over his life and career in detail; and an animated image gallery containing 71 promotional photos, on-set photos, lobby cards, and posters. And for The Mad Ghoul, there’s an audio commentary by author Thomas Reeder, a mostly informative commentary, but a considerable amount of time is devoted to other Universal horror productions of the era; an animated image gallery containing 79 promotional photos, on-set photos, behind-the-scenes shots, posters, lobby cards, and newspaper clippings; and the film’s press kit recreated in 9 images. Also included in the slipcase packaging is a 12-page insert booklet containing photos and cast and crew information for each film, as well as a set of Blu-ray release credits.
If you’re a lover of vintage Universal horror, you likely don’t need any recommendations from me about picking up this wonderful set. Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Collection: Volume 2 is an excellent assortment of films that have rarely been seen by modern movie fans and haven’t gotten quite as much of a spotlight as those from Volume 1. Making their Blu-ray debuts with some nice transfers, it’s certainly worth your money.
– Tim Salmons