Welcome to Conrad’s Animal Kingdom. Sounds like a nice place to take the wife and kids. That is until you see the owner and caretaker. It’s Michael Gough which instantly puts this into the stomach turning horror category of the era.
Perhaps even more so when you notice it was produced by Herman Cohen who specialized in the exploitation market with titles ranging from I Was a Teenage Frankenstein to Blood of Dracula. He was still at it in the seventies with the Jack Palance creeper, Craze.
This Allied Artists effort was directed by Robert Gordon and was filmed in beautiful color. I say this because the Zoo specializes in big cats and the color does the animals on hand justice. Noticeably Gough’s prized Tiger that caretaker Elisha Cook Jr. has a run in with.
Plot wise Gough belongs to a rather absurd cult of cat fanciers and believes that he must serve as a protector to the animals and all that would come to harm them. Admirable though it may seem this does include murder by rather gruesome methods. Gough has trained the big animals to do his killing for him and when needed releases them from their cages to maul the intended victims to death.
Co-starring along with the delightfully over the top Gough is Jeanne Cooper as his wife and Rod Lauren as his mute assistant who may have some demons of his own to share by the film’s climax. If Jeanne Cooper’s name sounds familiar it should. She starred on the daytime soap The Young and the Restless for forty years as Katherine Chancellor.
Once the threats to Gough’s operation become pressing he strikes which leaves police chief Edward Platt bewildered as to how a large animal can be murdering people around the city but are never to be seen. Once they release their finding to the press Gough’s world is on the verge of crashing down.
Along with the color photography, Michael Gough is the whole show here. He’s perfectly adept at playing not only mean but looking strategically lecherous when an attractive sketch artist comes by the zoo to draw his tiger Baron. “I love to pose.” he slyly points out to the young woman.
Jeanne Cooper does her best to keep up with Gough on screen and their arguments are both loud and lean towards violence and a thick slice of ham. “You’re beginning to run off at the mouth again.” he threatens her before finding solace in each others arms.
Using some nifty camera tricks it frequently appears that Gough and company are on screen without the use of cages between them and the big cats though I suspect more often than not a split screen process has been used. There are a couple of shots where Michael is definitely sharing the screen with what I suspect is a rather old and tame lion.
Michael Gough in horror themed titles appears to be an acquired taste. His characters are arrogant, never seem likable and has anyone ever looked more lecherous on screen to the point where one should never leave a young woman alone with him? Check out Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera and you’ll see just what I mean. He’s always a notch above the rest of the cast in delivering his lunatic ravings and directors seem to have a hard time reeling him in. After seeing a number of his titles perhaps it’s for the best and he’s grown on me to the point that I fully expect to see him ham things up and find myself smiling in the process.
Gough worked with Cohen on a number of titles including the gore fest of 1959 Horrors of the Black Museum. Mr. Gough passed away at the age of 94 in 2011 leaving a large number of credits to his name and perhaps screen immortality as Alfred the Butler in Tim Burton’s series of Batman films.
There is nice widescreen print of this available that I snagged through the Warner Archive collection making a nice addition to my personal library of titles.