I am a huge Lionel Atwill fan, so it is a treat to talk about this dark little gem of a film produced in 1933 from Paramount Pictures. MURDERS IN THE ZOO was not produced at Universal Studios yet had the look and feel from the cinematography supplied by Ernest Haller who would go on to win an Academy award for something called GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
The opening scene is one of the most horrific of the 30s, next to material from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), FREAKS (1932), and THE BLACK CAT (1934). In French Indochina, big-game hunter Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is seen using needle and thread on a fallen colleague. He is not tending to a wound however; the man rises toward the camera, his hands bound behind his back and his lips stitched shut. Gorman has sentenced a man to die in the jungle because he kissed his wife.

The pattern is set for a traditional ‘jealous husband’ story with a grisly twist. Gorman is bringing back animals for a zoo exhibition, intended to save the facility from financial ruin.
Peter Yates (Charles Ruggles) is hired as a press agent who comes up with the idea of staging a fund dinner for the wealthy, surrounded by caged animals. Something goes wrong; death occurs in the person of a snake both literally and figuratively. The victim is Roger Hewitt (John Lodge) who happens to be involved with Gorman’s wife (Kathleen Burke).

Death arrives on the scene more than once through venom, crocodiles and perhaps the most hideous of all is the python bringing death silently.

MURDERS IN THE ZOO is a brilliant film showcasing Lionel Atwill shades of villainy through very clever dialogue, a glance, up turned eyebrow or a simply cold stare. Catch an early role of young cowboy leading man Randolph Scott as researcher Doctor Jack Woodford.

Charles Ruggles as the press agent supplies comic relief, which seems improvised. It was not the best example of this and becomes silly distraction.

MURDERS IN THE ZOO was directed by Edward Sutherland, who was an original on screen Keystone Kop. It was co-written by the prolific team of Philp Wylie and Seton Miller. See this picture if you can with a running time of a mere 62 minutes. It is well worth it.

I read about this picture in Famous Monsters of Film Land magazine, wished to see it then, and waited years to accomplish this.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA, or CURSE OF DRACULA, had the unfortunate timing of being made and released shortly before Hammer released DRACULA (HORROR OF DRACULA) in 1958. This doomed, low budget, American International Picture produced film would be consigned to being an after- thought or ignored – which really is a shame.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958) presents us, “Cousin Bellac,” who we all know is Dracula who comes to live with a typically bland 1950s family, complete with a precocious young lad who liked to go exploring. Frances Lederer gives an understated performance as Dracula; especially with his real life East European accent and impeccable diction. Lederer’s work ranges from snapping off words to coolly letting them drip venom, or should I say blood.

The plot is familiar fare yet with some variations particularly with Norma Eberhardt as Rachel Mayberry who is the daughter in the family who has seen Cousin Bellac’s true nature in a dream. The standard vampire film events happen with the same results this time in an underground mine which itself is interesting. THE RETURN OF DRACULA is a small story with well-defined, if not slightly dated characters all swirling around Francis Lederer’s tasty turn as Count Dracula.

The film did not have the huge budget (if you can call Hammer film budgets large) or the look or feel of the slashing, fang- bloodied athletic version of the Count that exploded into our consciousness, yet still worth a look to see a different take based on Bela Lugosi; even taking his first name.
RETURN OF DRACULA was written by Pat Fielder, who was one of the few women to author a screenplay. Paul Landres gives us character conscious direction. Gerald Fried wrote the music that does sound very ‘Hammer like’ in sections. Fried when onto to do his best music work in the original 1960s Star Trek series.

Welcome to a new section on NITRATE FROM THE GRAVE called SILVER BULLETS. These will be shorter, rapid fire reviews of items that would otherwise get ignored (some for good reason) or mixed in to a longer article. They are still enjoyable for a watch or as a curiosity. You usually get to see some major stars late in their careers; people that never made another film or others who started and moved on. Clint Eastwood, for example, was in both REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and TARANTULA in 1955.

First up, it’s THE INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN or THE INVASION OF THE HELL CREATURES from American International Pictures in 1957.

The picture offers the teenage story of a ‘make out’ spot invaded one evening by aliens. Segue to some of today’s horror films and you have the goalie masked behemoth invading a cabin or a resort to do exactly the same thing without the charm. The picture features one of my favourite stars, Frank Gorshin as Joe Gruen, a ‘drifter’ with Lynn Osboure as Artie Burns, who are bent on having a good time. Gorshin is a brilliant, frenetic performer who seems always on the edge as he became famous for as an impressionist on the Las Vegas club circuit. Audiences today know him as The Riddler in the 1966 series BATMAN. I have had an opportunity to see a short live performance at a club and can say it was showmanship the classic way. Gorshin owned the room with his ever present cigarette and black tux. You don’t see that in comedy clubs today.

The picture begins with Johnny Carter (Steve Terrill) and Joan Hayden (Gloria Castillo) planning to elope- you can’t have teenager being amorous in cars without the proper intentions. They turn off their lights to exit causing them to hit what they think is a little boy in the dark, which turns out to be an alien who has exited a nearby ship. The place they go in their cars is a dairy farm. Subsequently, you have the irate farmer – literally. Farmer Larkin is played by screen veteran Raymond Hatton, who supplies human menace with his shot gun and rock salt threats to trespassers. Made at the height of the UFO craze, you have numerous references to ‘crazy people’ sighting flying saucers and ‘little green men’ by the authority figures.
The police, parents and doctors in the film ridicule the kids as they try to seek help yet never believe what they say till the end. Defeat happens when the teens get their vehicles together and organise an attack with headlights. The menace is gone with no help from the authority figures.

INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN is in black and white with running time a little over an hour so things move at a fast pace. You get to see good creatures, in spite of the status of the picture in later years becoming a cult of their own. The saucer man figures and likenesses are all over the net along with the lurid poster design. It’s a bit naïve the way the teenagers react to people but that is part of the charm of the time as you also had the rise of the ‘beach’ movie and the ‘delinquent’ movie. Still, you have cars with enough steel in them to make four of today’s vehicles. Enjoyable creatures with dripping sharp fingers that are still unpleasant to me when you see what they do to skin in an attack are also there. The end credits have an ending that raised the hackles of the younger me when I first saw it.

One cannot help saying without giving too much away that there was also a lesson against alcohol consumption in this picture. It’s a fun film if you don’t mind a drunk dairy cow as a comic relief vehicle. INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) is available. Sit back with a can of your favourite brew and enjoy. Then toss it away in disgust as you have been warned.