London in good old postwar Britain of the late-‘50s: it’s a picture postcard land of bright red double-decker buses and post vans, good-natured and reliable bobbies serenely patrolling their city beats and a cheerful, flat cap doffing working class that knows its place. And for this lurid, Eastmancolor-drenched CinemaScope version of Blighty, cooked up by U.S. writer & producer Herman Cohen with his co-writer Aben Kandel, it is also the hunting ground of a sadistic blue-faced and red zipper-jacketed loon, who is busy loping around London dispatching bad bit-part actresses in convoluted but incredibly violent and gruesome fashion, for what was probably the first British colour horror film with a contemporary setting ever produced!
"Horrors of The Black Museum" was the final picture credited to director Arthur Crabtree, a Gainsborough veteran who had recently directed the classic, "The Fiend Without A Face" -- and this atypical slice of trash-horror from the American producers of "I Was A Teenage Werewolf " is in some ways a rather ignoble way to end a career. It emerged in the late ‘50s when the small time British production company Anglo Amalgamated, under Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy, had struck up an exchange deal with AIP, which eventually led to American producers increasingly upping sticks and travelling across the pond to Wimbledon’s Merton Park, Beackonsfield or Pinewood Studios where a handful of jointly financed films took shape, and were shot as a means of keeping down production costs, which were beginning to skyrocket in California at about this time. It’s crammed full of cringe-worthy ham acting, silly plot manoeuvres and corny excess from beginning to end. Yet this ridiculous nonsense remains for the most part quite compelling and is very often enormously entertaining in its garish attempts to exploit its unwholesome subject matter. Appearing just before Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom", which was a film that was to cause a storm of backlash against the horror genre in general as well as against Powell himself, it is obviously not in the same league as that achievement by some margin; but it does possess that same classic British feel of the films from the period which made use of this form of Eastmancolor photographic technology -- which is probably why "Peeping Tom" was also dismissed as lurid B-movie trash at the time. Both films also feature early (terrible) performances from a stilted Shirley Anne Field who ended up virtually satirising her performance here in “… Museum” for Powell’s film. But she’s helped considerably to look less wooden by the minor cast of equally hopeless deadbeat players surrounding her: even the background extras here seem barely more animated than the crude wax dummies propped up in star Michael Gough’s Black Museum lair.
Our story starts as young London lass-about-town Gail Dunlap (Dorinda Stevens) receives a surprise package in the morning post. She and her French roommate, Peggy (Malou Pantera), speculate about which of Gail's many admirers it could be from. The package contains a handsome pair of binoculars ("worth at least £20!" exclaims Peggy, helpfully) and the excitable Gail defers further speculation as to their origin in order to indulge in a bit of snooping out of the window of her terrace flat. Unfortunately, no sooner has Gail begun preparing to enjoy the sights her new bins might offer up than she lets out a piercing, bloodcurdling scream! Peggy is astonished to find her now not-so-chirpy roommate lying dead on the floor clutching her bloody eyes ... those flash binoculars turned out to be booby-trapped! Two lethal spring-loaded spikes that shoot from each of the eyepieces and into the eyeballs of the unlucky recipient were released as soon as the focus was adjusted, penetrating into the brain and killing instantly... Ouch!
It's yet another murder (the third) of London's latest serial killer. The well-spoken desk-bound patricians of Scotland Yard, Commissioner Wayne (Austin Trevor), Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) and Inspector Lodge (John Warwick) are baffled, and can find no motive for the hideous killings. The only thing that seems obvious is that each of the murders has been committed using a weapon inspired by the collection kept in what is known as The Black Museum – which is a display held by Scotland Yard itself. "We're dealing with a brilliant maniac!" proclaims Graham.
An observer who doesn’t appear too sympathetic to the Yard's plight soon makes his first mincing entrance: popular crime writer Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough). A rather camp old gent with a pronounced limp, Bancroft writes a weekly column in which, as well as describing many horrible crimes in lurid detail, he regularly mocks the police for their bumbling inability to find and capture their current quarry; he is also just about to publish a book, "Terror After Dark", in which he indulges in more of this same ill-spirited rambling, which has become very popular with his ‘large public’. Apart from regularly turning up at Scotland Yard unannounced for no other reason than to gloat -- in suitably camp fashion -- at Supt. Graham and Co's lack of progress on the case, Bancroft also keeps his own Black Museum ... much better than the Yard's own -- at least according to Bancroft himself! When he's not prowling around this dingy basement full of waxworks dummies, strange electronic equipment, torture instruments and an incongruous vat of acid over in the corner (you never know when one of those will come in handy, after all!), Bancroft also pays regular visits to his doctor, who seems concerned about the fact that he appears to exhibit involuntary signs of extreme stress on each occasion a new murder is committed in the city. After a "lady friend" (June Cunningham) of Bancroft’s mocks his lack of manliness during an argument at her flat, she is soon after decapitated in her bedroom by a blue-faced monster man in a red jacket! The monster bears an uncanny resemblance to Bancroft's assistant Rick (Graham Curnow) who seems to be under the hypnotic spell of his employer. It seems Bancroft is deliberately organising the killings in order to have something to write about in his many popular books and newspaper columns, turning young Rick into a murdering marauder whenever the fancy takes him! Will Scotland Yard's tweed-clad finest ever be able to figure out the ludicrous solution to this appalling crime spree?
Michael Gough is often derided for his completely over-the-top camp performance in this movie but in fact he utterly encapsulates the tone of genteel insanity that defines this manically ludicrous film from start to finish, and he is mainly responsible for holding the whole silly enterprise together. The leering actor is given some wonderfully choice misogynistic lines of dialogue during the proceedings (‘Women are a vicious and unreliable breed!’ he chides his pliant assistant Rick, after finding him canoodling with his girlfriend in the sanctuary of the museum lair, thus desecrating it with the rotten influence of femininity) and his character's hatred of women -- driven by his impotence and unattractiveness to the female sex -- is the obvious motive for his proxy killing spree, despite the fact that he hides behind a load of pretentious tosh about getting in touch with man's inner blackness of heart, etc.
This theme seems mainly born out of a postwar mistrust of the perceived burgeoning of female independence in a 1950s Britain now negotiating the beginnings of the sixties revolution. All of the women victims in the film are socially, financially and sexually independent of men -- and so have to be brutally slain because this sort of thing is simply all too much for poor old lame Edmund Bancroft to bear. It’s noticeable how the women in the film are all portrayed unsympathetically as annoying and grasping controllers or would-be exploiters of men, and every single young female in the film with a speaking part gets brutally offed by the end of it. Bancroft is emasculated and humiliated at every turn by his hateful prostitute girlfriend (at one point she snatches his cane away and mocks ‘let’s see you try and chase me round the room now, then!’) and so has to strike back by acquiring offbeat Black Museum weaponry from an old antiquary in a quiet corner of the city, and then sending his youthful hypnotised assistant out to do his dirty work with an collection of antique daggers and portable guillotines.
We’re not given that much insight into exactly why Bancroft acquires such a hold over the pliant (to the point of being almost catatonic) Rick (Graham Curnow) but there seems to be an unstated devotion in him to the camp old martinet thriller writer which can’t help but look like its rooted in something a bit more profound than just a simple mentor/student relationship. Meanwhile, Bancroft’s clumsily written dialogue is delivered by Gough with such an acid relish that it almost starts to sound like some form of avant-garde beat poetry: he acts out the poorly scripted B-movie plotline as if his life depended on it and, along with the colourful set design, outrageously sadistic but comical murder scenes and very, very fleeting nudity from Marilyn Monroe wannabe June Cunningham (whose character gets ready for bed while playing stripper music), he ensures that "Horrors of The Black Museum" remains a fabulously essential piece of late-50s X rated horror hokum, which just so happened also to play a rather essential role in the censorship battles of the period, although it’s not quite at the same pitched level of deranged intensity that was later reached by its Gough-starring follow-up “Konga” (also now available from Network), which somehow seems even more transgressive despite cutting back on the sexualised killings and the sort of prurient emphasis that this particular film places on how much the British general public supposedly enjoys a good murder -- especially when it’s of a particularly gruesome type.
This UK re-issue from Network sports a surprisingly pleasing anamorphic transfer which brings the film's vivid Eastmancolor schemes to life and preserves the Cinemascope framing of the original very well, although there’s a light warping effect evident throughout as a result. The light extras consist of three trailers, one of them blanking out the outré murder scenes with a giant "X" and a voice-over which proclaims that because the trailer is rated U such scenes cannot be presented as they appear in the movie! The other trailers incorporate the participation of a shifty looking psychologist (supposedly) who promotes Herman Cohen’s ridiculous Hypnovision publicity gimmick, which involves the audience purportedly being hypnotised for the duration of the movie in order to feel as if they are really taking part in the lurid on-screen events! Finally, the actual eleven minute film originally shown to audiences in order to explain this process and, if they were willing, to bring about the hypnotic state necessary for the Hypnovision to take hold of their minds, is also presented in its entirety. Since the ‘psychologist’ chosen to deliver this blast of hypnotic suggestion to cinema aisles up and down the land looks like the kind of dubious figure you’d imagine hangs around primary schools at playtime, one is rather disinclined to partake of the process! Finally a short gallery of lurid poster art rounds off this wonderfully nuts example of British exploitation horror. Ultimately “Horrors of the Black Museum” is utter rubbish, but it remains terrific fun even so, and it paved the way for Anglo Amalgamated’s second and third entries in their Sadian big three -- “Circus of Horrors” and the series’ masterpiece “Peeping Tom”. Therefore it is essential viewing.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!