Arthur Crabtree, 1959
Starring: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow, Shirley Anne Field
“You seem to eat, sleep, and drink crime.”
A young woman is brutally killed when she receives a pair of trick binoculars that gauge out her eyes. Scotland Yard is confounded by this murder, which is only one of a series, and they’re annoyed by a wealthy local crime writer, Edmond Bancroft, whose popular books and articles often mock them. Unbeknownst to them, Bancroft has a mirror of Scotland Yard’s Black Museum in his basement. Despite his injured leg and often airtight alibis, as more crimes are committed, those close to Bancroft — such as his doctor and a woman who owns an antique shop he frequents — suspect that he is in some way connected to the murders.
Let me start off by saying that the absolutely wonderful Horrors of the Black Museum is one of the films that inspired my extensive series on British horror. The first of studio Anglo-Amalgamated’s memorable early horror films — including the similarly themed Circus of Horrors and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, one of the greatest films of all time — Horrors of the Black Museum is shockingly violent and sadistic for its time period and will delight anyone not interested in Hammer’s more restrained forays into Victorian horror. Producer and script writer Herman Cohen (I Was a Teenage Werewolf) apparently based the film on Scotland Yard’s Museum of Crime and a handful of real cases detailed within.
The film largely succeeds because of Michael Gough’s career-making turn as Edmund Bancroft, a role originally meant for Vincent Price. Price and Gough established their fame as villains at around the same time: while Price starred or co-starred in The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), Return of the Fly (1959), The Tingler (1959), and The Bat (1959), Gough was fresh off a supporting role in Horror of Dracula (1958) and would so go onto Konga (1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Black Zoo (1963), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), and many more. His delightful combination of scenery chewing, diabolical glee, haughty superiority, and sadism are perhaps an obvious precursor to Price’s classic, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971).
Horrors of the Black Museum is actually a coproduction with American International Pictures (AIP), and it shares that studio’s reliance on colorful, lurid horror films, such as those AIP made with director Roger Corman. This film’s director, Arthur Crabtree, was hired based on his previous balls to the wall horror sci-fi film, Fiend Without a Face, and he brings a similar sense of glee to this far superior film. Incredibly colorful with pleasantly creepy sets, the formula set up here — primarily female victims, sadistic murders, and protagonists as killers — that would also be followed in Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom. The victims are all primarily women who have embarrassed or threatened Bancroft, including his blonde bimbo of a girlfriend who is essentially staying with him for his money. After she leaves him, he has her headboard turned into a sort of guillotine, which he used to decapitate her. He also murders a shop keeper who tries to blackmail him with a pair of antique ice tongs that she has sold him for an exorbitant amount of money.
There is a lot about the film that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. SPOILERS: Bancroft is essentially hypnotizing his young assistant Rick to commit the murders and he shoots the clueless young man up with a solution that turns him into a Mr. Hyde-like monster. But no explanation is given for either of these things. Apparently the American version — which I haven’t seen — opens with a 10 to 15 minute sequence about hypnotism to make the film a bit more gimmicky, William Castle style, and to give the hypnotism explanation a bit more weight. And you know what? Those weren’t really spoilers, because the film beats you over the head with the fact that Bancroft is a crazed murderer. After each death, his doctor notices his advanced heart rate and other telling signs, while the woman at the antique shop is literally selling him the murder weapons and it takes her more than half the film to notice.
I really can’t heap enough praise on Horrors of the Black Museum. Next to Night of the Demon (1957), it’s probably the best British horror film of the decade and really sets the tone for much of what is to come in country’s genre output: garish murders, polite psychopaths, and a sense of campy sadism that I personally find infectious. It’s available on DVD, but hasn’t really received anything close to an ultimate release in the US. Though Criterion put out quite a few ‘50s British horror gems — and the slightly later Peeping Tom — I wish they would give the same attention to this film and its companion piece, Circus of Horrors.