Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)
"It actually puts YOU in the picture. Can you stand it?"
Crime writer Edward Bancroft secretly owns a private ‘black museum’ full of deadly implements and torture devices. When London is gripped by a series of sensationalist murders, Scotland Yard have no clues as to the identity of the killer. In order to have something lurid to write about for his fanatical audience, Bancroft has hypnotised his assistant into committing these acts of murder, giving him fresh material to continue to publish, and he uses weapons from his museum in order to do so.
From the opening scene in which a woman uses a pair of binoculars with brutal and bloody consequences, you know that Horrors of the Black Museum is going to hold little back in the way of garish shocks. Much like the story featuring a spate of sensationalist which grips London with fear, Horrors of the Black Museum serves up a macabre meal of as much visual horror as the late 50s would allow with a splendid dose of camp and colour: Grand Guignol, British-style.
Horrors of the Black Museum would no doubt work well in today’s horror environment, albeit with more gore and nudity. It’s virtually a collection of horrific set pieces strung together by the flimsiest of the plots – on the DVD cover and in its TV listing write-ups, the fact that Bancroft is the one behind the murders is blatantly stated. And if you hadn’t read any of that, the film promptly reveals this to you before the twenty minute mark is up. This isn’t meant to be a murder mystery or ‘whodunnit.’ This is quite literally a slasher for the 1950s or a Saw-esque film in which story matters little; how bloody and outrageous the film can be matters a lot. As well as the gruesome opening with the booby-trapped binoculars, there is a bedroom beheading which was definitely well ahead of its time in the gore stakes. In my favourite moment of the film, a recently-murdered body is lowered into a vat of acid and reduced to a skeleton. Tame today, yes. For 1959, I bet people were throwing up in sick bags. Throughout the film, the blood is a vivid scarlet colour and it certainly looks the part. You can imagine audiences never seeing sights so ghastly back in the day.
As Horrors of the Black Museum progresses, its early grounding in reasonable reality gives way and it gets ever more preposterous – the idea that Bancroft is controlling his young assistant through hypnosis; the physical transformations that he suffers as a result; the super computer that Bancroft keeps in his basement; and much more. At this point, we, like Bancroft, are one step ahead of the police and it’s only a matter of time for them to play catch-up. Though the film provides a number of solid set pieces, you get the sense that there’s no real overlying story to keep it all hooked together and that the writers were more concerned with shocking the screen than they were keeping the narrative tight. We never find out Bancroft’s real motives and there are too many unanswered questions. The finale at an amusement park provides a limp pay-off given the brutality that the previous hour had shown.
I’ve always thought that the late Michael Gough looked decidedly dodgy. I’m sure he was a nice enough fellow in real life but in his films, most particular his early work when he still had a full head of jet black hair, he’s got this snivelling, odious look of superiority to him. Perfectly cast as the villain, Gough chews the scenery up like mad, going from calm and collected gentlemen to a ranting and raving murderous lunatic. Gough lets rip with some excellent monologues and cutting barbs about journalism and human nature and his portrayal is of a man who believes that he is a cut above everyone else. The notion of his character having a massive Bond villain-style super computer in his basement is just taking everything too far though. Apparently the role was meant for Vincent Price but he wanted too much to do it and there are a lot of similarities with House of Wax to understand why the character was written this way. I could see Price hamming it up perfectly as Bancroft but Gough makes an excellent alternate. The rest of the cast are insignificant – this is a show for Gough and the gore only.
Horrors at the Black Museum is a solid, if overly dated, British chiller worth watching for a malicious tour-de-force performance from the great Michael Gough. There's not much depth to the film outside of the cartoony carnage but, for 1959, this is really trying to pull out all stops with some memorable moments.
Horrors of the Black Museum
Director(s): Arthur Crabtree
Writer(s): Herman Cohen (original story), Aben Kandel (original story)
Actor(s): Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow, Geoffrey Keen, Shirley Anne Field, John Warwick, Beatrice Varley
Duration: 93 mins