Horrors of the Black Museum – UK, 1959

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Horrors of the Black Museum is a 1959 British horror film directed by Arthur Crabtree for American exploitation producer Herman Cohen (KongaTrog; Craze), who concocted the lurid screenplay with Aben Kandel.

It was the first film in what film critic David Pirie dubbed production company Anglo-Amalgamated‘s “Sadian trilogy” (the other two being Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom), with an emphasis on sadism, cruelty and violence (with sexual undertones), in contrast to the supernatural horror of the Hammer films of the same era.

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In the United States, it was advertised as being filmed in HypnoVista, which referred to a 13-minute lecture prologue on hypnotism by psychiatrist Emile Franchel.

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The Black Museum – Scotland Yard’s not-for-public-eyes collection of criminal, sometimes macabre,  crime-related paraphernalia, from ransom letters to hangman’s nooses to ingenious murder weapons. If it didn’t exist, you’d have to make a film about it. Well, it does exist but director Crabtree (more famous as a cinematographer with a modest filmography including Fiend Without a Face) opted to make the film anyway.

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Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough) is an ambitious but frustrated crime writer – with a newspaper column too, a surprisingly sympathetic reflection of writers’ finances – who harbours a deep-set contempt of the police. He has curated a black museum of his own and goes one step further by enacting his own crimes of increasing depravity, via his assistant, Rick (Graham Curnow), which in turn fuels his writing.

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This startlingly mean-spirited and graphic celluloid gem is a real curveball in British cinema and horror cinema worldwide. A co-production between Britain’s Anglo-Amalgamated (best known for a dozen Carry On films but also responsible, not only for Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors but Konga and many Edgar Wallace mysteries) and America’s AIP, the cinema-going public held their collective breaths as they prepared for the wonder of ‘Hypno-Vista’. Once they had coped with the combination of Eastman Color and CinemaScope, they reeled with incredulity at the film’s subtext hidden beneath its outwardly glossy veneer.

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The wonderful Michael Gough, a mainstay of British horror in such films as Trog and Horror Hospital but with many mainstream successes later in life, which you can check for in your own time, is in utterly uncompromising form here, with lengthy dialogues and an almost condescending sneer towards the camera. He was virtually alone in his exploits, with only Shirley Anne Field (also in Peeping Tom), who plays Rick’s’s girlfriend, worthy of mention.

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The film is probably best-known for the very first passage of play, which sees an innocent-looking pair of binoculars gouging out a poor girl’s eyes, as hidden prongs spring forth.

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Pacing is a problem for many with this film, with long scenes of dialogue, delivered, at the very worst, ‘interestingly’ by all but here is a failure to engage with what is a most peculiar film. The nearest point of reference is really a Mr. Herschell Gordon Lewis’s redoubtable film of 1963, Blood Feast, with its stilted delivery and gruesome set-pieces. Yet, what we have here is a resolutely British film. It reeks of tea and biscuits, of gin, of cricket. It’s H.G. Lewis with a posh accent. It’s H.G. Lewis with manners.

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Though very obviously, ‘of its time’, the film has confidence in itself, with almost gloating sequences of really ‘not that much’ happening, leading to oddly heartless deaths and mutilation. Gough’s raison d’être is revealed so quickly in the plot that ‘spoilers’ don’t come into it, which makes the resolution of events that much more… well, weird. Hardly a feel-good movie, it’s really quite staggering how the film sustains itself, but that it does and that the closing scene is so remarkable is a revelation…how audiences felt on leaving the cinema at the time is quite a thought.

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Despite the lack of nudity, the film reeks of sex, whether it be repressed or withheld by the censor, something is struggling to get out here. It led to the previously disclosed duo of films but neither truly progressed or extrapolated this, despite Peeping Tom‘s notoriety. An admittedly stilted performance, partly actor-driven but forgiveable, pre-empted the next ten years across the Atlantic so innocuously that it now rarely gets mentioned; a disgrace. This is maybe far from lean but it’s certainly mean and without conscience. Elsewhere, Bobby Darin sings ‘Beyond the Sea’. Enjoy.

Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA

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The 2013 Network Region 2 PAL DVD release features a new transfer from original film elements in the correct 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio, plus original theatrical trailers, image gallery and the US HypnoVista introduction.

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Other reviews:

Horrors of the Black Museum still has the power to shock, with Michael Gough giving a totally overwrought performance as the sexist sociopath (he’d go on to do a similar role in 1961’s Konga), and director Arthur Crabtree (who has previously lens the unforgettable sci-fi Fiend Without a Face) making effective use of the colour and widescreen format to bring the grisly Grand Guignol spectacle to life.” Peter Fuller, Kultguy’s Keep

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“The film makes no attempt to understand the central character’s obsession with murder and torture … but it does give Gough free reign to let loose one of the most ferociously insane performances of pantomime evil in the history of horror movies.” Julian Upton, Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems

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Filming locations:

Merton Park Studios

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