Horrors of the Black Museum
U.K. - U.S.A. / 1959
Directed by Arthur Crabtree
Michael Gough
June Cunningham
Graham Curnow
Color / 78 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
VCI Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    7   10 = Highest Rating  

Michael Gough's nearly apoplectic performance is just one of the memorable aspects of this lurid little shocker. For its time this was pretty strong stuff. While sadistic, sensationalized murders in the movies have become blasι over the past quarter-century, in the 1950s it was a very different story. Horrors of the Black Museum isn't gory, of course — especially by modern standards — but it's easy to see why this drive-in potboiler continues to resonate in the collective cult movie consciousness.
    The opening scene doubtless plays a big role in this. (Before viewing the DVD it'd been nearly 30 years since I'd last seen the film, and I could still recall the sequence quite vividly.) In London, a young woman receives an unexpected package in the mail. A surprise gift from an admirer? Inside is a pair of shiny black binoculars. She moves to the window to try them out... and spring-loaded spikes shoot out of the eye pieces. Not just blinded, the victim is killed as the spikes plunge into her brain. Ouch! The binocular murder is but the latest in a string of extremely bizarre killings to rock London, each more ghastly than the last. The Scotland Yard detective in charge of the case, Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen of Taste the Blood of Dracula and The Spy Who Loved Me), is baffled by the lack of motive. None of the victims knew each other or were related in any way. The killer apparently strikes for the simple thrill of getting away with it.
    Enter Edmund Bancroft (Gough), Britain's premier 'True Crime' writer. He considers himself a superior criminologist to anyone at the Yard; to his mind the police are little more than fumbling fools. Insufferably arrogant, he revels in chiding the cops — both in print and to their faces — for their failure to make headway in the case. (Why Yard personnel keep letting him in the building is the film's biggest mystery.) Bancroft predicts the killer will strike again and that there's nothing the law can do to stop the reign of terror. He should know. He planned every one of the murders. And more are in the works.
    Bancroft, obsessed by murder, is stark raving mad. With the royalties from his best-selling books he's established a private "Black Museum" in the basement of his mansion, featuring wax replicas of famous killers and all manner of death-dealing weapons and instruments of torture. (Including a whole wall full of electronic gizmos that'd make Baron Frankenstein green with envy. Just what purpose any of these devices serves is never mentioned.) This loving shrine to the diabolical is maintained with the help of Rick (Graham Curnow), Bancroft's young assistant, whom the crazed writer controls by means of hypnosis and a Jekyll and Hyde-type drug. It is Rick who carries out the murders, each meticulously planned by his master. The more sensational the crimes, the more money Bancroft can make by writing about them. But once Rick becomes involved with a girl who's just a bit too curious about his work, Bancroft's evil scheme eventually unravels... Not exactly the ending he'd so confidently plotted out in advance.
    Before getting his just desserts our villain has his slutty mistress (June Cunningham) decapitated with a makeshift guillotine and a suspicious doctor electrocuted and then dumped in the museum's handy acid vat. Considering when the movie was made, the fate of Rick's girlfriend Angela (Shirley Anne Field) came as something of a surprise and provides the film's most solid 'shock' moment. In fact, there's a general tone of nastiness to the mayhem one just doesn't expect from a '50s film
— a precursor of cinematic things to come. This was an envelope-pushing exploitation pic in its day and the main reason it's still remembered over 40 years on.
    That, and perhaps Michael Gough. The venerable actor (Horror of Dracula, 1962's Phantom of the Opera) is simply astonishing to behold here. As the insane Bancroft he's completely over the top and damn near out of control. Vincent Price at his absolute hammiest couldn't begin to lay a glove on this performance. Also, Price would've likely managed to inject a small touch of humanity, even humor, into the role. Not Gough. His Bancroft is a total monster: supremely arrogant, misogynistic, sadistic, thoroughly evil. Perhaps dismissive of the exploitative nature of the material, Gough simply decided to play it to the hilt as pure camp. He snarls and bellows his lines as if performing on stage, trying to reach the very last row of a very big theater. He's able to work himself up into a rage in nanoseconds; one can almost feel the spittle flying off the screen when he's on a rant. There were a few moments when I could've sworn he was on the verge of spontaneous combustion! Normally such a performance merely exasperates the viewer, or even leaves one embarrassed for the actor involved. Not in this case. With Gough it inexplicably works. (He played virtually the same character — in the same wildly over-the-top style — in the 1961 giant ape-run-amuck cheesefest Konga.)

After its release was delayed a number of times, VCI's DVD of Horrors of the Black Museum finally arrives bursting at the seams with extras. Rare for an exploitation film of this vintage to receive such lavish treatment, VCI is to be commended for the job they've done. The film itself has never looked or sounded better (at least when viewed on a non-progressive scan player). The anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite good and the mono audio track marvelously crisp and clear.
    With all these extra features it's hard to know where to begin! In a sense the DVD is itself a 'museum' to the work of producer Herman Cohen (1925-2002), low budget impresario behind such drive-in classics as I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Blood of Dracula, and How To Make a Monster. (With Black Museum he began a period of producing films in England.) First and foremost there's a heartfelt video documentary, co-written by film historian Tom Weaver and narrated by Cohen friend Didier Chatelain, which provides a nice overview of Cohen's career in the film industry from teenage theater usher to trend-setting movie producer. (A recorded phone interview with Cohen is also included, but the aural quality is such I could barely understand most of what was said.) Cohen himself speaks about Black Museum on an audio commentary originally recorded in the 1990s for a laserdisc version of the film; a second audio commentary features score composer Gerard Schurmann and film critic David Del Valle. Then there's the photo/still gallery, scrolling text biographies (actors Gough, Cunningham, Curnow, and Field and director Arthur Crabtree), and both the U.S. and European trailers for Black Museum. Additionally, trailers for VCI releases Target Earth, Blood and Black Lace, The Whip and the Body, City of the Dead, Ruby, and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage are tossed in for good measure. Instead of a simple Chapter Listing card the disc comes with a fold-out reproduction of Black Museum's Italian poster with liner notes on the reverse side.

    And there's still more. The DVD also provides the original "Hypnovista" sequence that opened the film when it first played in theaters. A gimmick in the William Castle vein, it's a 14-minute piece featuring a dorky, supposedly real-life psychologist 'hypnotizing' the audience in preparation for the movie to come. It's amazingly dumb and occasionally funny (unintentionally so) but I'm glad it's included as a supplement and not tacked onto the movie itself. Without it Horrors of the Black Museum runs a lean 78 minutes; personally, I prefer to get straight to Michael Gough reducing the scenery to matchsticks.
    This disc would certainly merit at least a "9" rating based on its presentation of the film and notable array of worthwhile supplements... if it weren't for a few technical bugs. The audio commentary by Del Valle and Schurmann, which is quite entertaining and funny, suddenly zips into fast-forward a little past the one hour point, going on like this to the end of the film. While the animated menus are a nice touch, the Special Features screen — fashioned to resemble the museum's display of knives, daggers and swords — proved almost impossible to navigate when playing the disc in a PC DVD-ROM. I tested it on two different computers with the same frustrating result. (The screen works fine in a conventional component player, it should be noted.) Because of these technical faults I regrettably must downgrade my Disc Rating to "7". 5/20/03