BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: Horrors of the Black Museum / DVD Review

By 1959 the British horror boom had started in earnest. The spectacular success of Hammer's colour Gothic cinema, epitomised in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), confirmed there was an adult audience attracted to this material and ripe for exploitation. Recognising the potential box office for such films, a number of similar British film producers were quick to leap onto the bandwagon. Anglo Amalgamated were just one such company.

Set up by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy in 1945, this small production and distribution company, which combined low budget British featurettes with American 'A' movies, had ambitions to move into full-length feature film production. By 1950, Cohen and Levy had formed a production company with Julian Wintle, a young producer working at Merton Park studios. Under their auspices Joseph Losey made his first film in the UK, 1954's The Sleeping Tiger, and they would produce three Tommy Steele musicals, all the Carry On films up till 1966 and the infamous 'Sadian horror trilogy' of Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Circus of Horrors (1960) and Michael Powell's sublime Peeping Tom (1960).

Anglo's first films Mystery Junction (1951) and Wide Boy were primarily crime dramas or thrillers such as Ghost Ship (1952) and Counterspy (1953) and these established their fruitful relationships with the likes of directors Ken Hughes and Vernon Sewell. While Cohen and Levy bankrolled the Alec Snowden and Jack Greenwood production of the Scotland Yard (1953-61) series of half-hour crime second features at Merton Park, a number of breakthrough films established their credibility after they started to sign deals with the likes of Eros, Lippert, American International Pictures and agent Herman Cohen. (1)

Cohen had already met Nat (they weren't related, by the way) when they had formed a co-production and distribution deal with Lippert Pictures on Ghost Ship and Counterspy and secured American star Phyllis Kirk for Anglo's thriller River Beat which he produced for them in 1954. His reputation as a producer at American International Pictures was sealed with the drive-in successes I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Blood of Dracula (1958) and How to Make a Monster (1958) after he had acknowledged there was a growing teenage audience for science fiction and horror movies.
'... a young stable boy was fired for having sex with her in the stables '
Anglo Amalgamated handled the UK distribution of Herman Cohen's AIP product and it was this relationship that brought him and AIP owners Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson to London and a fateful visit to Scotland Yard's own Black Museum. 'I was reading a group of articles in the Sunday Parade about Scotland Yard's Black Museum. I went to London, and while I was there, a friend of mine that knew an inspector at Scotland Yard got me a special pass to go through the Black Museum,' recalled Cohen in Tom Weaver's 1994 book Attack of the Monster Movie Makers - Interviews with 20 Genre Giants. (2)

Now referred to as the Crime Museum, the so called Black Museum of criminal memorabilia came into existence sometime in 1874 and was originally housed in a set of rooms in the basement of New Scotland Yard. Its collection of over 500 criminal artefacts inspired Cohen to concoct Horrors of the Black Museum with long standing collaborator, screenwriter Aben Kandel.

Kandel had originally gained some distinction in the industry as a novelist with Vaudeville (1927), Black Sun (1929) and City for Conquest (1936) and broke into screenwriting by helping adapt Dinner at Eight (1933) for the screen before crafting scripts for the likes of They Won't Forget (1937) and The Iron Major (1943). In the 1950s and 1960s his work was primarily on low budget exploitation movies such as Cohen's I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and How to Make a Monster (1958). 

Cohen and Kandel, inspired by the exhibits at Scotland Yard, came up with a number of bizarre murders based on actual cases, including the shocking opening to the film where a woman's eyes are gouged by spikes concealed in a pair of binoculars. According to Cohen: 'The murder with the binoculars happened in the thirties, in Kent. A young stable boy who was very much in love with his master's daughter was fired for having sex with her in the stables. And she would have nothing to do with him after that. When the Royal Ascot meet started the following year, she received through the mail a pair of binoculars, mailed from the Paddington Post Office. She took them to the window, she focused them, and the needles penetrated through her eyes and killed her. The stable boy was found, was tried and was hung. And those binoculars are in the Black Museum in Scotland Yard.' (3)

While Kandel co-wrote the screenplay of Horrors of the Black Museum with Cohen, Anglo Amalgamated confirmed a co-financing deal for the film with AIP, making this its first film in colour and Cinemascope. Although Merton Park's resident producer Jack Greenwood was credited as such on the film this was an arrangement to satisfy the Eady Levy which stipulated that co-productions must have a British producer to qualify for its production subsidy. Herman Cohen handled the production, including casting and hiring a director.

The Eady Levy regulations also impacted on the casting of Michael Gough as Cohen had originally wanted to hire Vincent Price for the lead role of crime writer Edmond Bancroft but was persuaded by Anglo it would be far cheaper and politically prudent to go with a British lead. Cohen recalled Gough from his supporting role in Hammer's Dracula, invited him to dinner and subsequently offered him the part.

He also secured Arthur Crabtree as director. Crabtree was a Gainsborough alumnus and had initially photographed a series of Will Hay comedies Oh, Mr. Porter! (1937), Good Morning, Boys (1937) and Hey, Hey USA! (1938) before working on the melodramas The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944).

Cohen, working within the Eady strictures, needed an English director and had so admired Crabtree's work on science fiction 'B' movie Fiend Without a Face (1958) that he quickly interviewed him. 'The price was right and the old guy needed a job, and I hired him. And he was exactly what I wanted and needed as a good craftsman,' admitted Cohen. (4)

Gough recalled his working relationship with Cohen and the producer's treatment of Crabtree in a conversation with David Del Valle, Hollywood correspondent for Films and Filming, in 1984: 'Cohen was a showman first, last, and always; his manner was always overbearing and his opinions sacrosanct. During the filming of Horrors of the Black Museum, he would show up unannounced onset and tell our director Arthur Crabtree how to direct a scene and the actors as well. I mean this just was not on and, as a result, Arthur began to loathe Cohen on sight. He demanded all the walls of the set be painted a violent shade of blue or green; Herman Cohen was the boss on all that he produced – and not in a positive way either.' (5)

Unlike Hammer's period Gothic fairy tales, Horrors of the Black Museum had a contemporary setting and would be the first of three films to tap into the appetite for sensational and violent crimes that fed into the sexual anxiety and voyeurism at the heart of what David Pirie called the 'Sadian-narcissistic' quality found in this and Anglo's Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom. Pirie saw the period in which the three films were produced and released as a brief opportunity for their makers to persuade the BBFC to pass this material. Taking a leaf from Hammer's ability to manipulate the readers and Secretary at the BBFC, Cohen submitted the script to them in August 1958 and received the by now expected cold shoulder from reader Audrey Field.
'... an umbrella for out-of-the way sadistic ideas'
'The X certificate, if given, would merely serve as an umbrella for out-of-the way sadistic ideas and try the patience of decent people rather too far,' she reported. She equated a lowering standards with the current rise in crime and felt that horror films were contributing to the corruption and lack of self-control in the young audiences who paid to see such films. However, as Pirie suggests, there's a note of resignation in her report which implies that secretary John Trevelyan would indeed set out to negotiate with Anglo over the content of the film whereas previously she and other examiners had been far more determined to reduce as much horror content as they could, particularly in Hammer's films. (6)

Certainly Trevelyan discussed the opening scene in some depth in a letter to Stuart Levy and Nat Cohen, arguing that the removal of sensationalist details from the scene showing Gail's murder with the binoculars - 'screaming or blood gushing' - would make it more acceptable. He also requested the guillotining of Joan later in the film be achieved by 'implication rather than by direct shooting.' Pirie records that very little further discussion took place before shooting commenced in October 1958.

The completed film was submitted in December 1958 much to the apoplexy of the examiners at the BBFC. They demanded the removal of certain details in the binocular murder - 'the screaming must be reduced and the shot of the blood gushing through the victim's fingers as she puts her hands to her eyes must in any case be removed' - and the guillotine scene would have to have lose a shot of the killer looking down at his victim. (7)

In January 1959 it was Herman Cohen who now corresponded with Trevelyan directly and it seems gradually the censor softened his approach to the film after Cohen appealed to him about the cuts requested. The film was resubmitted with the binocular and guillotine murders more or less intact and the image of the victim with blood gushing through her hands was again criticised and Trevelyan again asked Cohen to remove it.

In his letter to Cohen in March 1959, Trevelyan more or less left Anglo to their own devices: 'We are prepared to accept the scene of the murder by guillotine and waive our original objection to the shot of Rick from the girl's point of view on the bed. We shall not need to see the film again. If you will send me a written assurance that the deletion asked for in reel 1 has been made I will issue the 'X' certificate.' Cohen requested, clearly using conciliatory tactics to plead for what he wanted, the examiners see a shortened version of the binocular scene and he eventually persuaded the BBFC to accept it barely unchanged. (8)

The other Anglo Amalgamated films in 'the Sadian trilogy' would test the BBFC's faltering resolve in the face of such material and a significant row also erupted over Robert Baker and Monty Berman's Jack the Ripper (1960) before the moral panic from the press and local councils which greeted Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) forced the BBFC to clamp down on such material in an attempt to rescue its tarnished reputation. Ultimately, the furore ended Powell's career.

While Hammer's home brew of Eastmancolour, blood and sex was still packing them in, the likes of Anglo Amalgamated also saw their opportunity to snatch some of the ticket sales with some added gimmicks and promotions which producer Herman Cohen had picked up from that master of the hype William Castle. Hence, in 1959 the American International Pictures release of Horrors of the Black Museum came complete with a 13-minute opening sequence espousing the virtues of the film's presentation in 'Hypno-Vista'.

In it Dr. Emile Franchel, allegedly a psychologist specialising in hypnotism, attempted to convince the audience, through some very thin suggestions about colour and a display of standard optical illusions in the stilted delivery of someone reading cue cards, that the images and situations in Horrors of the Black Museum were specifically 'designed to help you experience to the full all the feelings and emotions that the producers intended you to experience.' Although Cohen was reluctant to add the prologue, he later conceded, 'We tested it in a few theaters and the audience went for it like crazy, hokey as it was. It helped make the picture a success, I guess, 'cause people were looking for gimmicks at that time.' (9)

The film's basic premise features crime writer Edmond Bancroft (Gough) who, unbeknownst to the police, is the instigator of a series of murders using various implements of torture and murder collected together in his own personal Black Museum. He is literally creating the very headlines he likes to write about in his salacious books. The murders are committed by his faithful young assistant Rick (Graham Curnow), under the influence of drugs and hypnosis, and they provide the film with its signature gruesome set-pieces which so perplexed the BBFC.

As Bancroft mocks the police investigation by Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) and Inspector Lodge (John Warwick), his obsessions about the murders worry his physician, Dr. Ballan (Gerald Anderson), who cautions him against overwork. Aggie (Beatrice Varley), an antique shop owner who supplies Bancroft with some of the more dubious items in his collection, recognises the binoculars, fitted with deadly spikes, used to murder Gail Dunlap (Dorinda Stevens) in the film's disturbing opening sequence and attempts to blackmail him. Ballan, also convinced Bancroft is mentally unstable, threatens to call the police and is electrocuted and dropped into a vat of acid for his trouble.

When Rick is commanded by Bancroft to murder his girlfriend Angela (Shirley Anne Field), he goes out of control at a local fairground and precipitates a fatal encounter with the police and Bancroft. Holding this completely absurd storyline together is a jaw-dropping, baroque performance from the aforementioned Michael Gough as Bancroft. With his distinctive silver and black hairstyle and high octane scenery chewing, Gough is certainly a guilty pleasure and a very good reason to stick with this exploitation gem from the late 1950s.

The film's contemporary setting also would have provided the audience with a verisimilitude in direct contrast to the supernatural Gothic themes and settings of a typical Hammer film. The startling opening scene where Gail Dunlap receives the deadly binoculars is a good example of this. We follow a post van along busy central London streets as it arrives to deliver the package and then watch as she unwraps the binoculars and tests them out. The overwrought, sensationalist tone of the film is immediately secured with the close up of Gail's hand covered face, blood trickling through her fingers, and a cut to the binoculars, with their deadly spikes, on the floor next to a spatter of blood.

Peter Hutchings astutely connects this sequence with the opening scenes of Circus of Horrors, where a plastic surgeon's terribly scarred patient destroys a mirror and rejects her own image, and Peeping Tom, where the film opens with a close up of an eye and then conflates the eye with the viewfinder of a camera as it tracks the murder of a prostitute. 'The repeated references to looking... and cinema spectatorship... [is] made explicit' in all three of Anglo's films. (10)

Gough's character, Bancroft, transforms these gratifications into bestselling salacious crime fiction and 'his avid readership stand in for us, the audience for horror cinema.' Hutchings sees Horrors of the Black Museum and its ilk as a way for such horror cinema to pull in new audiences and 'to offer us a means of access into the horror, a position from which we can safely view gratuitous acts of violence.' As Bancroft explains to the disgruntled Superintendent Graham and Inspector Lodge, 'I don't write for you. My books, my magazine articles, my column - all this I write for a large public.' (11)
'Let's not have an ugly scene'
There is no doubt though that this violence and horror is directed at women in each of the films. In Horrors, the murders are all directed at 'independent' working women: Gail and her flatmate Peggy both clearly court the attentions of men and relish gifts from their affairs; Bancroft's 'companion' Joan who demands more money but is guillotined for her troubles; Aggie the antiques shop owner punished with a set of ice tongs for attempting blackmail and Angela, Rick's girlfriend who threatens to disrupt the relationship between Rick and Bancroft. As Hutchings notes,  'It is a condition of the undoubted powerfulness of these representations... that they are posed as threats to a male order that inevitably provoke acts of repressive violence.' (12)

While the violent men - presented by the strange, almost homosexual bond between Bancroft and Rick in the film - are symbols of misogyny there's also an undercurrent present about women trying to seize power back from men. Bancroft is depicted as an incomplete physical and mental specimen. He's physically impaired with a limp and has to walk with a stick while his physician is concerned that his mental stability is also questionable. The film links the sensational murders with Bancroft's mental health as, after each murder, he goes into 'some sort of state of shock' that can only be arrested by sublimating the gory details via his books and articles. Dr. Ballan more or less underlines Bancroft's involvement with the murders, which the viewer will already have identified him with, and how he shares the audience's own 'state of unnatural excitement'. 

This notion is also underlined in the sequence with Joan Berkley, the film's rather unflattering and inept attempt to promote starlet June Cunningham as Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell, where her demands for money from Bancroft are met with a refusal and an implication he is unable to 'set off fireworks' in the bedroom. While the intentions of the script are clear - as a 'real man' Bancroft fails and is physically and mentally inadequate - Cunningham's terrible acting completely derails it all. Even though Bancroft unintentionally demands, 'Let's not have an ugly scene,' sadly, Cunningham does nothing but create such an impression from the minute she appears, providing the sexualised eye candy for a half empty bar of leering men and some very meagre applause from bit part players as wooden as their object of desire. Look out for the extra in the raincoat passing by in the background as Joan talks to the barman as a prime example of this clumsy mise-en-scène.

Poor old Joan gets it in the neck with an improvised guillotine in a truly bizarre scene where she prepares for bed by listening to a deafening jazz number. The number then acts as a rather incongruous score to the murderous machinations as Rick packs away his bloody instruments and Joan's decapitated head in a holdall. We never find out what ever happens to her head. A clutch of terrible bit part players, playing various inhabitants of the block of flats where Joan lived, inform Superintendent Graham the assailant was 'steeped in evil', had a 'devilish speed' and 'in a blink he was gone into the night'.

They're an erudite bunch these Cockneys and they're joined by several unconvincing policemen and a doctor when Superintendent Graham searches the crime scene. Poor Geoffrey Keen, a reputable British character and perfectly good as Graham, must have wondered what on earth he was doing in such a film. As Fanny Carby reliably informs us on the Embankment, while eagerly pouring over a newspaper, 'you're not even safe in your own bed'. Not from this film either, it seems.

Much of the opprobrium in the acting stakes is usually reserved for Shirley Anne Field's awful performance as Rick's girlfriend Angela but I'd say Howard Greene as the delusional Tom Rivers, a psychiatric case wrongly arrested as the murderer, is perfectly capable of stealing Ms Field's crown. His demands for a short-hand reporter and a death-ray are truly inspiring examples of the thespian art.

When Shirley Anne Field does turn up the film steers back to its diatribe about controlling women, the shackles of marriage and the inadequacy of the male species. Angela's dialogue is probably the worst in the film and even though Field's performance is dreadful I would argue any actor worth their salt would have a struggle delivering the lines without biting their own tongue off. As Bartlomiej Paszylk observes, the film strives to counter its misogyny with 'the fear of women gaining power and controlling their men'. Not only does Aggie attempt this with her blackmail over the deadly ice tongs and a demand to be an equal partner with Bancroft in their love for instruments of torture but, in a climactic scene, Bancroft turns on Rick for bringing Angela to the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of their Black Museum. (13)

As a woman she's described as a 'vicious, unreliable breed' but she also believes a woman can't 'begin training a husband too soon' and has already encouraged Rick to share everything about his work with Bancroft. It's a male privileged world that has now been 'invaded' and her knowledge of it will, according to Bancroft, in a ripe bit of invective, 'start a toboggan that will crush us!' To counter this, Bancroft drugs and hypnotises Rick and sends him out to murder Angela 'for his own good'. Paszylk notes the juxtaposition between 'being hypnotised into a murderous frenzy' with 'being trained into marital obedience' is emphasised in this scene. At this point the film is not just about male obedience to women like Angela but also raises up the master and servant relationship between Bancroft and Rick and, more importantly, with Rick as Bancroft's son and heir, Hyde to his Jekyll. (14)

The film concludes at a fun fair, the climax to horror occurring in a public space and used to titilate the passerby or onlooker just as the circus setting does in Circus of Horrors. Here a brief sequence at a 'test your strength' strongman striker stall, if you'll pardon the pun, hammers home the story's obsession with female deceit and male power as Rick proves his manliness and is able to, according to the fairground barker, 'show the little lady who wears the pants in the house.' It's as crude a metaphor as the rest of the cod psychology in the film, culminating with Rick murdering Angela in the 'tunnel of love' ride and then briefly recognising his dual nature in a hall of mirrors where his Hyde like visage is not a simple trick of reflection but an eruption of Bancroft's sadism.

Conveniently, his encounter with the police from atop a ferris wheel also brings about the demise of Bancroft, the true Jekyll and Hyde of the film. Rick is, after all, just a pliable victim. Unfortunately, Rick's plaintive cries of 'Mr Bancroft, Mr Bancroft' transform him into horror's Norman Wisdom as he implicates the father figure now urging the police to shoot Rick down. After plunging to his death, Rick manages to take the barking Bancroft with him, justly using the dagger Bancroft bought from Aggie to silence him forever. Geoffrey Keen's closing solioquy, as Arthur Crabtree frames the inert forms of Rick and Bancroft together, ensures we get the point too.

A lurid, overripe sensation Horrors of the Black Museum is now worthy of a chuckle over a glass of wine. Much of the dialogue is dreadful and many of the actors and extras resemble a particularly solid stack of planks in a builder's yard and while Arthur Crabtree is a perfectly acceptable director he clearly struggled with composing for the Cinemascope format and many of the two and three shots of the film are framed centrally, with the yawning emptiness on either side of the frame devoid of any visual interest. Some scenes are well composed and those in Aggie's shop and the funfair are much more confident in visual terms. But lets not forget, despite its risible and salacious tone, the terrible dialogue and performances, it appeared at a time when the established standards of censorship were having to cope with challenging material from the likes of Anglo Amalgamated. In that brief window of opportunity in 1959-1960 if Anglo hadn't chanced their arm we may never have seen the likes of Peeping Tom.

(1) Steve Chibnall and Brian McFarlane, The British 'B' Film
(2) Tom Weaver Attack of the Monster Movie Makers - Interviews with 20 Genre Giants
(3) Ibid
(4) Ibid
(5) David Del Valle, 'Sinister Image: “Konga, put me down!” – A Chat with Michael Gough'
(6) David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror - The English Gothic Cinema
(7) Ibid
(8) Ibid
(9) Tom Weaver Attack of the Monster Movie Makers - Interviews with 20 Genre Giants
(10) Peter Hutchings, Hammer and Beyond
(11) Ibid
(12) Ibid
(13) Bartlomiej Paszylk, The Pleasure and Pain of Cult Horror Films: An Historical Survey
(14) Ibid

Special features
Trailers (10:23)
Fantastic selection of three trailers. First up, the US 'Hypno-Vista' trailer wherein Dr. Franchel sticks needles in a woman's arm to prove the film will place you in the middle of the horrors as a sonorous voice intones 'no human eyes have seen anything like this before' just as Dorinda Stevens gets her eyes gouged out by a set of binoculars. The UK trailer dumps Franchel and the gimmicks and just goes for blanketing out the sadistic highlights and terrible acting with booming announcements that this is a U trailer advertising an X certificate film and you're not allowed to see any more of June Cunningham's bid for BAFTA glory. A German 'Hypno-Vista' trailer completes the set and the dubbing adds a further bizarre layer. The real horror is, whether in English or German, that poor woman ever gets the needles taken out of her arm.
'Hypno-Vista' Introduction (11:18)
A typical example of 1950s gimmickry used to sell films in the US market, largely to drag people away from their television sets, this 'Hypno-Vista' opening sequence joins the illustrious company of Illusion-O, Percepto, Smell-O-Vision, Cinerama and the early 3D boom. Rather like the groggy woman who has two needles stuck in her arm, Dr. Emile Franchel's highly amusing attempts to plant suggestions in the audience's minds, with various optical and aural effects, probably sent them all to sleep. The only tentative relationship this codswallop has to the film comes in the last minute where suddenly Franchel suggests 'London... the time and place is now. You are in London'. Thanks for that, Emile.
Brief selection of UK, US and international posters, a set of US lobby cards and a handful of black and white stills.

Horrors of the Black Museum
Carmel Productions / Merton Park Studios
Anglo Amalgamated - American International Pictures 1959
Cert: 15 / Released 24 June 2013
Network DVD / Region 2 / Total Running Time: approx. 78 mins / Colour PAL / Feature Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 / Feature Audio: Mono 2.0 / Catalogue No: 7953886

2 Responses to “BRITISH CULT CLASSICS: Horrors of the Black Museum / DVD Review”
  1. Benjamin says:

    Hi Frank, I'd left a post a few days ago but I don't think it ever processed correctly. Heck! So, anyhow -- thanks for the great review! Not a great movie, but definitely fun, with Gough chewing up the scenery at his best. What did you think of the image quality, compared to past dvds (like the one from VCI -- if you've seen it)? Cheers, sir! - Ben

  2. Hi, Ben

    Sorry for the slow reply. Definitely a fun movie.

    I haven't seen past DVDs so I can't really comment on the picture quality in comparison. For what it is, the current DVD is fine.

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