If you were a kid or teenager in the ’50s or ’60s and dug horror and/or sci-fi, the chances were astronomically good that you were watching something from American International Pictures, aka AIP, home to hormonal werewolves, monsters, and other adolescent dilemmas. Add in British comedy makers Anglo-Amalgamated Productions (the Carry On series of films) to the mix, and you probably ended up watching Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), a wry and dry romp highlighted by Michael Gough's (Sleepy Hollow) delightful performance.
Released stateside at the end of April with a rollout in the UK the following month, Horrors of the Black Museum actually made some good coin; AIP added a 13-minute prologue featuring a hypnotist (filmed in Hypno-Vista, ooh) to the American release to draw people in (although completely disconnected from the narrative of the film), and it worked, gimmick and all. Hooray for showbiz! Despite the tacked-on hucksterism, Horrors of the Black Museum still works as a fun Not-So-Grand Guignol, replete with torture devices, guillotines, and computers that engulf a room.
Our film opens with two young ladies of London receiving a package in their flat. A pair of binoculars! How swell! Except these goggles don’t amplify sight, but instead house sharpened needles that cause not only blindness, but death-ness as well. Cut to Scotland Yard, that Bastion of Justice, who are not only baffled by the crime but must also contend with insufferable crime writer Edmond Bancroft (Gough), who claims he could do their job better than them in solving the murders, as well he should—he’s responsible! (duh duh DUH).
Well, that’s it really, story-wise; Horrors of the Black Museum plots a simple course for the viewer: a murder happens, Bancroft scoffs at the police, another murder, etc. But while the film is episodic (Scotland Yard are static, y’all), it’s rarely dull; director Arthur Crabtree (I Dusted Off his previous film, Fiend Without a Face here) saturates his 78 minutes with enough colorful (and color-filled) activity and screenwriters Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel (I Was a Teenage Werewolf) fill Gough’s mouth with florid bon mots on the press and the incompetence of the police versus his clearly superior methods of deduction.
Bancroft clearly believes his own hype, and for good reason—he’s creating his own content by orchestrating elaborate and unusual methods of homicide and then splashing it across his pages. For the record, Crabtree tries to present Horrors as a mystery, except it’s structured in such a way that it can’t be anyone but Bancroft, indicated by a few early scenes such as the antiques dealer (Beatrice Varley – Death Goes to School) who sells him the exotic implements of death, or a tour of his private "black museum" filled with the macabre and indecent tools of the trade. But Bancroft gets away with it because he uses hypnosis and a secret serum on someone to have his deeds carried out for him, and who it is I’ll never tell; oh, hey have you met Bancroft’s young assistant, Rick (Graham Curnow – Three Men in a Boat)?
Okay, as a mystery, Horrors of the Black Museum fails miserably. As a gateway film for AIP to test the waters and move into their Corman/Poe cycle, it works just fine. The late ’50s were still steeped in a nonstop parade of monsters born of labs and madness, ignorance and greed, and to re-introduce a little bit of sadism and degradation to the mainstream was a pretty bold move at the time. (This could be another reason AIP added the hypnosis prologue—it cloaks the film in a gimmicky vibe that softens the edges a bit for the old timers in the crowd.)
So it’s ’59 and what’s in store for your two-dollar carload at the drive-in? Well, if you’re not busy making out in the back seat, you get the previously mentioned binocular boner, boudoir decapitation, a misuse of giant ice tongs, and death by electrocution via the apparent future BatComputer, naturally with nothing shown (merely implied) but a tongue firmly implanted in cheek—I mean, you even get an acid bath-stripped skeleton. That’s definitely worth sneaking a ride in the trunk of a car to see.
None of this would work, however, without the undervalued talents of Michael Gough. Coming into this production with already over 30 credits in television and film (including the previous year’s Horror of Dracula), Gough knows exactly the type of film he’s in; broad gestures, a pronounced limp with a pompous gait, barely concealing a true contempt for those around him—it’s a wonderful performance, full of bluster and spirit, and I’m not at all sorry that Vincent Price wasn’t available for the part, because Gough owns it. (Besides, Price would get to play with his own trinkets when The Abominable Dr. Phibes rolled around.)
It’s nice to know that AIP was willing to try something a little different with Horrors of the Black Museum. You may not have noticed the transition to Neo-Gothic from the back of a steamed up T-Bird in ’59, but it’s clear to today’s viewers that AIP was looking for folks to move up to the front seats, if even for awhile.
Horrors of the Black Museum is available on DVD from VCI.