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Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)


Main image of Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)
35mm, colour, CinemaScope, 82 mins
DirectorArthur Crabtree
Production CompaniesHerman Cohen Productions
 Anglo Amalgamated Productions
ProducerJack Greenwood
ScreenplayAben Kandel
 Herman Cohen
PhotographyDesmond Dickinson
MusicGérard Schurmann

Cast: Michael Gough (Edmond Bancroft); Graham Curnow (Rick); June Cunningham (Joan Berkley); Shirley Anne Field (Angela); Geoffrey Keen (Superintendent Graham); Gerald Andersen (Dr. Ballan)

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A crippled crime writer with close contacts at Scotland Yard and a young male assistant under his influence, takes an unhealthy interest in a series of gruesome London murders, all carried out with devices based on those in the Yard's notorious 'Black Museum'.

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This film forms part of what has been labelled as Anglo Amalgamated's 'Sadeian' trilogy, alongside two films released a year later: Peeping Tom (d. Michael Powell) and Circus of Horrors (d. Sidney Hayers). All were vilified by contemporary critics. The influence (in style and content) of Horrors on Peeping Tom is undeniable: an opening in which a woman is impaled with a sharp object, a victim dancing before her murder and a climax involving the killer being impaled. Both feature 'B' movie police officers and appearances by Shirley Anne Field. Even their trailers use the same strategy.

In the UK version of Horrors the violence is not graphic, but some 1959 critics argued that the film should have been banned for its nastiness. Audiences found the opening scene particularly shocking (especially as it confounds genre expectations following a very conventional mid-1950s setup), as, like the famous eyeball scene in Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (France, 1929), it taps into primeval fears concerning sight.

Feeble acting from Graham Curnow (as the 'Jekyll and Hyde' Rick), Field and June Cunningham is redeemed by the professionalism of Geoffrey Keen and the scenery-chewing performance of Michael Gough, in his first film starring role, as Bancroft. Unmarried (impotence is implied), with young Rick - to whom he promises his estate - the closest he has to a partner, Bancroft has a nice line in misogyny. Of the five murders, three are of attractive young women: following Gail with the spiked binoculars, Joan (a fun-seeking 1950s blonde punished for humiliating him and provocatively flaunting her sexuality) receives the guillotine, and Angela is knifed for coming between him and Rick.

Allowing for producer hyperbole, Horrors grossed over $3 million worldwide and cost $150,000. In an interview in Films and Filming, co-writer/producer Herman Cohen explained that his formula was to combine a gimmick with humour and thrills. Production values are generally good, with some excellent sets (a spooky antique shop is particularly effective) and colour photography (nice views of London and a 'tunnel of love' ride done with coloured lights and voices). But there is a contrast (indicative of the problems of filming in CinemaScope at Merton Park) between some awkwardly framed studio scenes and the liberating funfair scenes (perhaps ex-Gainsborough director Arthur Crabtree had seen Lindsay Anderson's O Dreamland (1953)). As Horrors combines the experience of the sideshow and a horror comic, this setting for the climax seems entirely appropriate.

Roger Philip Mellor

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Video Clips
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Crabtree, Arthur (1900-75)
Dickinson, Desmond (1903-1986)
Field, Shirley Anne (1938-)
Anglo-Amalgamated Productions