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April 2, 2011

Movie Review: Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

By Greg Goodsell

Directed By Arthur Crabtree

As a young boy, I quivered in my boots when some know-it-all teenagers told me about a movie they caught at the local drive-in. “This girl gets a pair of binoculars in the mail, she looks through them, and these spikes come out and poke her eyes out!” It was the opening scene from the notorious Horrors of the Black Museum , and this image remains as potent as anything found in cinema. Photographer Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) immortalized this image, snapping the moment of impact directly off the screen during one of her many ramblings across New York City ’s Times Square fleapit movie theaters. Arbus herself admitted she derived inspiration for her series of photographs of the physically challenged from the repeated revivals of Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932) on 42nd Street.

The story is standard Grand Guignol. Crime author Edmond Bancroft (the late Michael Gough) makes a handsome living writing about ghastly murders for the British public. The income from his books and articles enables him to live in a sprawling mansion, complete with a wax museum and mad scientist laboratory, as well as keeping his young male assistant Rick (Graham Curnow) and a bleached blonde floozy (June Cunningham) on his payroll. When his peroxide plaything brandishes his cane and calls him “half a man,” she is decapitated with an impromptu guillotine manned by a deformed monster while she reclines seductively on her bed.

London’s newest serial killer is none other than Bancroft himself, weary of merely writing about murder and seeking to further his research by injecting his assistant Rick with Jekyll-and-Hyde juice! There are more hideous murders, and it all ends with a climactic confrontation at a fun fair.

Donald Pirie in his classic examination of British horror films, “A Heritage of Horror” in 1972 ranks Black Museum alongside such venerated classics as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) and Circus of Horrors (1962) as select examples of “Sadean” cinema, that seeks to punish the public for the act of seeing with their own eyes. The public’s fascination for true crime is rewarded in Black Museum with murders carried out due to their popular demand. While Bancroft is berated throughout the film for exploiting real-life tragedy, he is later shown happily autographing his latest hot seller for swooning little old ladies at a bookstore appearance.

Since this is the work of American producer Herman Cohen, Scarlet Street readers will be quick to apply a “gay” reading to Black Museum. As in his earlier films, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), the male protagonist is transformed into a monster at the behest of an older gentleman who seeks to live out his darker urges and fantasies. The homosexual undercurrent is fairly blatant in Black Museum. When Bancroft catches Rick spooning with his girlfriend (Shirley Ann Field, also in Peeping Tom), he blows his top. The couple’s canoodling taking place in the very same room where they had doused one of their victims in boiling vat of acid less than two hours previously, Bancroft scolds Rick until he injects him with his secret formula – whereupon he takes on the concerned cooing of a longtime lover! Ick. This is just one of many countless examples, and limited room prohibits a listing of the several lavender-tinged scenes.

First and foremost, Black Museum is a tribute to the fine character actor Michael Gough. The world may remember him as the butler Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman movies, while the rest of us fondly recall his turns in Horror of Dracula, Satan’s Slaves, Konga and Crucible of Horror. Gough passed away this year at the ripe age of 94.

Cheap, gaudy and ugly – like it’s supposed to be, Horrors of the Black Museum manages to slip in just one more comment on the general public’s thirst for garish diversion in the final shot. After a gory double homicide on a ferris wheel, the carnival goers dust themselves off and return to the business of enjoying a night out on the town seconds later. That’s entertainment!

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