DVD. Network. Region 2. 15.
“Making films is no different from the manufacture of shoes or any other product…” opined larger than life British film mogul Nat Cohen (1905-88): “My job is to entertain the public… I have to remember they have other means of entertainment and a limited amount of money. Films are a pure gamble and I always try to bet with the odds in my favour.” In other words, give the public what they want… and what they wanted on the cusp of the 1950s and ’60s was, by Cohen’s reckoning, the kind of salacious thrills conveyed (and ultimately critiqued) in what came to be known as Anglo-Amalgamated’s “Sadean trilogy”, comprising Sidney Hayer’s hysterical Circus Of Horrors, Michael Powell’s harrowing Peeping Tom (both 1960) and, from the previous year, the astonishing artefact under consideration here, one of the earliest CinemaScope efforts to emerge from Merton Park Studios.
Cohen’s populist philosophy is effortlessly embodied in Arthur Crabtree’s Horrors Of The Black Museum. Crabtree had proved his aptitude for such material with those slimy, stop-motion brain invaders in Fiend Without A Face (1958). Writers Aben Kandel and Herman Cohen had recently penned (and the latter also produced) I was A Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957) and How To Make A Monster (1958). For their male lead, Cohen and Crabtree were gifted Michael Gough, an actor who wouldn’t be out of place in any of the Universal horror classics, the kind of trouper who never played any of his roles as though they were beneath his dignity and performed with as much conviction in e.g. Freddie Francis’ They Came From Beyond Space (1967) as he did in the Ralph Richardson / Vivien Leigh Anna Karenina (1948).
HOTBM opens with a pair of opera glasses being delivered to a young woman, presumably courtesy of some mystery admirer. Way to a woman’s heart, eh? In fact it turns out to be the way to her brain via her eyeballs… no doubt Giannetto De Rossi would have rendered this opening murder way more explicitly but the bloodied spikes protruding from the binoculars after their victim has dropped them on the floor tell us all we need to know. Before you can say “Un Chien Andalou”, before the viewer has had a chance to digest the semiotic significance of this orb-shattering demise, yellow journalist Edmond Bancroft (Gough) is visiting Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) and Inspector Lodge (John Warwick) at Scotland Yard to hector them about their tardiness in cracking a series of grisly killings, of which this is merely the latest, based on gory exhibits in The Yard’s famed “Black Museum”. The cops question his journalistic ethics but he counters, in a warped reflection of Nat Cohen’s own philosophy: “I don’t enjoy being sordid, but they pay me a great deal of money to write about crime.” That’s not the whole truth about Bancroft, though. In fact he curates his own private Black Museum (superior to The Yard’s, in his own smirking estimation) and despite the handicap of a gammy leg, it’s actually he who’s responsible for the crop of outlandishly contrived killings, which are carried out by his long suffering, hypnotised side-kick Rick (Graham Curnow)… try and imagine a tawdry, sexed-up remake of Robert Wien’s The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and you’ll get the gist.
While Bancroft is not above electrocuting interfering medics when they’re unwise enough to stand between the poles of a handy electrocuting device in his Black Museum, nor choking little old ladies with pincers when they’re reckless enough to turn their backs on him after threatening blackmail, his favoured modus operandi affords him the pleasure of taunting the police, provides material for his sensational books and newspaper columns and also allows him to settle personal scores, e.g. with the mistress Joan (June Cunningham) who had mocked and dumped him. As a sequel to her mean treatment of Bancroft we find her dancing a risible mambo routine in a pub and swearing that she’s going to live life to the full from now on, only to return home and (ooh, the irony) not notice that Rick has constructed an ingenious guillotine at the head of her bed. Those who see the culprit running away with her severed noggin in a sports bag report that he was a hideous old man “… with the strength and speed of the unholy!” The confusion into which this aspect of the case throws the police is echoed by a similar device that was excised from the original draft screenplay of Lucio Fulci’s 1982 giallo The New York Ripper (which copped a pretty Sadean rep of its own), only to turn up in Ruggero Deodato’s Off Balance / Phantom Of Death (1988). In Horrors Of The Black Museum it begs two burning questions… 1) Why does being hypnotised make Rick look like an old man? 2) Why is having shit rubbed all over somebody’s face supposed to make them look like an old man?
Crabtree has such a jolly time with thie mesmerism motif, it was even suggested in the film’s marketing that it would be “presented in Hypnovista”, a mysterious film making process that never caught on in quite the same way as, e.g. Ray Harryhausen’s SuperDynaMation. I’m not quite sure how this cinematic boon was conveyed on the film’s original release (when I was otherwise engaged, sucking down my momma’s milk) but I imagine the boring documentary short included on Network’s DVD release, in which an annoying know-all blathers interminably about the mysteries of mesmerism, was run as a support film. However HOTBM subjects its viewers to Hypnovista, I can’t honestly say that I entertained any overpowering urges after watching it, other than eminently predictable ones ocasioned by the always agreeable spectacle of Shirley Anne Field.
The only time we see Bancroft actually administering his hypnotic drug to poor Rick, he also delivers a pep talk that includes the hackneyed line “one day, all this will be yours”… “all this” being The Black Museum and his academic papers. Tempting as this prospect no doubt is, you can see why a red blooded young dude like Rick might well prefer the perky breasted charms of Angela Banks (Ms Field) but unfortunately Bancroft, wanting to eliminate this distracting influence over his protege, programs him to stab her at a fun fair (well, that’ll certainly conclude things in discreet fashion!)
Sure enough, the dastardly deed done, Rick scales a ferris wheel and starts remonstrating with the watching Bancroft that he’s carried out his orders. The cops are understandably interested in the contents of his confession, while an increasingly agitated Bancroft urges them to “Shoot him! What are you waiting for? He’s a maniac!” Hm, bit of a giveaway, there. Rick punctuates his invective by hurling himself from the wheel and plunging a dagger into Bancroft’s chest. Rolling him over to reveal that the shitface / hypnotic effect is terminated, the police announce the case of “the monster murderer” closed and the excited crowd that had gathered breaks up, as the credits roll, to wander around the fairground looking for new spectacles to distract them from the never ending encroachment of ennui…