Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) -****
I think I’ve discovered the secret to good turn-of-the-60’s trash-horror filmed in England. The secret, or such is my hypothesis, is Michael Gough. You remember Michael Gough-- he was the mad scientist in Konga. Don’t remember Konga, eh? Well then, look at it this way: Michael Gough is the English Vincent Price. He’s got that same manic intensity, that same scene-stealing bombast, that same awe-inspiring mastery of the techniques of hamming with style. He also has the same remarkable affinity for the portrayal of evil geniuses, and as with Price, you can tell from the moment he appears on the screen that his character is Trouble.
So we immediately know, when Edwin Bancroft (Gough) first walks into the Scotland Yard office of Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen, from Taste the Blood of Dracula and Holocaust 2000), that he has something to do with the booby-trapped binoculars that did in the girl in Horrors of the Black Museum’s first scene. (Well, actually, I suppose it was the second scene. The movie opens with some hypnotist guy reading an explanation of hypnosis and suggestion off of some cue cards for an entire 13 minutes. The speech leaves me wondering two things. First, were people really that susceptible to suggestion in 1959? And second, how much money were William Castle’s movies making that Nicholson and Arkoff felt so strongly compelled to steal from his bag of tricks here?) The binoculars in question had been rigged so that, the moment you tried to adjust the focus, these four-inch, spring-loaded spikes would shoot out of the eye-pieces and into your brain. As Bancroft mentions to Graham in terms that are clearly meant to imply a connection, these binoculars closely resemble a pair that Scotland Yard has in its “black museum.” (I gather that, in England, a black museum is a sort of house-of-horrors-type exhibit with a true-crime emphasis.) And how would Bancroft know this? It’s his job, that’s how. Bancroft is a journalist of sorts; he writes a weekly crime column in some sleazy tabloid or other, along with cranking out Ann Rule-style books on the same subject. And, as you can imagine, that makes him ever so popular around Graham’s office, and the man stays just long enough to taunt the police for a bit before heading off to see his doctor.
If we had any doubts as to how Bancroft spends his off hours, or about how he conducts the research for his weekly column, those doubts would become increasingly untenable over the course of the next three scenes. First, at the doctor’s office, we learn that Bancroft comes in to see his physician within a day or so of each of the murders he later writes about, complaining of elevated heart-rate and blood pressure. When the doctor tells Bancroft, “you eat, sleep, and drink crime... vicariously of course,” it doesn’t take Vincent Bugliosi to figure out that he was closer to the mark before the ellipsis. Then, when Bancroft goes to see Aggie the junk dealer (Beatrice Varley), and buys a big-ass flamberge-bladed dagger while making distinctly ominous small talk with the old lady, it becomes even harder to miss the big neon sign over his head that says “!!Evil!!” in bright red letters. Finally, if you still have any lingering doubts, they will be dispelled upon Bancroft’s arrival at home, when it is revealed that he has-- you guessed it!-- a black museum in his basement. He also has a teenage sycophant named Rick (Graham Curnow), who seems somehow not to notice the obvious implications of Bancroft’s hobby. (Hmmm... I wonder if this could have anything to do with that hypnotist that used up the first 13 minutes of the movie blathering about his work...)
Next, we meet Bancroft’s girlfriend (June Cunningham). Oh yes, he has a girlfriend-- and quite an attractive one in a sleazy, 50’s-Cockney kind of way-- but the fact that the first words out of her mouth are a request for money leaves little room for questions regarding the foundation on which their relationship rests. When he won’t pony up, they get into a screaming fight that ends with the girl throwing Bancroft out after snatching away his cane (the man has a pronounced limp) and telling him he’s only half a man without it. She then heads off to a local bar, where (in a transparent attempt to squeeze in some character development before her clearly foreordained death) she dances like an epileptic robot and tells the bartender some sob-story about how her parents never had any fun when they were alive, which can’t have been a very long time, given that they were apparently killed by a bomb during the Blitz. And sure enough, this girl doesn’t live to see the far side of the next scene. Instead, she is killed in her bed by a death-trap that she’d have to be both blind and an imbecile not to notice. Her headboard, you see, has been converted into a goddamned guillotine by this little guy in a red jacket with green oatmeal all over his face and an obviously fake underbite produced by his contorting the muscles that control his lower jaw.
Well now... In the wake of this crime, the police announce that they have caught the killer, and that he has confessed to all four of the crimes (the two we’ve seen, plus another two that happened in the two weeks before the beginning of the movie). Of course, we know even before the film reveals it that Scotland Yard has the wrong man, not least because, the next time we see him (hanging out with his girlfriend, Angela [Shirley Anne Field, from These Are the Damned and Peeping Tom]), Bancroft’s teenage sycophant is wearing a strangely familiar red jacket. In a series of plot developments that you’ll mostly see coming a mile away, it will gradually be revealed that Bancroft is in fact controlling Rick with a combination of hypnosis and some kind of Mr. Hyde serum (and no, I have absolutely no idea where Bancroft the crime journalist is getting that from), and that he regards the boy’s new girlfriend as a threat to the security of their little secret. The climactic scene, in which Rick goes all I Was a Teenage Werewolf at an amusement park, is a great deal of fun (at least until it sort of peters out with Rick cornered up in the ferris wheel while the movie labors to bring Bancroft to the scene for his comeuppance), and along the way, there are a couple more really loopy murders (like an ice-tongs decapitation and the inaugural use of the huge electrical gizmo that takes up the entire back wall of Bancroft’s black museum) to keep you from getting bored. It may not be as good, from a technical standpoint, as the very similar The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and it lacks that film’s obvious awareness of its own essential silliness, but frankly, I like it better for that very reason.