Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)

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Writer Michael Gough is a little too obsessed with London’s gruesome murders.

When I complain of newer horror movies not being as scary to me as the classic ones, I’m talking about the overly graphic gore that has less effect than the stuff left to the imagination. I’m naturally thinking of the essential classic horrors that we all know and love, but I’m also thinking of this type of picture, which is nothing special, but is just the thing kids would stay up late to see on TV back in the day, and be treated to (or irreversibly scarred by) many genuinely disturbing scenes. I hesitated to say, “scenes that will stick in your eye,” but I’ll go there anyway, since that’s the first major scare in this movie. A woman and her roommate open a mysterious package, finding inside some very expensive binoculars. Wondering about its meaning, one of the ladies does the natural thing and takes them to the window to try them out. Next thing you know, her roommate lets out a bloodcurdling scream because the binocs have shot out long spikes into her friend’s eyes and she drops dead.

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Who would do such a thing? And not only this thing but the other equally sadistic and gruesome crimes that have been plaguing London. Scotland Yard wants to know and so does a successful columnist and thriller author played by Michael Gough. He’s so addicted to the case and so bothered by the murders that he suffers a near breakdown every time one of these crimes occurs. As the killer strikes again and again and the police are stumped, we learn more about Gough, namely that he is a woman-hating, antique weapons-obsessed eccentric and a tyrannical boss to his meek yet obedient assistant Graham Curnow. Oh, and that he collects those weapons to assemble a private museum of killers and killing in his basement. Also, there’s a vat of acid down there. Also, Gough is the mastermind of these murders, but is crippled and needs the help of an obedient assistant. I’m hardly spoiling anything, we learn this fact early on, and anyway that mystery is not even the main feature. No, the attraction here is the series of inventively horrific ways to die, which, though depicted with more suggestion and sound than actual blood, are effectively terrifying every single time. After watching this movie I suspect many will never lay in bed without looking up first, and are sure to think twice about binocs, large ice tongs and love tunnel rides.

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Horrors of the Black Museum is one doozy of a horror movie, despite it not being a great one. It’s kind of disjointed and talky, wraps up way too handily and quickly, and meanders a bit in places, especially the place where Gough’s fed-up girlfriend June Cunningham tells him off, takes his walking stick and humiliates him, “you’re only half a man without your cane,” goes out for drinks and dancing and buxom blonde behaviour and befriends some bobbies on the way back home. But the way she’s murdered! It’s both ridiculous and terrifying and the brief glimpse of the killer’s face as he escapes past her neighbours in the hall is fuel for nightmares (though when you see it again in full the effect is weaker).

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Director Arthur Crabtree (Quartet, Madonna of the Seven Moons, TV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood) wrings the most terror out of a thin script in this, his last feature film. One IMDB reviewer wishes it were Vincent Price playing the lead role which might have been brilliant and is fitting if you know and love that Price played a similar character with an assistant in the far better Dr. Phibes movies of the 70’s. But Michael Gough is no slouch in this or any genre and does a great showy and freaky turn, remaining either calmly aloof, composed and arrogant or erupting into states of spitting, gray-templed-hair-mussing fury. It’s fun to watch him get kicks out of fooling detective Geoffrey Keen, and act like a father to the faithful Curnow. He’s horrified when Curnow makes the mistake of cuddling with his new girlfriend in the secret room (what kind of girl finds a basement museum of demented murder a romantic place!?). To correct this error in judgment, Gough injects Curnow with the famous Jekyll and Hyde serum; yes the very same, with the same effect. Horrors of the Black Museum is not a great film, but there’s a little black comedy and a lot of ghoulishly disturbing murders that leave much to the imagination while viewing and even more for the imagination to run away with long after.

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*it was originally screened with a Hypnovista intro to the audience

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4 thoughts on “Horrors of the Black Museum (1959)”

    1. That’s right! He really went bananas in this. Nothing great as I say but has some scary gimmicky deaths and I would have been SO curious about this as a horror fan kid.

  1. Very interesting comment about this being an ideal
    vehicle foe Vincent Price…never considered that before.
    I’d certainly go for a Blu-Ray upgrade of this one.
    The once esteemed Arthur Crabtree found himself
    slumming a bit as the Fifties moved on.
    His DEAR MURDERER was one of the finest Brit
    Post War thrillers.
    I’m also fond of FIEND WITHOUT A FACE as well.
    Strangely enough Crabtree teamed up with Hollywood
    star Keefe Brasselle who was also in a career free-fall
    situation at the time. Never seen WEST OF SUEZ
    (aka Fighting Wildcats) but I’d sure like too.
    Even rarer is DEATH OVER MY SHOULDER,a Brit B
    flick about which there is virtually no on-line info.
    It’s top of my must track down list but I’m not holding my
    breath. I LOVE these Brit B Flicks with American leads.
    Another once esteemed Brit director on hard times was
    Lawrence Huntingdon who made WANTED FOR MURDER
    a sublime early entry into the serial killer genre..it’s an
    absolute cracker!
    Later as his career slid he did THE VULTURE which is even
    worse than it’s reputation despite it’s stellar cast.
    A great and very fair review Kristina.

    1. Thanks, I did immediately mark FIEND WITHOUT A FACE to watch yesterday after reading up on Crabtree’s credits. With Marshall Thompson, should be fun. WANTED FOR MURDER sounds great. Price here would have been neat as it was so far ahead of the Phibes era and would have made a nice preview of those movies. On Blu this would be nice, such a colourful movie, the first one AIP did in colour. Enjoyable for those who like their horrors.

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