Thursday 13 November 2014

Horrors of the Black Museum [1959]

HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM is a British horror film that was directed by Arthur Crabtree and originally released in April 1959.  It stars Michael Gough, Graham Curnow and Geoffrey Keen.  In it, a series of gruesome murders - which appear to re-enact historic methods catalogued in Scotland Yard's 'Black Museum' - is terrorising London and baffling police.  It is only crime reporter Edmond Bancroft who seems to have any insight into who might be behind the killings.

There are two things about HORRORS... which I think mark it out as unusual.  Firstly, it is shot in Cinemascope which is uncommon in British films of the period and almost unheard of for British horror films of almost any period.  Second, it is remarkably graphic for its time. It is the extent of this sadism that pushes what might otherwise have been a crime thriller into the realm of horror.

The eyes had it

Cinema writer David Pirie - who penned my all time favourite line of film criticism, about Hammer's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT [1968] - has suggested that HORRORS can be seen as part of what he calls a 'Sadian trilogy', along with PEEPING TOM and CIRCUS OF HORRORS [both 1960]. The basis for the claim is that all three deal with sadism (particularly with a sexual element) and violence and eschew the traditional supernatural backdrop to British horror.  Furthermore, all three films happen to have been released by the same distribution company, Anglo-Amalgamated.

 While all that is undeniably true I'm not sure I buy his theory.  For a start I think the Anglo-Amalgamated link is a red herring.  I really can't countenance the idea that certain films can be regarded as linked based on the distribution company.  Let's face it, Anglo was a very busy and successful company which funded as well as distributed a great number of films, to the extent that it would be possible to make a claim that any number of their films were linked.  As indeed some of them were, notably all those Edgar Wallace B-pictures; they all concern crime and come-uppance but nobody is claiming they should be regarded as all of a piece.  They are what they are: crime-based supporting features.

They give it away free these days

Similarly, the three films under discussion are certainly sadistic but they're not alone in that regard: off the top of my head I would suggests Hammer's STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY [1959] as a film of comparable sadism.  It's also an example of a horror film which eschews the supernatural in favour of a nominally more realistic setting, as is THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS [1959].  The final reason I would argue against this trilogy is that to lump HORRORS... and CIRCUS... in with PEEPING TOM is to rank them alongside a film in whose company they simply do not belong.  For all their excesses, those two films offer little else besides and certainly don't reach or even aspire to the complexities of Michael Powell's justly renowned classic.

The awful 'gimpy dancing' scene

It's also incredibly conservative.  I can't remember a single non-white face and while you may interpret that as merely being a reflection of British society at the time when you also consider that all the women bar the very minor characters are victims - and most of them little more than eye candy - then you can't help but think of it as a very conservative picture.  The heroic characters, such as they are, are the white, middle aged, middle class coppers and a white, middle aged middle class doctor.  It couldn't scream 'status quo' any louder even if Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi were to hobble on to the screen and start banging away.

Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen, L) and Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough, R)

The brave Dr Ballan (Gerald Anderson, L) gets himself into hot water

HORRORS is I think best approached on its own terms, that is to say as an entertaining piece of shock horror that goes a little bit further than most of its contemporaries.  Frankly, if you take the added gore out of the equation and you're not left with much.  There is a nice line in gaudy colour and a grandstanding finale but some of the acting is dreadful and the basic premise is wholly unconvincing.

The Tunnel of Love Death

Even though I'm a dedicated fan of widescreen films and Cinemascope in particular I'm not sure it works on this picture, or at least isn't used to its full effectiveness.  Somehow the quotidian details of British life in the 1950s seem unsuited to the widescreen format.  Maybe it's just that I'm conditioned to think of British horror in a more standard aspect ratio but I simply thought it didn't look right.  I've long wondered why so few British horror films were shot in 2.35:1; perhaps this is the answer.

I struggled to find a still which shows the film's best use of Cinemascope and this is all I could come up with

This one's not bad though: the gimpy dancer about to get it.

Michael Gough, who plays Bancroft, was a grand old man of British horror who never quite achieved the same eminence as Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, probably because he never had the one defining role that they found.  Nevertheless he made loads of delirious movies, of varying quality admittedly, but they're always worth catching.  Late in life he became something of a calling card for Hollywood's foremost purveyor of whimsy Tim Burton.  Whether you regard that as a just reward for years of effort or a final ignominy is a matter of opinion.

Michael Gough
Geoffrey Keen, who must have been born a middle-aged middle-class gent, played authority figures - coppers, civil servants, etc - in literally dozens of films.  He does it very well which is no doubt why he did it so often but he's one of the least charismatic actors I think I've ever seen, certainly of the ones who made as many films as he did.  The only other person of real note in the cast is Shirley Anne Field, who plays the young girlfriend of Bancroft's assistant.  She was, and no doubt still is, an elegantly beautiful woman but she has never been a great actress.  She definitely improved as her career went on but she's absolutely dire in this: stiff and awkward in both movement and delivery.

Rick (Graham Curnow) and Angela (Shirley Anne Field) caught in flagrante delicto

Arthur Crabtree, who sounds as if he should have been dispensing fishing advice to eager schoolboys rather than directing horror films, started out as a cinematographer in the early days of British talkies and eventually made the step up to directing.  Without making any great impact it must be said.  I don't know whether he didn't have the taste for the gritty direction that British cinema started taking around the end of the 50s but HORRORS... was his final film.  Crabtree's DP on this picture was Desmond Dickinson who was a career cinematographer of the same vintage as Crabtree but who continued making films into his 70s, mainly in horror features.  Muir Mathieson, who conducted Gerard Schurmann's score, worked on literally hundreds of films over the course of his career and seems to be credited on pretty much any British film you see.  Considering imdb lists him with a frankly ridiculous 525 credits that's hardly surprising.

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