Blu-ray Release: December 12, 2023
Audio: English LPCM 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 81:49
Director: Arthur Crabtree
London is gripped by terror following a series of shocking murders. The police are baffled and vexed by crime beat journalist Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough) – a strange character who secretly operates a private museum of torture with his wide-eyed assistant, Rick (Graham Curnow). Bancroft’s uncanny insights and rude behavior soon stirs suspicion from his doctor (Gerald Anderson) and Scotland Yard detective Graham (Geoffrey Keen).
The history of ultra-violence in film horror in particular is complex and mired in a lot of opinions as to what qualifies as genre. While most critics/scholars seem to agree that the first splatter/gore movies are either Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) or Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), including author John McCarty, who popularized the term “splatter film.” Others might point to Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960), but the greater point is that it was a long road from the silent era to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). One of the stones on that road is Arthur Crabtree’s B-grade Gothic chiller Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).
Made between Fisher and Lewis’ more recognizably influential films, Horrors of the Black Museum is an overlooked piece in the history of proto-slasher movies in particular. It features the genre usual tropes, like madmen slaughtering promiscuous women, but what Crabtree and screenwriters Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel really lean into is the idea of ‘creative kills,’ where, instead of just stabbing or clubbing victims to death, murderers conspire to kill people in convoluted, usually impractical ways. Assuming you’re watching the original UK cut (more on that in a moment), the film opens on a particularly strong example, in which a young woman receives a mysterious package containing boobytrapped binoculars that gouge her eyes out when she attempts to use them. This is the very definition of a creative kill, while a later headboard guillotining is more bizarre than clever, though the larger sequence is shot in a way that anticipates similar scenes from the gialli and slashers released in the following decades.
Broken down to its essential parts, Horrors of the Black Museum is also a sort of variation of Charles Belden’s 1932 short story The Wax Works, and was originally adapted to film by Michael Curtiz as Mystery of the Wax Museum in 1933, then again by Andre de Toth, whose enormously influential House of Wax (1953) is the film that most similar films mimicked throughout the decades that followed, such as Giorgio Ferroni’s Mill of the Stone Women (Italian: Il mulino delle donne di pietra, 1960), Georg Fenady’s Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), Sergio Stivaletti’s Wax Mask (Italian: M.D.C.: Maschera di cera, 1997), Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Anatomie (2000), and even tortured artist off-shoots, like Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Color Me Blood Red (1963). What’s interesting and, frankly, kind of funny here is that the Wax Works angle is sort of extraneous to the main concept of a villain hypnotizing people to commit murder – itself already a pointed reference to Michael Lawrence’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (pub. 1886) – and even the secondary concept of the aforementioned creative kills.
Not content to borrow a subplot and think up enough gruesome murders to sell the film on (“SEE! The Fantastic Binocular Murder! SEE! The Vat of Death!”), US distributor AIP tacked on a William Castle style gimmick to their prints of the film. Dubbed Hypno-Vista, the gimmick boils down to a nearly 12-minute long intro sequence presented by registered psychologist and hypnosis expert Emile Franchel, who describes the psychology and science of hypnotism with audio-visual aides, culminating in a demonstration that will supposedly leave the audience in a suggestive state as they watch the film. While it’s probable that some people came out of Frachel’s demonstration in a suggestive state, AIP really missed a trick by not splicing subliminal images and messages into their prints. According to an unattributed factoid on IMDb, AIP also attempted a publicity stunt in which they claimed that the boobytrapped binoculars had been lost at the airport, accidentally prompting a costly police investigation.
The original UK production company, Anglo-Amalgamated, made its name producing the original 12 Carry On comedies (1958-66), but had been in the horror business since Vernon Sewell’s Ghost Ship in 1952. They followed up Horrors of the Black Museum with two more proto-slashers of increasing influence – Sidney Hayers’ Circus of Horrors (1960), which also borrows plot elements from House of Wax, and Michael Powell’s enduring classic, Peeping Tom (1960). Author David Pirie refers to the three films as the “Sadian Trilogy” in A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946–1972 (a book that, for the record, I haven’t read; Avon, 1975).
Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo of the Screen by John McCarthy (St Martins, 1984)
Horrors of the Black Museum has been a home video and television mainstay in Europe forever now, but didn’t make much of an impact stateside until VCI released a widescreen VHS in the late ‘90s, followed by a 2003 DVD debut. Initially, Synapse Films announced a full 4K restoration, but the U.S. licensor was unable to locate worthwhile original materials, so they abandoned the project. According to them, StudioCanal eventually located 35mm print materials, but it was too late for them to take action, so, apparently (and this is me guessing), the rights holders went back to VCI for the film’s Blu-ray debut. VCI doesn’t describe the source of this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer, but it opens with a StudioCanal logo, so this is almost certainly the same 35mm print restoration that Synapse was promised.
So then, if you are one of many fans who were worried about the not always reliable VCI picking up where the notoriously detail-oriented Synapse Films left off, have no fear, the restoration was done via StudioCanal and the same transfer should be coming to Europe next year. For all of its B-movie trappings, Horrors of the Black Museum was shot in CinemaScope and Eastman Color, so it’s actually a good candidate for a top-to-bottom 4K remaster and maybe even a UHD release, so it is too bad that StudioCanal could only find a print source, but what we get here is still a big upgrade over DVDs and a really nice transfer in its own respect. Edges are tight, but rarely over-sharpened, as are fine details. I’m especially impressed by the color quality, which is vibrant, yet authentically filmic in the way the edges sometimes don’t line up and the hues are unnaturally consistent. Grain is slightly smudgy, but this is likely a side effect of using print sources.
The Hypno-Vista opening is in rougher shape than the rest of the transfer, likely because it was not previously remastered by StudioCanal. It looks to me like a SD upconvert and features weak texture, rough edges, and fuzzy hotspots. The colors are nice, though, and I assure the reader that the film itself looks much better.
Horrors of the Black Museum is presented in its original mono and uncompressed LPCM 2.0. This is a simple and largely dialogue-driven mix, spiked by music and simple sound effects. Volume levels are even and there aren’t any major issues with buzz, hiss, or other obvious forms of source damage. The noisier funfair sequence towards the end of the film is a bit echoey in comparison. Gerard Schurmann’s busy and boisterous score is the major aural element and exhibits genuine depth and rich bass, despite the single channel treatment. The diegetic mambo and jazz music that plays on jukeboxes and radios throughout follows suit.
Commentary with producer Herman Cohen – This track was originally recorded in 1997, I believe for use with ROAN Group’s original Laserdisc double-feature with The Headless Ghost (1959). Cohen doesn’t interject too often, but, when he does, he looks back on the film with a mix of hullabaloo and genuine behind-the-scenes factoids, many of which pertain to working with the cast & crew, making the film on a tiny budget, and the consequences/logistics of shooting in England, .
Commentary with Robert Kelly – For this new expert track, the film historian, podcaster, and artist explores the careers of the cast & crew (there’s a lot of filmographic overlap between them), Horrors of the Black Museum’s financial success paving the way for Roger Corman’s lavish, full-color Poe films, connections to other Herman Cohen productions, and critical reactions to the film upon release, all with a personable slant.
Optional Hypno-Vista playback option (11:48, HD) – As I said above, the image quality here isn’t great, but the LPCM mono audio is clean and sharp. It also includes optional commentary from Kelly (on both tracks 2 and 3, for some reason).
Audio Interview with producer Herman Cohen (11:18, SD) – This phone interview, conducted by Scarlet Street Magazine’s Jessie Lilly, covers the producer’s wider career, not just Horrors of the Black Museum.
Audio interview excerpt with actor Michael Gough by (2:39, SD) – Another, much shorter Scarlet Street interview by Lilly and collaborator Richard Valley. This was initially connected to a larger interview with Gough about Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995)
Interview with actress Shirley Anne Field (22:00, SD) – In this 2018 interview/featurette, the actress chats about her difficult childhood, breaking into entertainment via pin-up magazines (which got the attention of Val Guest), early acting parts in B-movies (including Horrors of the Black Museum), her many celebrity friends and acquaintances, her steady introduction into major studio pictures, and, eventually, stardom.
British and American theatrical trailers
Herman Cohen: Cohen My Way (19:50, SD) – A 2003 retrospective featurette by Diedier Chatelain and Tom Weaver made for VCI’s original Herman Cohen Collection DVD set.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.