Directed By: Arthur Crabtree
Starring: Michael Gough, June Cunningham, Graham Curnow
Tag line: "It Actually Puts YOU In The Picture - Can You Stand It?"
Trivia: This was the first American International release to be in color, and was also their first Cinemascope movie
It starts innocently enough; a delivery man drops off a package for Gail (Dorinda Stevens), a single woman living in a London apartment building. There’s no return address on the box, and no note of any kind to indicate who sent it. Gail’s roommate, Peggy (Malou Pantera), teases her, saying it must be from an anonymous admirer. Inside the box is a pair of binoculars. Excited, Gail rushes to the window to try them out. A few seconds later, she lets out a scream. A horrified Peggy looks on as Gail covers her eyes with her hands, blood pouring through her fingers. Gail then falls over dead, and we notice that the binoculars (lying next to her) now have two large, blood-stained spikes in its back lenses, which jutted out moments after Gail raised her new gift up to her eyes.
The violence in this opening sequence proved unsettling for a good many people. After seeing the movie in a Times Square theater, photographer Diane Arbus was so shaken by this scene that she snuck a camera into a later showing and snapped a picture of the screen the moment actress Dorinda Stevens covered her eyes (This snapshot is still part of the Diane Arbus collection, and is titled “Screaming Woman with Blood on her Hands”). But as you’ll discover while watching 1959’s Horrors of the Black Museum, this is but one of several gruesome deaths featured throughout the film.
Poor Gail was actually the third young woman murdered in the past two weeks, and Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) of Scotland Yard, who has taken charge of the investigation, still has no idea who the killer is, or what his motives are. As if the case wasn’t difficult enough, a series of sensationalized newspaper articles pertaining to the killings, written by Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough), have whipped the public into a frenzy. What the police don’t realize, though, is that Bancroft is much more than an interested bystander in this sorry state of affairs; he’s the responsible party! To gain publicity for his work, Bancroft has hypnotized his valet, Rick (Graham Curnow), and, arming him with a variety of weapons he’s collected over the years, sends the young man out into the streets with instructions to kill. Thus far, Bancroft’s murderous plan has gone off without a hitch, but with the police doubling their efforts to try and prevent further slayings, it may only be a matter of time before his entire scheme comes crashing down around him.
Michael Gough is at his slimy best as Bancroft, the arrogant writer who not only reports the news but also creates it; and actress June Cunningham has a small but memorable role as Joan, a prostitute that Bancroft visits regularly. Yet what makes Horrors of the Black Museum so… well, horrific, are its murder sequences, with Rick (who, while under hypnosis, undergoes a physical change that makes him look more like a monster than a man) employing a variety of weapons to finish off his victims. While the binoculars from the opening are, without a doubt, the most ghastly of the bunch, there’s also a decapitation that’s pretty shocking (mostly because we don’t see it coming).
As with many older movies, the violence in Horrors of the Black Museum may seem tame by modern standards; we never actually see any of the kills take place, and quite a bit of time passes between each murder (though Michael Gough’s boisterous performance ensures that even the movie’s bloodless scenes are fun to watch). But compared to other films released around the same time, it’s easy to see why Horrors of the Black Museum caused such an uproar.
And don’t be surprised if its opening scene comes rushing back to you the next time you’re holding a pair of binoculars.