Saturday, October 29, 2011

"Horrors of the Black Museum"

If you've never seen it, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) is a real find. Not as famous as other horror films of the period, such as Horror of Dracula and Psycho, it has the freshness that comes from basking in obscurity for 50 years. Plus, it is just plain nutty, with an abundance of horrific devices, and boasts an over-the-top performance from starring madman Michael Gough.

Gough was the type of English actor who excelled at clearly enunciated, hammy performances, and he does not disappoint here. He plays Edmond Bancroft, true crime writer, who decides to outwit Scotland Yard and sell books by committing his own murders and writing about them. That bare premise might not sound like a horror movie--more like a crime film or mystery--but the movie expands upon it in such a way that the film is clearly horror. For starters, the focus of the film is Bancroft, a murderous, sadistic lunatic who walks with a limp and uses a cane, and this focus on a deformed destructrive being (DDB) is what makes a horror film.  Then, Bancroft does not usually commit the murders himself (although he does some times): he has a lackey whom he hypnotizes into killing people for him, a la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And the method of hypnosis is to give the lackey a serum that turns him into a lithe, hideous monster, a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And the hideout for the murderers is Bancroft's secret wax museum of crime and torture--his black museum--a la House of Wax. Thus, allusions to at least three horror films of very different bents are curled into the embrace of the mad Bancroft, increasing the horrific atmosphere.

The murders themselves are rococo, ornate yet vicious. One woman is killed by binoculars with spikes that pierce the eyes and jut into the brain. Another is guillotined in her own bed. An antiques dealer is killed by her own ice tongs. A doctor is zapped by a bizarre electrical device (yet another allusion, this time to Frankenstein), and his body is reduced to a skeleton in a vat of acid. The climactic deaths come at an amusement park, in an apparent homage to yet another horror movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

The psychosexual elements of Horrors of the Black Museum add to its interest. Bancroft's girlfriend, a blonde floozy, snatches away his cane and tells him off for being only half a man. He responds murderously, of course. Later, when his lackey gets a girlfriend and brings her to the black museum, Bancroft explodes with rage. It seems the museum is only for him and his lackey, not outsiders like women. The homoerotic energy and misogyny are intense. Naturally, the lackey's girlfriend becomes the next target to be scheduled for death.

Horrors of the Black Museum is hokey and hammy, and it is never as scary as, say, the shower scene in Psycho would be a year later. But it is a clever amalgam of ideas from disparate horror movies, stirred with enough originality to allow it to stand on its own.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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