Within a year, the British film company Anglo-Amalgamated produced a trio of shockingly graphic (for the time) thrillers that retain a substantial following to this day-- PEEPING TOM, CIRCUS OF HORRORS and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM. BLACK MUSEUM was co-financed and released in the U.S. by American International (AIP) as their first product to feature both color and CinemaScope together, and its titillating blend of nasty, unconventional murders and gimmickry made it a natural box office hit. Originally released on DVD by VCI in 2003, the company now revisits the title (sans all the extras from that previous disc) as a double feature set with its original co-feature, THE HEADLESS GHOST.
Much of HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM's notoriety stems from its opening scene which embodies its first murder. A young woman in an English flat receives a surprise parcel which turns out to be a pair of ordinary-looking binoculars. Not knowing who it is from, she tries them out only to have two retracted metal spikes plunged through her eyes. We then witness the woman holding her hands to her face, with red-paint blood uniformly flowing down them. The roommate screams in utter repulsion, as the victim lays dead on the floor with the deadly gadget beside her.
We are then introduced to Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough) a popular writer of crime novels who also has a newspaper column on the subject and belittles the Scotland Yard police (mainly in the form of Geoffrey Keen from TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) for what they comparatively lack in his eyes. Seemingly obsessed with the macabre, Bancroft has assembled a museum of torture instruments and wax figures depicting murderers and victims (the "Black Museum" of the title). Other interested parties include Bancroft's blonde hooker/mistress (June Cunningham), an old antiques dealer (Beatrice Varley) who asks too many questions, Bancroft's young and loyal assistant Rick (Graham Curnow) and Rick's oblivious lovestruck girlfriend Angela (Shirley Anne Field, THESE ARE THE DAMNED). Every so often, Rick is turned into a grotesque zombie/maniac and kills off the enemies of the limping and crippled Bancroft. Methods of murder also include a bedpost guillotine, antique ice tongs and a lethal electric current!
Producer Herman Cohen (who also contributed to the script) went to England to make this "Grand Guignol" exploiter and set up shop there for many years, belting out one horror film after the other. He had previously produced the successful "teenage" monster pictures for AIP (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, etc.), and those films' themes of an adult manipulating a youth for his own corrupt purposes, was also visible here. Michael Gough previously had a notable supporting role in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA, but this film made him a bonafide horror star, even if he didn't necessarily want that. The role was originally intended for Vincent Price, but Gough effortlessly mastered the arrogant, overbearing and humorless villain types that he would become associated with, and he was able to carve an interesting film career and a body of work that spans the decades.
This DVD presentation of HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM looks to be the same transfer used for the discontinued 2003 special edition disc, restoring the film's Eastman colors to full capacity, with very little in the way of print damage. Clarity and detail is exceptional, and the title has been presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The mono audio track is also clear and does the film justice. Unfortunately, none of the extras from the 2003 release (which included two audio commentaries, among other goodies) are present, so I would imagine most fans purchasing this disc will be doing so for the co-feature.
THE HEADLESS GHOST concerns two visiting American students, Bill (Richard Lyon) and Ronnie (David Rose), traveling in England. On a bus tour, they befriend a blonde student from Denmark named Ingrid (Liliane Sottane, THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND), and the trio soon makes a stop at Ambrose Castle, thought to be haunted by its ancient ancestors for centuries. Bill, Ronnie and Ingrid (naturally, the two men become very fond of the sexy foreigner) make a plan to stay behind their tour and spend the night in the castle, unbeknownst to anyone else. They are able to pull off this dangerous stunt, and they’re greeted by a friendly spirit in the Ghost of the Fourth Earl of Ambrose (Clive Revill, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE), who emerges from a wall painting. He pleads with them to help recover the detached head of one of the other inhabiting spirits and hence putting all of the castle’s ghosts at peace once and for all.
Running just over an hour long, the plot of THE HEADLESS GHOST sounds like it could be a rerun of “Saved By the Bell” where Zach and A.C. Slater go on a field trip, act all macho and fight over the affections of Kelly while getting locked in somewhere that they shouldn’t be. Well, maybe not, but producer Cohen (who also co-wrote it) made the film as a second feature to BLACK MUSEUM, and it definitely plays like a second feature in almost everyone’s book. Directed by Peter Graham Scott (who helmed Hammer’s superb action thriller NIGHT CREATURES aka CAPTAIN CLEGG), the film is an undemanding, harmless horror comedy (sort of a British version of THE GHOST OF DRAGSTRIP HOLLOW) shot in Scope and at least creating some gothic atmosphere by talking place almost entirely in a haunted castle. It’s played mostly as a comedy, with decent performances (it’s amusing to hear the British leads overdoing the American accents of their characters), especially by the always great Revill. There’s an exotic dance scene at a grand banquet with an array of ghostly guests in medieval costumes, and the climatic effect of a floating head is actually done surprisingly well.
As part of VCI’s “Herman Cohen Classic Horror Double Feature”, THE HEADLESS GHOST makes its first legit DVD appearance here (we're not counting the unoficial DVD-R from Cheezy Flicks). The film has been presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, but unfortunately, it’s not anamorphically enhanced. The black and white image looks clean but tends to be soft, and its looks as though this was the same transfer used for the Roan Group laserdisc from the 1990s. As with HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, there are no extras for the film, not even the trailer. (George R. Reis)
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