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 William Castle-like gimmickry made it a natural box office hit.
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 with 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 is oblivious girlfriend Angela (Shirley Anne Field). 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 Goughpreviously had a notable supporting role in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA, but this film made him a bonafide horror star. 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 career and a body of work that spans the decades.
Fans who were disappointed with the Roan Group's previous laserdisc release will be very happy with this newly remastered DVD from VCI. Although the Roan laser was widescreen, the print source looked faded and tattered. This DVD restores the film's luscious Eastman colors to full capacity, and there is very little 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.
VCI has not let this must-have title come out without sufficient supplements, and two commentaries are included. The first was recorded by the late Cohen for the Roan Group laserdisc some years ago, and it's wonderful that his talk could be preserved on DVD. Cohen remembers the film fondly, discussing how he hand-picked certain actors and insisted on various color scenes for shots, and shares some wonderful anecdotes, one involving a publicity stunt with the deadly binoculars. There are some long stretches of silence, but when he does speak, Cohen is never boring to listen to. A second audio commentary was done recently for this DVD and features the film's composer, Gérard Schurmann, and film historian David Del Valle. This track is also entertaining, with Schurmann recollecting about his relationship with Cohen and he even recalls seeing extra gory takes that were meant for the Japanese version! Del Valle nicely fills in the gaps, offering key information on the film and relaying some of the items he has personally discussed with Michael Gough about it, including a pleasant greeting from the actor to the viewers once again re-discovering BLACK MUSEUM on DVD.
Also here as a supplement is the original "Hypnovista" pre-credit sequence featuring psychologist Emile Franchel. This piece of hype, surely inspired by William Castle, was originally shown for theatrical playings (I can imagine a theater full of impatient kids firing candy and popcorn at the screen during this). Lasting almost 15 minutes, this piece of tedium offers nothing to the film, unless you want to hear a guy whose listless diction is similar to that of Peter Sellers' "Chauncey Gardner." I'm glad that VCI included it, but I'm even more glad that they left it separate from the feature as I'd rather watch the paint dry.
Also included is a "Video
Tribute to Producer Herman Cohen." This premiered on VCI's TARGET EARTH
DVD, and it's a well-produced 20-minute biography on the man, narrated by Didier
Chatelain (a longtime friend and business partner) with writing contribution
by Tom Weaver. The disc also features a portion of an audio interview with Cohen
conducted by Jessie Lilly and Richard Valley of Scarlet Street magazine.
The quality is very poor, but it's an interesting listen, and since the man
is no longer with us, who can complain? You also get the original American trailer,
the original British trailer, trailers for THE HEADLESS GHOST (hopefully arriving
shortly on DVD), trailers for other VCI horror titles, a photo/still gallery,
and cast/director bios (the filmography on Gough fails to mention some of his
best horror films, so if you haven't already, check out CRUCIBLE OF HORROR,
HORROR HOSPITAL and SATAN'S SLAVE among others). A "special thanks"
booklet folds out to be a reproduction of the beautiful Italian poster. (George
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