As someone who came to maturity as a film fan in the 80’s, I always associate actor Michael Gough with one role in particular…Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman. Of course, he has had many other film roles…over 150, in fact. He especially made his mark with horror films, joining the ranks of other British horror stalwarts like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Today he gets involved in some particularly nasty stuff in 1959’s Horrors of the Black Museum.
Gough plays Edmond Bancroft, a reporter/novelist who specializes in tales of murder. He’s especially obsessed with the items kept in Scotland Yard’s notorious black museum, so much so that he has created his own, superior, version in his own home. Now this all seems a bit suspicious considering that some rather grisly murders have been happening lately. The film opens with a young lady speared through the eye sockets with pins that pop out of a pair of binoculars.
Soon the film makes no secret about the fact that Bancroft is behind the murders, partially to create more sensational material for him to write about. Various people soon start to catch on to Bancroft, like his doctor and the lady who owns the antique store where he buys the items he modifies into weapons. Of course, Bancroft takes steps to eliminate these individuals with the help of his loyal assistant, Rick (Graham Curnow). However, Rick soon puts the whole operation in jeopardy when he starts to fall for a lovely young lady.
Horrors of the Black Museum is a very simple little horror tale that surprised me with how engrossing it was. There is not a whole lot of effort put into hiding who the murderer is. It becomes pretty clear just a few minutes in that Bancroft is behind things. Where the film really grabs you is with its bizarre murder methods. Beyond the trick binoculars mentioned earlier, we also have a makeshift guillotine, death by ice tongs, electric shock, and a corpse stripped clean to the bone courtesy of a vat of acid. Keep in mind, also, this is only 1959. Though all this is portrayed in a way that is certainly tame by today’s standards, I’m sure it was quite horrific 60 years ago. The film also has a unique twist that bring a Jekyll and Hyde element into the story which was very unexpected.
The film’s success doesn’t just rest on the nasty murders, though. The strength of Michael Gough’s performance cannot be understated. The actor shifts between several different tones in his performance as Bancroft that does a very effective job of painting a portrait of a rather unstable individual. By the time we reach the film’s climax, a very exciting sequence set at a carnival, Gough is completely unhinged. Ultimately, Gough makes Bancroft a character we can’t helped but be charmed by and repulsed by all at the same time.
The film flies by at a brisk pace and never really has any dead moments. It was released in “Hypnovision,” whatever that was. Ultimately, though, the film is a polished little horror film with some legitimate shocks and great lead performance. With films like this, Michael Gough, certainly earns a place alongside the likes of Lee, Cushing, and Price in the annals of horror movie history.