‘Horrors of the Black Museum’: Herman Cohen’s Lurid Horror with a British Accent

Hammer wasn’t the only studio in Britain mining the vein of horror films that made them such attractive imports for American theaters. Before Amicus and Trigon arose in the 1960s, American producer Herman Cohen made a deal with British studio Anglo-Amalgamated to produce a pair of lurid horrors with British accents. Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), starring Michael Gough as a crime reporter who takes too much delight in the most grotesque murders, is the first of them, arriving in theaters after Hammer had brought new life to old horror icons with full, blood-dripping color, lurid Gothic style, bodice-ripping sexuality, and villains who revel in their power.

'Horrors of the Black Museum'

Back in America, Herman Cohen took a different approach to reviving the old monsters for a new generation, aiming his film at the teenage audience by writing them directly into such low budget, high concept exploitation films as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957), both of which became big hits for American International Pictures. Fresh off those successes, he headed for England and took a cue from Hammer, mixing continental class with grisly material and delivering production value (widescreen and brutally vivid color) and classy talent on a budget to AIP. Anglo-Amalgamated was not previously a horror studio—the biggest success for the British B-movie studio came from Carry On Sergent (1958), which spawned the lucrative Carry On series—but as the British distributor of AIP pictures it had successfully released its share of American horror films. Horrors of the Black Museum was their first homegrown horror.

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Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures on TCM

Wicked is the operative term in this apt title to the Eclipse release of three outsized, overwrought, gleefully excessive Gothic-pulp melodramas made by the British studio Gainsborough during World War II. The studio had been around since the twenties but found sudden popularity with the potboiler costume drama. While the rest of the British film industry was (much like Hollywood) turning out paeans to patriotism and stoic resilience in the face of hardship, shortages, and sacrifice, these Gainsborough melodramas offered audiences an escape with bad behavior, wicked schemes, and villains who betray friends and lovers out of greed, arrogance, or mere thrill seeking.

The four major stars of the trilogy are all introduced in The Man in Grey (1943), a dime-novel version of a Gothic melodrama set in the cruel culture of the British aristocracy, led by James Mason in his breakout role as the title character. Lord Rohan is a brutish, proud aristocrat who marries a sweet, sunny heiress (Phyllis Calvert) simply to secure an heir to the name. Top-billed Margaret Lockwood (of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) is the dark to Calvert’s light, bitter and calculating and ready to sacrifice her best (and only) friend in the world to grasp fortune as Mason’s mistress, and Stewart Granger makes a superb entrance into the drama, to all appearances a highwayman ready to rob Calvert’s coach, but in reality a poor player with a charming confidence and an honest soul, especially next to the crude, cruel Rohan.

Margaret Lockwood in ‘The Man in Grey’

The story is framed with a contemporary sequence, an auction of the family estate where a young woman and a dashing officer meet to bid on items from the estate. In fact, what interests them most are the seemingly inconsequential mementoes in a keepsake box, little worthless baubles that, through the course of the film, we see invested with great personal value. These modern players are, we learn, descendents of the dramatis personae, and in case you don’t recognize them at first, it’s clear in the coda that they are played by none other than Calvert and Granger.

Director Leslie Arliss creates a world of luxury and culture with minimal studio sets and painted backdrops. I don’t know that there is a single shot taken on location. A nighttime carriage ride through a desolate landscape, for example, is created entirely on a stylized set similar to what Fritz Lang will later purposely use for Moonfleet, an artificial, theatrical suggestion of the dark world outside. In fact, the whole thing is an unreal, stylized piece of work, from the settings to the characters. Mason is especially mesmerizing as the selfish, arrogant Lord who would rather watch the dogfights with the local peasants or satisfy his appetite for violence in a duel over some slight than play the public aristocrat. All dark, glowering power, he’s not quite a villain but certainly no hero, and any drive to avenge his wife’s fate is entirely a matter of vanity. The only glaring discordance in a film so shamelessly melodramatic and outsized is the servant boy Toby, a black African child played in blackface and a cringing patois by white British child actor Harry Scott.

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