Friday 21 February 2014

The Songs of Herman Cohen:
Horrors of the Black Museum
(Arthur Crabtree, 1959)

An outsider in the British film industry of the ‘60s and ‘70s, American ex-pat producer Herman Cohen masterminded a series of low budget horror & exploitation films that were, well… terrible, by and large. Thankfully for our purposes in beginning this new review strand though, Cohen’s productions went about being terrible in such a distinctively bizarre fashion that you’d be hard-pressed to find a fan of British horror cinema who doesn’t love them on some level.

Back in the ‘States, Cohen had enjoyed success through the ‘50s working with American International Pictures on the likes of ‘I Was a Teenage Werewolf’ and ‘I Was a Teenage Frankenstein’ (both 1957), taking the then largely moribund American horror genre (which was hardly that sophisticated as it stood at the dawn of the ‘50s, let’s face it), and further boiling it down into a bland, teen-orientated mush. His reputation for selling tickets as a cinema publicity man was already well-established even before that however; legend has it that when James H. Nicolson initially set out to find a partner with whom to establish the company that became AIP, Cohen was first on his list before Sam Arkoff got the call.

For reasons best known to himself, Cohen declined Nicolson’s offer, and, after spending a few years producing pictures for the fledging company on a freelance basis, exercised similarly mysterious logic in deciding to relocate to London. Whether his motivation was personal, financial, or just a wild “what the hell” kind of hunch, I’ve no idea, but following his arrival on British shores, Cohen seems to have picked up exactly where he left off, carving out a new niche for his particular brand of cheap, juvenile horror films in the land whose most recent exports in the genre had so recently started to rejuvenate gothic horror film-making around the world.

Which brings us, finally, to the opening salvo of Cohen’s British campaign, ‘Horrors of the Black-Museum’. Shot in a few weeks at the notoriously cramped Merton Park studios (British cinema’s own ‘poverty row’, more or less), this garish and implausible shocker certainly caused a few raised eye-brows and uncomfortable throat-clearings when it first appeared in 1959 – inspired as much by its sheer ineptitude as its shamelessly prurient approach to screen violence, one suspects.

Until I started watching these Herman Cohen productions, it had never before occurred to me that even the very cheapest British films from the black & white era tend to present a base level of professionalism and quote-unquote ‘quality’ that functions as something of a national trademark. That’s not to say that the resulting films are always worth watching - in fact, it’s that very veneer of ‘respectability’ that renders many of them so staggeringly boring. With a canny, low brow-centric American at the helm however, what’s most immediately notable about ‘..Black Museum’ is the way it completely ignores these expectations, instead veering so far in the opposite direction that it must have felt like a slap in the face for viewers raised on Britain’s more genteel approach to cinema.

The ‘Black Museum’ of the film’s title refers of course to the infamous archive of murder weapons and sundry paraphernalia apparently maintained, closed to the public, by Scotland Yard. Say what you like, but it’s a great title, and I’m sure there are a few good horror yarns that could be pulled out of such subject matter, although sad to say, this isn’t really one of them. Indeed, beyond a few lines of establishing dialogue, the nature of the titular museum never really comes into play at all.(1)

Instead, the film primarily concerns itself with the nefarious activities of one Edmund Bancroft (Michael Gough), an arrogant celebrity crime expert who seems to divide his ample free time between gloating over the souvenirs in his own private “black museum”, and swaggering over to Scotland Yard to taunt the officers of the law as they manfully go about the business of investigating as-yet unsolved crimes. (Quite why they continue to let him in is anyone’s guess, as he doesn’t seem to do anything during his visits except insult people and generally get in the way.)

And as it turns out, there quite a few unsolved crimes to command the Yard’s attention during the course of this picture, as London is rocked by a series of apparently motiveless murders, all of them carried out using a range of bizarre and unlikely antique implements. As Michael Gough continues to pranny about wasting police time before heading back to his basement to cackle amid his ghoulish waxworks, it doesn’t exactly take a genius to figure out what’s going on here, and, so, yeah… that’s your plot, more or less.

We should probably also mention that Bancroft commits his crimes with the help of a teenage assistant (Graham Curnow), whom he keeps in a state of hypnosis and routinely injects with some sort of inexplicable turn-into-a-monster serum, and that said assistant’s burgeoning romance with a young Shirley Anne Field (!) leads to the fiend’s eventual downfall, but that just about wraps things up, story-wise.(2)

Basically what little plot there is here simply acts as a wrap-around for a series of spectacularly silly murder scenes, the first and most notorious of which sees a curvaceous young lady meeting a sticky end via a set of binoculars fitted with retractable steel spikes. Splat. As with all of the subsequent ‘set-piece’ sequences in the film, there is an unearthly absurdity to these events that render them kinda wonderful, but… we’ll return to that in a minute.

First, let’s get it out of the way and simply state that, above all else, ‘Horrors of the Black Museum’ is a very poorly made film indeed. One of the cornerstones of the movie’s publicity campaign was the claim that it was shot in “widescreen hypnovista” or somesuch , an innovation that apparently boiled down to the use of Eastman Color and 2.35:1 Cinemascope ratio - still an extremely unusual choice for low budget films at the time, and a striking selling point even without the attendant hyperbole, one imagines.

Unfortunately however, credited director Arthur Crabtree and his crew clearly had no idea of how to effectively use the cinemascope frame. An industry veteran with credits stretching back to the early ‘30s, Crabtree had just finished work on the fantastic US-UK co-production ‘Fiend Without a Face’ (1958), which certainly proved his b-movie chops beyond question, but it’s also worth noting that the director was pushing sixty at the time, and that ‘..Black Museum’ proved to be his final film. Not that I wish to unduly denigrate anyone’s work in these pages, but, with retirement looming, maybe Crabtree simply didn’t give a shit?

‘Horrors of the Black Museum’ certainly gives that impression, relying as it does on dull, fixed camera long-shots that serve to immediately distance the viewer from the on-screen action, taking what could have been an effective shocker in the punchier old 4:3 ratio, and rendering it an instant bore, with actors forced to roam endlessly across a vast wilderness of shabby, poorly dressed sets (a drawback that earlier directors of cheap horror movies had often used the tighter aspect ratio to avoid).

The use of colour proves problematic too, with many scenes blandly overlit in uniform TV sit-com fashion, lacking any of the shadow or atmosphere you’d expect from a ‘50s / ‘60s horror film and instead presenting a world of gaudy puce and magnolia painted walls and rented furniture that helps create one of the ugliest pre-‘70s horror films on record. Oh, for a cobweb or two, or a chance to turn those bloody lights off for a minute…

To the production team’s credit, the set for a cluttered Portobello Road antique shop is very nicely done, some of the night-time interiors are lit in appropriately moody fashion, whilst the framing and general ‘look’ of the film improves dramatically for some (not all) of the scenes set in Bancroft’s museum. But for the most part, you know you’re in trouble when you watch a widescreen film in the correct ratio, and find yourself wishing it was a cropped TV version just so you wouldn’t have to keep looking at all that bloody crap in the corners. And sadly, the film’s problems don’t end there.

Long-time readers will know that I’m not usually one to take issue with, uh, ‘variable’ performances in movies, but seriously, the standard of acting here is simply appalling. Curnow is as wooden as you’d expect in his thankless teenage sidekick role,(3) but it is incredible to think that Field became one of Britain’s most acclaimed young actresses only a year or two after her sub-school play level stumble through this one.(4) Most of the supporting cast are just as rubbish too, often practically staring at the camera in search of direction that clearly wasn’t forthcoming, before shrugging and just setting the controls to “audition for amateur production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’” mode.

Under such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that Michael Gough steals the show, but that doesn’t  mean we should hand him a medal just by default. Gough was a fine actor of course, and very much his own man in many of the better horror films he appeared in over the years, but here, as in his subsequent collaborations with Cohen, he seems dead set on simply trying to establish himself as Britain’s answer to Vincent Price - a notion that’s not quite as entertaining as it sounds, unfortunately.

Shamelessly appropriating the exaggerated mannerisms and camp demeanour of Price in his more light-hearted, ‘theatrical villain’ roles (cf: ‘House of Wax’, ‘The House of Haunted Hill’), Gough doles out the requisite ham with fearsome gusto, but fails to hit the crucial note of restraint and sympathy that Price lent to even his silliest villains, thus rendering Bancroft a thoroughly dislikeable individual, not only for his fellow characters on screen, but for the audience too.

More than any other ‘horror star’ I can think of, Gough always liked to play his villains as pure, black-hearted bastards – which works just fine when he’s a shadowy presence, pitted against some equally compelling good guys, but here, on-screen almost all the time as a Price-esque anti-hero, his constant, cringing bastard-ness basically just makes him a pain in the ass.

As Jonathan Rigby pointed out in his book ‘English Gothic’(5), Bancroft actually has the potential to become a pretty interesting character: a limping egomaniac with a mile-wide sadistic streak, it is implied that he is impotent in his relations with women, yet he uses drugs to keep a teenage boy under his control, then freaks out when said boy breaks up their S&M-inclined ‘private world’ by inviting a girl to visit..? It certainly would have been interesting to see where a director like Pete Walker might have taken such material a few years later, but anyone looking for any deeper psychological insight here will leave disappointed. In keeping with Cohen’s earlier AIP productions, both cast and script seem determined to keep things safely within the realms of conventional pantomime villainy.

And, maybe that’s just as well to be honest. After all, the future of British horror wasn’t exactly lacking in tormented psychopaths (Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’, released the following year from ‘..Black Museum’s UK distributors Allied-Amalgamated, marked a complete 180 degree reversal of Cohen’s approach to the genre), but rarely did it produce anything as deliciously goofy as this.

Because yes, in spite of all I’ve said above, ‘Horrors in the Black Museum’ remains an absolute hoot, if you’re in the right frame of mind. And, whilst I want to avoid going the “so bad it’s good” route, the film’s very ineptitude plays a big part in its weird appeal.

You know that particular feeling you get from a lot of cheaper American exploitation films, where it seems like no one on either side of the camera really knew what they were doing, and the script seems to have been written in some kind of stoned fugue, resulting in scenes that seem to have fallen out of a parallel universe where everything’s a bit ‘off’..? Well ‘..Black Museum’ is one of the few British films that captures that feel in spades. True, the dialogue scenes and expositional bits are a crushing bore, but when we hit the central murder sequences, and the set-ups that surround them, all bets are off as we lurch full-on into realms of delightfully unintentional surrealism.

The aforementioned binoculars scene is wacky enough – with the victim and her flatmate busy tottering about in high heels and tight-fitting dresses as the morning post arrives – but it’s merely a warm-up for some of the berserk wrong-headedness that follows.

My favourite part of ‘..Black Museum’ is definitely the section of the film featuring pin-up model June Cunningham as Bancroft’s doomed mistress. Beginning with a hilariously camp, crockery-shattering shouting match between the pair (“Without your cane, you’re only half a man; and without your money, you’d be no man at all!”), the whole of the ten-minutes-or-so sequence that follows plays like a parody of a British film, as made by someone who’s never actually seen  one all the way through.

Determined to embark on a big night out in search of a new sugar-daddy, Cunningham (whose characterisation basically doesn’t extend much beyond a Diana Dors-esque caricature of a brainless-hussy-with-a-heart-of-gold) bravely sets sail for her local “pub” – an establishment whose location-shot exterior resembles a grand, Edwardian hotel, whilst the set-bound interior looks more like a windowless portacabin furnished with a bar-counter and a few tables. Here, she heads to the jukebox and puts on a swing record that sounds at least ten years older than this movie, then proceeds to perform a ludicrous, elephant-footed bump n’ grind dance routine in the middle of the floor, whilst the handful of down-at-heel extras lurking at the tables look on with what I can only read as either embarrassment or blank disinterest.

Somehow, the film fails to acknowledge the inherent comedy (and accompanying tragedy) of this Monroe-wannabe show-girl seeking romance and adventure in what appears to be the least glamorous drinking establishment on earth, and plays this scenario entirely straight, as if it were an everyday occurrence in the silent, bare-walled drinking halls of olde England.

After exchanging some toe-curling flirtatious ‘banter’ with the pub’s least mildewed looking inhabitant, and receiving a strangely touching tribute from the barman (“you really livened my place up tonight – you certainly made it a lot of fun”), June staggers off into the night after few too many flagons of Blue Nun (or whatever), and is escorted home by two courteous policemen who apparently have nothing better to do on a Saturday night than stroll around quiet residential streets, making idle conversation with passersby.

Fascinatingly off-key as all this is however, it’s basically just all padding leading up to what happens next, as Cunningham, safely back in her flat, strips down to her lacy underclothes (pretty saucy stuff for a 1959 British film), lies down drunk and happy on her bed, and….

- To be honest, I think we need a paragraph break / SPOILER WARNING to really prepare us for what happens next -

…screams, as she looks up and sees that a makeshift, portable guillotine has been attached to the top of her bed, apparently operated by a leering, oatmeal-faced zombie!

Before we can even begin to make sense of this insane turn of events, zombie-guy pulls the lever, off comes June’s noggin, and he picks up his guillotine and flees straight through the front door!

I mean… what can you possibly say to a film that suddenly throws something like that at you, in complete defiance of all notions of sanity, logic and physical possibility..? The whole guillotine bit probably doesn’t last much longer than twenty seconds, but the sheer, overwhelming joy of the “WHAT THE HELL?!” reaction it’s likely to inspire in every single conscious viewer makes sitting through the remaining hour or so of trudging, poorly shot rubbish that comprises the rest of ‘..Black Museum’ instantly worthwhile, at least according to my own strange system of values.

Those few seconds might represent my overall favourite moment of the film, but the remaining run-time has plenty of other lunatic fun to enjoy: from Bancroft’s unveiling of a room-sized 1950s computer system that seems to exist for the sole purpose of electrifying people, to his cackling removal of a fresh laboratory skeleton from a vat of acid, to the threadbare monster transformation / chase / shoot-out finale filmed on the cheap at Battersea funfair – it’s all the kind of wondrous, brain-damaged b-movie nonsense that later, more self-conscious practitioners of the form could never hope to rival, and, having rambled on here for long enough all ready, I’ll leave adventurous viewers to discover the rest of the film’s exquisite pleasures for themselves.

Whilst I certainly wouldn’t recommend Herman Cohen’s British films to casual viewers or well-adjusted human beings in general, what makes them so fascinating for weirdos like me is the shotgun wedding they represent between two otherwise incompatible modes of filmmaking.

If Cohen had continued to produce movies in the ‘States rather than moving to the UK, I think it’s likely that they would have been pretty unremarkable: more of the same sub-William Castle shenanigans and teens n’ hotrods double-bill fillers (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but y’know..). And conversely, if the mainstays of low budget British filmmaking in the late ‘50s had gone to work on the kind of material Cohen brought to the table, there’s a fair chance the results would have been equally forgettable: more dour and low-key quota-fillers, better written and performed perhaps, but too cowed by fear of negative press attention and the ever-present shadow of the censor to really go all-out with their grotesque or fantastical elements, and probably quite yawn-some as a result.

But somehow, when the oil of “make ‘em cheap, sell ‘em big” American drive-in hucksterism met the murky water of lower tier British exploitation, something extraordinary emerged. Certainly not something *good* by any stretch of the imagination, but then or now, the results remain a bit of an eye-opener.

And, believe it or not, ‘...Black Museum’ was just the beginning. Fuelled by the film’s modest success, Cohen and Gough were soon back at work, cooking a project that was in all senses bigger, stupider and even more astoundingly ridiculous than its predecessor. What are those booming footsteps we hear approaching..? Yes friends, KONGA was just around the corner. You have been warned.

(1)For anyone who’s interested, the Black Museum does indeed exist, and, whilst it is still not open to public, occasional one-off tours and open-days have taken place in recent years; further details to be found here.

(2)“I always try to put in the young teen, so the teenagers can identify with someone in the film”, Cohen helpfully explained to ‘Scarlet Street’ fanzine [#17-18, Winder/Spring 1995, as quoted in ‘English Gothic’ (see reference below)].

(3)According to a trivia entry on IMDB, Curnow was in a relationship with popular Welsh/Italian screen comic Victor Spinetti at the time, and used his fee from this film to buy a flat for the couple in Marylebone. So that’s nice, although to be honest I’m kind of astonished that the fee for appearing as the juvenile lead in ‘Horrors of the Black Museum’ was enough to put anyone on the property ladder, even in 1959.

(4)I can only assume that, like Crabtree perhaps, Field’s disdain for the project had her roboting through the role in pure “I don’t want to be here, and I hope everyone realises that” fashion. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ put her on the map a year later of course, but we’ll always love her around her for appearing in ‘The Damned’.

(5)Jonhathan Rigby, ‘English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema’ (Reynolds & Hearn, 2000), pp. 58-59

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

With Peeping Tom and Circus of Horrors, HOTBM was a sadistic trilogy of 1950's repressed psycho-sexuality in Great Britain.