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.
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.
A screenwriter as well as a producer, Cohen cooked up the premise himself—a gruesome murderer who uses arcane tools inspired by the exhibits in Scotland Yard’s Black Museum stalks the young women of London while crime reporter Edmond Bancroft (Gough) plays up the gruesome details in the papers—and co-scripted with his regular collaborator Aben Kandel. It revels in a gimmickry that has since become a standard convention for horror films: a mastermind uses exotic and unexpected weapons to kill unsuspecting victims for maximum terror and splashy headlines. The actual murders are never shown but hideous murder weapons themselves—a pair of binoculars with spikes that plunge into the user’s eyes, a portable guillotine, a pair of tongs with razor-sharp points—are the stuff that nightmares of made of. The bloody aftermaths are enough to inspire the worst images in the imagination and there are viewers who remain convinced that they actually witnessed the grotesque murder that opens the film right on screen. Cohen understood the power of suggestion.
Cohen got his initial inspiration from a visit to Scotland Yard’s real-life Black Museum, which collected objects and memorabilia from cases through the years, and all of the fictional murders of the screenplay were at least partially inspired by actual cases. For this film, Cohen has the crime-obsessed Edmund create his own private Black Museum in a veritable dungeon of a secret lair, a gruesome exhibit that recalls House of Wax. In fact, the role of Edmund, a cultured sophisticate slumming as a crime reporter and bestselling true-crime author, was written with Vincent Price in mind. When Price turned it down, British actor Michael Gough made the role his own, playing him as the Waldo Lydecker of the murder beat, slightly louche, virulently misogynist, terribly arrogant, and utterly amoral. Cohen clearly appreciated the gusto with which Gough performed the role and cast him in four subsequent films, including the notorious Joan Crawford horrors Berserk and Trog. Today Gough is best known for playing Alfred in Tim Burton’s Batman and the three sequels.
And Cohen tosses in another classic horror twist. To carry out his murders, Edmund concocts a serum that turns his young assistant (Graham Curnow) into a violent but loyal monster. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde formula that brings out the beast, to be sure, and Edmond’s amoral obsessiveness echoes Hammer’s reworking of Dr. Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and sequels, but the added element of hypnosis and the domineering mastermind / psycho-killer relationship is lifted directly from Cohen’s own Teenage Werewolf and Teenage Frankenstein. Cohen is a magpie, tossing in set-pieces and twists for color and shock value rather than any logical narrative evolution. Which makes this true-crime reporter and professional misogynist also a mad scientist with his own medieval dungeon outfitted with both a bubbling vat of acid for the disposal of human bodies and a blinking wall-sized computer: the modern and the Gothic brought together in this deliriously illogical lair. Apparently, true crime pays well enough for Edmond to go full supervillain.
In an interview years later, Cohen explained that he liked to shoot in Europe because the studio executives never left Burbank, which left him free to make his films without interference. And sure enough, Horrors of the Black Museum was unlike anything AIP was making stateside. It was both the first CinemaScope film and the first color feature for the famously penny-pinching studio (Cohen argues that it paved the way for Roger Corman to follow suit in House of Usher  and the successful series of Poe thrillers), and it was easily the bloodiest. The red syrup is conservatively splashed through the film compared to the bloodbaths ushered onto American screens in the seventies but for 1959 it was plenty gory and very striking. The splashes of scarlet that liven up the film are not limited to blood. The bright red party dress worn by June Cunningham, who plays the buxom streetwalker that Edmond frequents, pops off the screen, painting her as not just a lady of the evening but as a marked woman in this conservative British culture.
While we’ve focused on Herman Cohen as the author of Horrors of the Black Museum, the writer/producer was not actually the film’s director. British filmmaker Arthur Crabtree had just directed the strangely captivating Fiend Without a Face (1958), which may have served as his vita, but he was originally a cinematographer who made the leap to the director’s chair in the wicked melodramas of Gainsborough Studios in the 1940s. Crabtree was at his best reveling in the outsized personalities, wildly contrived coincidences, and stylized impressions of life in both the aristocracy and the slums of the underworld in such films as Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) and Caravan (1946), both starring Stewart Granger. That sensibility serves him well here, hinting at a Grand Guignol spectacle that he’s unable to show onscreen through the hints of racy behavior, glimpses of girls in lingerie, and Gough’s increasingly sadistic drive and flamboyant performance. It’s largely thanks to Crabtree that the film looks as good as it does—the vivid color, the widescreen compositions, the dynamic imagery in the climactic scenes in the fairground at night—and he delivers a budget-minded version of the gothic horror style so well that at times you forget that it’s a modern picture. The lurid material, however, is all Cohen. The man knew how to startle and shock an audience. In Horrors of the Black Museum, he did it in color and widescreen and with a perverse collision of continental class and tawdry pulp material.
Cohen and AIP continued to make films with Anglo-Amalgamated—including Circus of Horrors (1959) and the shameless King Kong knock-off Konga (1961)—but the collaboration also spurred Anglo-American to develop its own line of horror films. Among the films the studio between its Cohen co-productions: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), one of the most notorious British horror films ever made.