A young woman receives a package, special delivery, but there's no hint as to who sent it. Her flatmate urges her to open it, and when she does they discover a pair of binoculars inside, which the young woman tries out - suddenly, she screams and falls to the floor. The binoculars have a hidden mechanism that sprung six inch-long needles through her eyes and into her brain, killing her. Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen) quickly realises that she is the latest victim of a mystery killer who has murdered twice before in equally grim ways, and popular criminologist Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough) pays an unwelcome visit to hear more about the case for his latest article. Does Bancroft know more than he's letting on?
Written by producer Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel, Horrors of the Black Museum was the film equivalent of one of those lurid 1950s paperbacks that pruriently detailed gruesome crimes, and on that level, it's jolly good fun. It's not the Scotland Yard Black Museum that concerns us here, in fact Bancroft considers that one inferior to his own personal Black Museum of the title, which is kitted out with torture devices, murder weapons and a huge computer whose function is obscure until halfway through. Perhaps half-inspired by House of Wax, it has a villain who is as passionate about his specialist subject as he is dangerous.
It's no big surprise that Bancroft is the killer, the film practically gives that away early on when his doctor points out how unnaturally excited he is whenever a murder is committed, but he has a pronounced limp and walks with a cane, so how does he, for example, murder his secret girlfriend Joan (June Cunningham), who is guillotined in her own bed? The assailant we see is a lumpy-faced maniac, so who could it be? Hmm... Bancroft has a partner in crime, Rick (Graham Curnow), who is held reluctantly under his control, although he has his own secret girlfriend, Angela (Shirley Anne Field).
The film wants to have its cake and eat it too. Bancroft is presented as proof that an obsessive interest in the seamier side of life turns you into a danger to society, and his audience, the Great British Public, are equally to blame in the way they lap up all the gory details. But of course, these are the kind of people that the film is making its money from, and it's obvious that it is revelling in the outrageousness of it all. It's not hypocritical exactly, but it does invite you to feel superior to the characters, including the police who singularly fail to put two and two together when the killer is right under their noses.
As Bancroft, Gough essays his most celebrated horror role with great relish, and is an arrogant, hissable villain: the film wouldn't be half as enjoyable without him. As the crime writer who commits crimes to keep himself in business, he is only truly horrified when Angela tells him of her belief in female emancipation, and casually electrocutes his doctor with the computer (so that's what it's for!) then dumps the body in an acid bath when his double life is threatened. By the time he reveals he's created a potion that makes normal men into monsters, you'll be thinking, hell, why not? This gleeful adventure in sensational shock is packed with great scenes that unexpectedly equal the opening, such as the hall of mirrors gag, and paints an interesting view of post-war British attitudes for good measure. Music by Gerard Schurmann.