Essentially unknown aside more popular British studios that had an emphasis on genre films, like Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon, Anglo-Amalgamated ran only for a few decades, from 1945 until the early ‘70s, but should forever be remembered for their unforgettable contribution to British horror. In contrast to Hammer’s emphasis on lush, period-set Gothic horrors, Amicus’s colorful anthology films, or Tigon’s reliance on occult themes, Anglo-Amalgamated were known for a handful of low budget films, such as the Carry On and Edgar Wallace Mysteries series, a collaboration with American International Pictures that resulted in British locations for some of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle, and three classics of cruelty. In 1959 and 1960, they produced Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Circus of Horrors (1960), and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).
In David Pirie’s seminal A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946 – 1972, he described these three films as being the studio’s “Sadeian Trilogy.” In some sense, this is misleading; none of these films are direct adaptations of the Marquis de Sade’s works and they lack the controversial pornographic elements of Sade’s writings, but they each possess a spirit of cruelty and sadism that marks a shift in British horror cinema. With lurid, Grand Guignol-esque moments of violence centered around the mutilated bodies of women, themes of voyeurism, and systemic cruelty often relating back to malevolent paternal figures, all three films are also connected to 1960 as a watershed moment for the horror genre in general. With films like Hitchcock’s Psycho, Bava’s The Mask of Satan (aka Black Sunday), Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, and Roger Corman’s House of Usher, among other more underrated titles, 1960 represents something of a revolution for western genre cinema.
Interestingly, the three directors associated with these films—Arthur Crabtree, Sidney Hayers, and Michael Powell—were not exclusively known as genre directors. Crabtree got his start as a prolific cinematographer, actually collaborating with directors like Powell and Carol Reed in the ‘30s and working frequently with Gainsborough Pictures before moving on to his own directorial projects: melodramas like Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945), two films inspired by the song “Lili Marlene,” and television work, among other projects. He directed what is perhaps his best known film, low budget sci-fi/horror classic Fiend Without a Face (1958), before turning to his final film: Horrors of the Black Museum. The film was penned by frequent collaborators Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel, who between them wrote and/or produced a slew of camp-horror favorites, such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), How to Make a Monster (1958), Konga (1961), Black Zoo (1963), Berserk (1967), and Trog (1970). In an interview, star Michael Gough insisted that Herman Cohen had the upper hand on the production, often overriding Crabtree.
In Horrors of the Black Museum, a young woman is brutally killed when she receives a pair of trick binoculars that gauge out her eyes. Scotland Yard is confounded by this murder, which is only one of a series, and they’re annoyed by a wealthy local crime writer, Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough), whose popular books and articles often mock them. Unbeknownst to them, Bancroft has a mirror of Scotland’s Yard Black Museum—a real life collection of memorabilia that began in the 1870s—in his basement. Despite an injured leg and often airtight alibis, those close to Bancroft—such as his doctor and a woman who owns an antique shop he frequents—suspect that he is in some way connected to the increasing number of murders.
It’s a wonder that this film made it past the censors, as it is shockingly violent and sadistic for the time period; critics allegedly loathed it. Horrors of the Black Museum certainly acts as a counter to the more restrained forays in Victorian horror popularized by Hammer. Cohen’s story was apparently based on some real cases found within Scotland Yard’s Black Museum. As with the other three films in this unofficial Sadeian trilogy, a primary theme of Horrors of the Black Museum is the public obsession with crime—particularly crime as a form of entertainment, symbolized by Bancroft. A character tells him, “You seem to eat, sleep, and drink crime.” This obsession with violence has horrifying results and as campy as Michael Gough’s scenery-chewing performance often seems today—the role was originally meant for Vincent Price—there is much about the film that still packs a grisly punch.
Sadly remembered by contemporary film fans as Alfred in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films, Gough deserves to be remembered as a horror icon in his own right. At the time of starring in Horrors of the Black Museum, he was fresh off a supporting role in Horror of Dracula (1958) and would go onto Konga (1961), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), Black Zoo (1963), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), and many more with his delightful combination of scenery chewing, diabolical glee, haughty superiority, and sadism. His onscreen personality is reflected in the incredibly colorful yet creepy set pieces and the formula set up here—primarily female victims, sadistic murders, and disturbed killers as protagonists—would also be followed in Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom. The victims are all primarily women who have embarrassed or threatened Bancroft, including his blonde bimbo of a girlfriend who is essentially staying with him for his money. After she leaves him, he has her headboard turned into a sort of guillotine, which he used to decapitate her. He also murders a shopkeeper who tries to blackmail him with a pair of antique ice tongs that she has sold him for an exorbitant amount of money. Greed is punished in a truly grotesque, even baroque fashion. Horrors of the Black Museum quickly reveals Bancroft as the killer, though its central plot twist is a bit nonsensical, and sets the tone for much of what would follow in the country’s genre output: garish murders, polite psychopaths, and an infectious sense of campy sadism.
Sidney Hayers’ Circus of Horrors (1960) retains all of these themes, but focuses on a different type of sadistic maniac: a plastic surgeon. Released mere months after Eyes Without a Face, this treads similar ground in the sense that it features a surgeon experimenting on young women with horrific results. But Circus of Horrors lacks that film’s lofty pretensions, sense of poetry, or tragic weight; its Grand Guignol elements come from a picturesque circus setting, which is where Dr. Rossiter (Anton Differing) is forced to flee when one of his operations goes awry. His flight from England to Europe does nothing to dampen his overinflated sense of confidence and he works out a deal with the circus owner (Donald Pleasance): he will transform the man’s deformed young daughter into a radiant beauty (Yvonne Monlaur). But eventually the circus owner dies in an “accident” and Rossiter, who has changed his name to Schüler, takes over the circus and propels it to stardom. The key to his success is transforming deformed women into beauties for the circus’s key act, but when they try to leave, more “accidents” befall the circus.
The period was awash with mad scientists and doctors, not only thanks to Peter Cushing’s various incarnations of Dr. Frankenstein in Hammer’s long running series, several adaptations of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by both Hammer and other studios, but also in films like the aforementioned Eyes Without a Face, the eerie, underrated Mill of the Stone Women (1960), and numerous British films like The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), based on the real life story of grave robbers and murderers Burke and Hare, or Doctor Blood’s Coffin (1961), about a scientist trying to bring the dead back to life. Like many of these other mad doctors, Diffring’s Dr. Rossiter becomes obsessed with his own powers of creation and views the women he transforms as creatures that belong utterly to him. Surprisingly cruel and violent for the time period, the undisputed ringleader—in more ways than one—is the villainous looking German actor Anton Diffring, fresh off a similar role in Hammer’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959). Diffring’s stereotypically Germanic appearance and his character’s penchant for human experimentation must have struck an uncomfortable note so soon after the war—and the film is ominously set in the ‘40s.
As with Horrors of the Black Museum, Circus of Horrors has a roster of talented but lesser-known genre figures, such as writer George Baxt, who worked on Hammer films like The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), and the great Vampire Circus (1972), as well as another neglected genre classic of 1960, The City of the Dead, as well as Burn, Witch, Burn (1962). The latter was also helmed by underrated director Sidney Hayers, a prolific television director who slowly produced a handful of horror and thriller gems over the years. While there are certainly moments of Grand Guignol violence to rival Horrors of the Black Museum—the death of Donald Pleasence must be seen to be believed—a particularly lurid use of melodrama elevates this a bit from the camp frothiness of Horrors of the Black Museum, and the circus setting allows for the film to exploit the sexuality of its female characters in a more blatant way than its earlier sister film.
And yet the most Sadeian of the trilogy is undoubtedly Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom—for my money, also one of the most important films of the decade. Made by a non-horror director, Powell, who was revered for the films born from his partnership with Emeric Pressburger, which changed the face of British cinema in the ‘40s, and ‘50s. Powell’s second solo film after their partnership dissolved with Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), Peeping Tom’s grisly subject matter famously almost ruined his career. The film follows photographer and aspiring filmmaker Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Boehm), who has a secret: he murders women and films their deaths, hoping to soon assemble his very own movie. During the day, he works on a film crew and at night he photographs women for softcore pornography sold illegally at a nearby shop. He lives in his childhood home, which he has turned into a series of apartments, though he can’t escape the bad memories of abuse suffered at the hands of his sadistic father, a scientist doing experiments on human fear with Mark as his chief subject.
Where Horrors of the Black Museum and Circus of Horror were both critically panned, they were arguably given more of a pass than Peeping Tom, because they were viewed as trashy B-movies. In the annals of genre cinema, it is difficult to imagine that this film, released just a few months ahead of Psycho, was bitterly hated where Hitchcock’s was so beloved and considered so influential. Peeping Tom generated a ridiculous amount of baseless critical vitriol; for example, Derek Hill’s oft quoted review, which declared, “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain.”
Unlike Peeping Tom’s anxiety-inducing use of Technicolor—similar to the work of genre directors like Roger Corman and Mario Bava, though predating them both—and uneasy relationship to its protagonist, Hitchcock played it relatively safe with Psycho. He refused to land on any particular protagonist (famously killing off Marion Crane halfway through the film’s running time) and made antagonist Norman Bates both sympathetic and pathetic, but ultimately not responsible for his actions because of his psychosis. Powell, on the other hand, made his film’s sympathetic and strangely likable protagonist also its killer; one who is also haunted by past trauma, but who is fully aware of his actions.
Theorist Laura Mulvey explained that the film was so hated because of its unrestrained uses of sadism and voyeurism. She writes, “Peeping Tom, as its title implies, is overtly about voyeuristic sadism. Its central character is a young cameraman and thus the story of voyeuristic perversion is, equally overtly, set within the film industry and the cinema itself, foregrounding its mechanisms of looking, and the gender divide that separates the secret observer (male) from the object of his gaze (female). The cinema spectator’s own voyeurism is made shockingly obvious and even more shockingly, the spectator identifies with the perverted protagonist.”
A deeply angry and bitter film, Peeping Tom is as much about Powell’s personal frustration with the film industry as it is about perverse psychological and murderous sexual impulses. Though Peeping Tom was a solo effort for Powell, the streak of perversion, violence, and sexual repression that culminated in Mark’s character wound its way through many of his films with Pressburger: the plot of A Canterbury Tale (1944) revolves around a serial “glueman” who pours paste on women’s hair at night; Black Narcissus (1947) is about the psychosis that results in English nuns attempting to adjust to life in a Tibetan convent; a young ballerina is driven to mania and death in The Red Shoes (1948); during WWII, an alcoholic bomb-diffuser nearly succumbs to madness in The Small Back Room (1949); Gone to Earth (1950) follows an uncontrollable young woman who gives in to lust and paganism; and so on.
Mark, of course—brilliantly portrayed by the sensitive, but somehow sinister Karlheinz Boehm—is a far less subtle interpretation of these themes and he’s an obvious influence on the numerous British films from the period with psychopaths as protagonists like Night Must Fall (1964), The Collector (1965), Twisted Nerve( 1968)—written by Peeping Tom’s scribe, Leo Marks—I Start Counting (1969), and Night After Night After Night (1969), among others. It was also an obvious influence on American films from the ‘70s and ‘80s focused on tormented young psychopaths, like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Don’t Go in the House (1979), and Maniac (1980). Scorsese was actually among Peeping Tom’s staunchest supporters and said that part of the film’s brilliance is that it shows “how the camera violates.” I suspect that what makes it such a groundbreaking work—depicting cinema as a violent act, one that is inherently and unapologetically voyeuristic and penetrative—is also what made it so shocking upon its release. It is, ultimately, a film about old wounds that never heal, but fester and bubble over, infecting everything.