Horrors of the Black Museum is a grisly little thriller from the 50s that seems to be a lot edgier than what came before, even it if hints at the violence rather than reveals it through gore. It's got the over-the-top craziness of character that much of transitional thrillers had, but it does move into a more grounded sort of mystery rather than the supernatural and or legendary (Bluebeard, etc.) thrillers.
It's the first of what has been called Anglo-Amalgamated's "Sadian trilogy," along with Circus of Horrors and Peeping Tom (both of which are amazing crime flicks). These films focused on not just the mystery and the crime, but more so on the sadism and cruelty of the violence (often with sexual undertones). As I said, it's one of the films that transitions from the Hammer supernatural horrors to modern killers and from early Hitchcockian mysteries to a more dramatic and dark crime story that doesn't shy from the crime itself onscreen.
It's also a film that features crime writer Edmond Bancroft, played by Michael Gough, as the main character. He's covering a recent series of crimes for the paper, and he's collecting them for a new book, based on weapons from Scotland Yard's Black Museum. The Black Museum is a collection of murder weapons and other items used in solved crimes. I won't ruin the plot, but the killer is revealed by the end of the first act, so it's far less about the mystery of who is killing and more about whether or not the killer will get caught.
Around all that cinematic historicness, it also manages to say quite a bit (mostly in the first act) about writers and the way we treat our preferred genres.
Yes, my dear fellow creators -- I'm talking about obsession.
We all know the drill. We're trying to adult for our non-writer friends, and they take a look at our bookshelves or artwork. You're almost safe if you write fantasy and they get lost in all the sword, sandals, and sorcery books you have all over the place. You're in a worse spot if, however, you have a collection of creepy and scary artwork and books about casting spells and how to become a werewolf or where modern-day vampires hang out. It's even worse, though, when you're a crime writer, and you have an encyclopedia of serial killers, a library of true crime, and how-to books about crime scenes and investigating -- and getting away with and planning -- murders. (And let's not even get started about that scary FBI-tagged browser history.)
But enough about me. Let's see what the movie has to say about a writer's obsession.
Early in the film, Bancroft's doctor is treating him for anxiety and increased excitement (blood pressure, etc.). He tells him that his fixation on murder and crime is taking a toll on his body, not just his mind. "You seem to eat, sleep, and drink crime," says Dr. Ballan, but of course, Bancroft shrugs off his concerns. He continues by noting that "After you've written about it, analyzed it, you return to yourself."
I think we all can be like that to a degree, though most likely without the physical affectations (if not, do go see a doctor, please, or change genres). We get deep in the weeds in our work. I still have a thick folder of notes and several books about Jack the Ripper for a novel that is still unfinished. The details recording in those notes are crazy obsessive, don't to photos copies from books, graphic descriptions of the deaths, you name it. It's the kind of thing that I might get in trouble about if my grandmother had ever found it and thumbed through it.
And I bet I'm not the only one. I know of writers who use a murder board to plot their crimes and mysteries. I know of writers who google how to make bombs and every minutia of assault weapon data as they strive for accuracy in their work.
It's what causes our significant others to wonder about us. Trust me. I've been there.
But we know that even all that obsession serves a creative purpose. It's something that the woman who runs the antique shop reminds Bancroft of during one of their encounters.
Aggie: "Not that I want to make you more conceited than you are, Mr. Bancroft. Let me tell you, you have a way with words, you do, especially when it's about murder."Bancroft: "It's my favorite subject."Aggie: "Oh, don't I know. I read all your books."
That gory detail, that information about doing so many illegal things, that chemical concoction for doing in a neighbor, it's all part of the process. It's the background stuff that makes our words flow when it's time to write. Whatever it is where researching, it is our "favorite subject" at that moment most often. It's the "why" we have a way with words.
Now, that's not to say that too much of that obsession can't become a bad thing. Don't lose your touch with the real world, of course. (Cue up the PSA music from afterschool specials here.)
There are two other lesser bits the movie covers that I also want to mention. One is the propensity of writers to end up killing off the doppelgangers of people we know in our work. A friend of mind, several probably, often tells people to be careful or he might kill them in his next novel. Of course, people usually follow that up by asking for that very fate.
And that's not something new, as observed by Aggie's question when Bancroft first comes to see her at her shop.
Aggie: "Well, Mr. Bancroft, come to write me off?"Bancroft: "Not yet. I don't think you're quite vicious enough. Though you do look it."
Then they laugh it off, ignoring the more sinister undertones the conversation takes in the movie. But the conversation itself is all too common for writers. Whether we bring people we know wholesale into our work and stab them or shoot them, or if we just bring little tidbits of character like a way of rolling the eyes or biting on a bottom lips from a friend or acquaintance, we do it all the time. Be care, of you'll end up dead -- in my novel.
Finally, be prepared for your writing to offend people. It's okay. Nothing will please everyone. Says Bancroft to his assistant: "If you're worth your salt as a writer, you're bound to rub some people the wrong way."
And it's true. Nothing you write -- ever -- will please 100 percent of the people. Nothing you write -- ever -- will even avoid upsetting some of the people. It's just not possible. Thicken your hide. Stiff upper lip and all that. It's okay.
Don't "obsess" about it. (See what I did there?)