Based on the short story by noted horror author Robert Bloch, Amicus Studio's 1965 adaptation of The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade stars Hammer's finest, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
Cushing plays Dr. Christopher Maitland, a wealthy man who collects historical oddities and occult memorabilia. He's out bid on a collection of Satanic statues by his friend and fellow collector, Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) who, for reasons even he cannot explain, pays far too much for the items. Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark) makes some decent money by selling Maitland strange items. When he shows up at Maitland's doorstep one night with a book on the life of the Marquis De Sade bound in human skin, Maitland pays him for it and is quite happy with his purchase.
The next day, Marco comes back with a human skull that he claims is the actual skull of De Sade. Maitland is suspicious as to its actual authenticity and figures it must be stolen. Phillips confirms, over a game of pool, that yes, the skull once belonged to him and that it is completely authentic but when Maitland asks him why he doesn't go the police, Phillips tells him that the skull has strange powers and that he's glad to be rid of it. Of course, Maitland can't resist the temptation to own it now and so he decides to add it to his collection only to find out that Phillips was deadly serious in his warning...
The first thing you'll notice when watching The Skull in its proper aspect ratio is just how damn good it looks. The cinematography from Hammer regular John Wilcox (he shot more than a few films for them include ding The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Legend Of The 7 Golden Vampires) is slick, eerie and very tense (you've got to love those POV shots through the skull's eyes!) and the various colored lighting gels employed throughout the film really give the film an otherworldly feel (at times it feels almost like an Italian film and one murder in particular reminds us of Suspiria). Freddie Francis' direction is equally strong despite a few slower moments and the film is effectively paced and very well made. The last twenty minutes or so of the film are surprisingly dark and remarkably atmospheric as Maitland realizes that his actions are going to bring about a very sinister reaction from the skull he so desperately wants to own.
As far as the performances go, Cushing is at the top of his game here and he carries the film with style. With plenty of screen time and an interesting character to play, Cushing really makes this 'his' movie. Lee's role is little more than a cameo but he too is quite enjoyable here and the moments he shares on screen with Cushing are fun. Supporting performances from Jill Bennett as Cushing's wife, and Nigel Green and Patrick Magee as the local police interested in a few suspicious deaths, are also enjoyable.
While The Skull may not get the recognition that the Amicus anthology films do, it definitely holds its own as a superior example of the studio's output.
The Skull arrives on Blu-ray from Kino in its original 2.35.1 aspect ratio and in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. The transfer here falls somewhere between the previous Legend Films US release and the more recent Eureka Blu-ray release from the UK. This Kino disc looks to use the same source as the Eureka disc but it's brighter and it has a lower bit rate resulting in some mild compression artifacts. Still, it easily advances over the Legend release, showing much better detail and color reproduction. The image is also very clean, showing very little actual print damage at all outside of the occasional small white speck now and again. Again, the British disc looks better, but this doesn't look bad.
Audio options are provided in DTS-HD English language 2.0 mono, there are no alternate language options provided although removable English subtitles are provided. There's decent depth and range to the mix, the levels are nicely balanced and the dialogue consistently clear. The score sounds good as do the effects. It's not the world's most complex mix, but it works and it works well.
Extras kick off with a commentary track from Tim Lucas that proves to be quite an interesting listen. He does a fine job here of elaborating on the differences between the source material and the filmed version of the story, and so too does he elaborate on Amicus' history up to this point in time. He shares some great stories about the cast and crew involved in the shoot and pays special attention to Cushing's performance here when talking up the actors. Lots of insight here too into what works and what makes the movie stand out.
Carried over from the Eureka UK release are two video interviews. The first is a new twenty-four minute video interview with film scholar Jonathan Rigby. The second video interview spends twenty-seven minute with author and film critic Kim Newman. Between the two interviews we're able to learn a lot about not only this film but the early days of Amicus, how they drew talent to their productions and the effectiveness of certain parts of this particular picture.
Aside from that we get a Trailers From Hell segment on The Skull with Joe Dante espousing his thoughts on the picture, trailers for a few other Kino Studio Classics properties, menus and chapter selection.
The Skull is not likely to be the first film that comes to mind when discussing Amicus, but it's an entertaining slice of vintage British horror made with plenty of style and showcasing some pretty solid performances. Kino's Blu-ray release doesn't look quite as good as the UK release but it does improve on the old US Blu-ray from Legend Films and on top of that, it includes some really solid extras as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.