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The Skull

The Skull
Legend Films
1965 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 83 min. / Street Date June 3, 2008 / 14.95
Starring Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, Ceorge Couloris, Christopher Lee
Cinematography John Wilcox
Art Direction Bill Constable
Film Editor Oswald Hafenrichter
Original Music Elisabeth Lutyens
Written by Milton Subotsky from a story by Robert Bloch
Produced by Milton Subotsky, Max J. Rosenberg
Directed by Freddie Francis

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg's Amicus Productions is known for its successful omnibus horror films with titles like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Torture Garden and The Vault of Horror. Adapted by Subotsky from a short story by the famed Robert Bloch, The Skull may be Amicus' best-sustained exercise in the supernatural. The fine cast includes Hammer regulars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, directed with care by ex- cameraman Freddie Francis. Paramount aired a set of scary (for 1965) television spots and enjoyed a solid success at the box office.

The Skull hasn't been available for a long time, especially not in its original wide Techniscope format. It's one of a large group of pictures that Paramount has licensed to Legend Films for DVD release.


Bizarre happenings amid London's fanciers of satanic collectables: Dr. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) bids on some occult statues only to see the auctioneer award them to Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee), who readily admits that he doesn't know why he felt compelled to buy. The disreputable dealer Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark) brings Maitland a fantastic find -- the skull of the Marquis de Sade, notorious occultist (?). Maitland tells Sir Matthew of the offer, only to be warned not to accept delivery -- because the skull will bring disaster to whoever possesses it. Maitland chides Sir Matthew for taking the supernatural so seriously. Before the deal can be transacted, Maitland experiences a bizarre dream in which he visits Marco's apartment. Marco is subsequently found with his throat torn out but Maitland still wants the skull. Little does he know that the artifact is already influencing his mind, urging him to do terrible things ... like kill his wife Jane (Jill Bennett).

The Skull is what horror fans call a 'straight gothic' in that it doesn't attempt to rationalize its supernatural content with science. The author of the original short story also wrote the source book for Psycho, the main instigator of the rising 60s trend of psychological 'horror of personality' films: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Pretty Poison. But ghost and possession stories remained popular. Amicus would soon hire Bloch to write some of its anthology films.

The Skull relies on the notion that demons from hell can influence our world through specific relics and profane totems. In this case, it's been decided that the Evil of the infamous Marquis de Sade lives on through his skull. The film's prologue shows a 19th century phrenologist robbing a graveyard to obtain the Marquis' head.He's murdered under mysterious circumstances, and 140 years later the skull continues to kill. Sir Matthew Phillips was compelled by the skull to obtain other relics bearing occult powers. He's glad when the skull is stolen from him, because its curse will now be inherited by another unlucky collector.

Ably staged and smartly photographed, The Skull shows little of the economizing that plagued later Amicus films. The sets are large and well appointed and Freddie Francis's direction is quite good. Elisabeth Lutyens' score sets a mood and then punctuates it with frequent musical shocks. The eponymous skull floats about the room, an effect done well enough not to be silly, as was the rubbery crawling hand of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors.

The film's most memorable effect is a weird point-of-view angle from behind the skull's bony eye sockets: as the characters try to figure out what's going on, they're clearly being observed by the spirit of the evil Marquis. It is said that after de Sade's death, phrenologists did indeed inspect his skull for abnormalities. The film's extravagant fantasy imagines that the Marquis' spirit, or perhaps just his skull, is in league with the devil and possesses satanic powers.

Producer-screenwriter Subotsky's adaptation stretches out Robert Bloch's story, adding a few sequences to reach a minimum running time. Maitland's nightmare of a strange torture session is embellished with a scene of his arrest by a pair of suspicious detectives. The nervous collector is taken for a sinister ride in an unmarked car, a trip that director Francis patterns closely after Henry Fonda's subjective ride to jail in Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man.

Some viewers will enjoy the deliberate pace, while others will notice that most sequences begin with long entrances, walks down the street, etc. Subotsky introduces George Coulouris' character rather clumsily. Patrick Wymark identifies the gentleman as the executor of the phrenologist's estate just as we segue into a flashback. Coulouris' declaratory dialogue line follows almost immediately: "I'm the executor of Monsieur's estate!"

Otherwise, The Skull works up some eerie horror thrills. Frequently alone on the screen, Peter Cushing carries the film with ease, just as he did his breakthrough 1954 BBC version of 1984. Wymark's disreputable antiquities dealer is suitably evasive about the nature of his merchandise; both he and Christopher Lee's aristocrat play their parts as if they're partially under the influence of the evil skull. The flashback to the early 1800s is stock stuff done as well as in any Hammer film. Room is made for a brief bathtub scene by giving the grave-robbing phrenologist a saucy girlfriend. Nigel Green receives elevated billing but has little to do but grumble over a couple of bloody but off-camera crime scenes. Behind him on a table rests the skull, hiding in plain sight. The Skull works as a ghost story because moments like that one never seem ridiculous.

Legend's DVD of The Skull is a good-looking enhanced transfer. The encoding and formatting standards at Legend have always been high. Colors are rich but skin tones are on the cold side, which doesn't hurt the film's mood. As the picture has retained its full Techniscope framing for the noted skull's-eye wide screen POVs, I see no need for complaint. The only extra is Paramount's trailer, with its campy narration: "Casting Its Hypnotic Trance Over All Who Fall Under Its Hideous Shadow!"

Legend Films is selling early copies of The Skull through its Legend Films website.

Written with an assist from Gary Teetzel.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Skull rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 23, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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