Skull, The (1965)

Author: Brett H.
Submitted by: Brett H.   Date : 2008-06-23 11:12

Directed by: Freddie Francis
Written by: Milton Subotsky (based on a story by Robert Bloch)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Magee, Patrick Wymark & Jill Bennett

Reviewed by: Brett H.

“I found in the morning that the skull had been removed.”
“But, who removed it?”
“Those who use its power. Invisible beings; spirits from a strange, evil world…”

The Marquis de Sade has been the subject of much acclaim and criticism. A pioneer of violent, pornographic forms of art, it’s not surprising that the term, ‘sadist’ is derived right from his very name. Naturally, the powers that be in horror latched onto the name and the evils surrounding it and tried to either adopt his works or use him as the motor to power their films. Sadistically speaking, the controversial Salo is the most derived of the excessive sexual nature of his works, but films such as the wonderful anthology-styled Waxwork and the Robert Englund vehicle (which tricked way too many 90s horror fans into a rental with an interesting cover), Night Terrors, also dabbled into the sadism of de Sade. Easily one of the best films of those involve the Marquis is the 1965 Amicus effort, The Skull. It’s not controversial or sexually driven, instead taking a more standard supernatural and story driven approach. Unreleased on DVD for way too long, Legend Films bestows upon us an under appreciated gem from the grand old age of horror in all its scoped glory!

The film begins the same way so many genre staples do; with some good old fashioned body snatching at the graveyard. After the coffin is pried open, the grave robber uses his trusty shovel to detach the head from the body of the corpse. He takes the skull home and submerges it into some chemicals, removing all of the gory bits and leaving him with a perfectly smooth piece for his experiments. Not even his seductive female friend can take him away from his new toy, as he quickly shoes her aside. But, all doesn’t end well for the ghoul. The lady in his life discovers him dead, drowned in a tub. No evidence of foul play… but that eerie skull looking on from the corner of the room must hold a very sinister secret.

Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) and his fellow occult collector/demonlogist, Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) sit at an auction, eyeing some statues of satanic lore and both want to get their hands on the prized pieces. Matthew bids obscenely high for no apparent reason and Christopher is a bit irked, but thinks nothing of it. Later on, Christopher is sold an old book on the Marquis de Sade, bound in human skin by the shady Mr. Marco (Patrick Wymark). The next day Mr. Marco brings another treasure to fulfill Christopher’s lust, one of even greater importance. What is, Mr. Marco insists, the actual skull of the Marquis De Sade. After some bargaining, the price is set at 500 pounds and Christopher consults with his black magic scholar buddy Matthew about authenticity. Matthew confirms that it is in fact the real skull and he knows this because the very skull had been stolen from him and it is the reason he bid so much on the satanic statues earlier. It’s not just your every day human skull. This skull has supernatural powers that possesses its victims and drives them to madness and murder, powered by forces from the not-so-Elysian-shores of the beyond.

The Skull is a superb example of sixties horror. Although they never quite gained the reputation of an AIP or Hammer, Amicus was no slouch. Much attention is paid to the anthologies the company produced in the sixties and early seventies (until Pazuzu crawled up from the pits of hell and ended the reign of gothic horror) and with good reason. Titles such as Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and the often requested, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors are cemented in the minds of many fans. Amicus was never too fondly remembered for their single-story movies, but The Skull proves that there is at least one film of high quality in their armoire of the macabre.

Although The Skull is set in the times it was made it, it still reeks that lovely scent of quality, classic British horror and the film’s quality begins with its cast. Having Peter Cushing in the lead role with a sort of extended cameo from his frequent partner in crime, Christopher Lee, you know what you’re getting in terms of performance from the get-go. Cushing is marvellous as Christopher, a character who is obsessed with the occult so much so that he is willing to risk his life to gather any information he can. Christopher Lee provides the Cushing character with the ominous warning from his own experiences with the dreaded skull and gives the viewer all the information they need to become fully emerged in the story. When Christopher Lee speaks, we listen, and Cushing’s character surely wishes he did as he battles the macabre contained within the skull.

The most important aspect of British horror is the story, and The Skull delivers. Although some of its British counterparts drag just a tad by nature, such is not the case here. Rather than building to a twist/ironic ending, there are many twists/bits of intrigue throughout the movie rather than saving them for the ending and it moves the film along quickly and the 83-minute running time flies with each and every moment being savoured. As well as possessing victims, de Sade’s skull has a mind of its own and frequently comes and goes by powers unknown. The skull floating effects are pretty good, nothing is visible and it looks a lot better than obvious bat on a string effects that British horrors were sometimes all too guilty of. The film also features one of the best scenes of suspense in Amicus history during a scene involving Peter Cushing being forced to play not one, not two, but three rounds of Russian roulette for the amusement of a twisted judge that exists within the realm of the skull.

British horror staple Freddie Francis competently directs the film and the great cinematography is accompanied by a great, moody soundtrack. After a long wait, The Skull has finally found its way to DVD by Legend Films and fans can experience the film in scope for the first time. The transfer is a bit grainy during the opening graveyard sequence, but that soon goes away and looks quite stunning for a film of its age the rest of the way. The mono track is clear with little hiss, accompanying the transfer well. Although not advertised on the package, the film’s theatrical trailer is also present on the disc. The trailer makes no mention of the skull being de Sade’s, which makes the film appear to be quite cheesy, which is not the case. I’ve been waiting forever to check out The Skull, and it certainly is rich in plot, entertainment and as devilishly supernaturally superb as I had hoped! Buy it!

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