The Skull (1965)
Dir. Freddie Fancis
Written by Milton Subotsky, Robert Bloch
Starring Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Christopher Lee, also Michael Gough is in one scene for no reason.
Peter Cushing plays a wealthy academic who acquires the haunted skull of the Marquis de Sade, in this handsomely appointed Amicus production. That sounds great, but the problem is that the skull is cursed or haunted or something, it keeps taking possession of people and causing murder and mayhem and demanding Satanic rituals. Since he never had these problems with Robert E. Howard’s skull, Cushing doesn’t know what to do and can’t seem to help himself very much as things get stranger and more dangerous.
THE SKULL is notable for it’s stately pace, rich production design, excellent cinematography (director Francis began his career as a cinematographer), and the fact that, let’s face it, it has a flying skull in it. With it’s emphasis on tone and atmosphere, gentlemanly British academic hero, and moody orchestral score*, it also captures the distinct essence of the classic horror films of earlier decades. Save for the use of color film, this could well pass for a classy ghost story from pretty much any time in the 30’s, 40’s, or 50’s. It doesn’t feel intentionally old fashioned or referential; just a deliberate use of a different approach from the shock tactics and boundary-pushing that were becoming increasingly common in the 60’s. There’s an impressive confidence here, and a genuine faith in the tools of pure cinema to convey meaning. Why show the Devil directly when you can suggest his presence by lingering on the grotesque and amazing artifacts on display in Cushing’s study? Why pontificate when you can simply depict? The film’s last 20 minutes or so has almost no dialogue and relies entirely on Cushing’s acting and the film’s expressive design to convey the narrative. It’s simple and classic and you know, it works like a charm.
|Your one stop stolen skull shop.|
That having been said, there are a few stylish touches here which set it apart: there’s some fun POV shots (including the clever Skull-o-vision… why didn’t William Castle ever think of that?) some colorful lighting effects (mild by Italian standards, but positively excessive for England) and, most memorably, a really fucking fantastic and highly stylized sequence where Cushing gets dragged from his bed by hostile police, forced into a giant empty courtroom, and handed a gun. And it gets weirder from there.
That sequence is the film’s pinnacle, and unfortunately by the end it loses a little steam. It’s clear the Skull if affecting Cushing, but it’s never really clear how he can fight it and so the gradual possession narrative lacks much tension. It still builds to a nice, nightmarish finale where the skulls starts really throwing its weight around. But then, after coming to a perfectly acceptable conclusion, it kinda ruins things by repeating --almost beat for beat-- the exact same climax over for a second time. It doesn’t escalate, there’s just two pretty similar climaxes one after another. By the time it’s done for the second time, the wind has pretty much left the sails.
|Put on your skull-o-vision glasses now!|
Still, it’s overall a pretty sharp production, particularly for Amicus Productions which was more known for modern-set horror films and anthologies. Cushing is great like he always is, you got Christopher Lee in there (this must be one of the very few films ever where both Lee and Cushing play good guys), and hey, a flying skull. The only real disappointment is that the film soft-pedals it’s main inspiration: I mean, let’s face it, the Marquis de Sade was more interesting than your standard-issue Satan-worshiping cult leader. I suppose it might not have fit with the tone of the movie, but it seems a little off-putting to go through all this talk of de Sade and never once mention sex. Why bother to name-check de Sade if you’re not gonna get kinky about it?**
*Classical composer Elisabeth Lutysens was the first British female composer to produce scores for feature films, and she supported her family by scoring Hammer and Amicus films throughout the 60’s. Although she reportedly did not regard her films scores as highly as her classical work, she did enjoy her title of “The Horror Queen,” which she complemented with her trademark green fingernail polish. Holy fuck this lady was a badass.
**Interestingly, it turns out that it’s really true that de Sade’s skull was stolen from his grave for phrenological purposes. Wikipedia doesn’t mention if it could fly or not.