Image courtesy of Offscreen.com
The Skull (1965) dir. Freddie Francis
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, Nigel Green and George Coulouris
Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw
While hardly a classic of the genre, “The Skull” is a solid horror outing from upstart British studio Amicus that during the 70s gave reigning Hammer Films a considerable run for their money with some astounding omnibus pictures – most notably, the near-perfect “Asylum” and “Tales From The Crypt” as well as the solid “Vault of Horror”. Departing from the aforementioned E.C. comic structures, “The Skull” is a single feature length tale based – appropriately enough – on Robert (“Psycho”) Bloch’s story and directed by the visually gifted cinematographer Freddie (“Glory”, “The Elephant Man”, “The Straight Story”, etc.) Francis. The picture is an occasionally fun and decidedly creepy tale with a deliciously insane antagonist.
Who might that be, you ask?
Why none other than the title entity – the skull of – I kid you not! – The Marquis de Sade.
Opening with a fabulous grave robbing scene that involves the decapitation of de Sade’s rotting head and closely followed by a delectable sequence wherein the flesh, hair and other viscera are burned and boiled off to make the skull pristine and gleaming, one is drawn ever-so avidly into a tale that, while paced a tad too deliberately, delivers more than its fair share of shocks.
Much of these shocks come from Francis’s unusually flashy direction. For an artist who always delivered the goods visually as a Director of Photography, his own work as a director could often feel phoned-in. The notable exceptions are “The Skull”, “Tales From The Crypt” and a handful of others in a directing career that spanned approximately 30 features. One can only assume Francis directorially excelled ONLY when he was faced with material that truly tickled his fancy and that the rest was so much gun-for-hire fodder.
Though “The Skull” feels about ten minutes too long (and it’s already short), it still manages to pack a minor wallop and feels more like a good horror second feature from the 40s (in spite of being made right in the middle of the British swinging New Wave period). In a superbly fussy and obsessive performance, we follow Peter Cushing as he plays an academic specializing in occult research who collects strange oddities from all over the world in order to study them. His wife starts to object to the house being filled up with paraphernalia that represents evil and though one suspects she’s a typical harridan coming down on her collecting-obsessed hubby, it eventually becomes obvious that perhaps she has a point when Cushing starts to slowly go psycho after he acquires the skull of the notorious de Sade.
The story is told with numerous visual flourishes – lots of cool dollies and pans, sumptuous lighting and endless Skull-Cam shots so we can get a glimpse of what the evil spirit of the Marquis de Sade gets to see.
After the spirited opening, the movie does slow down quite a bit, but once it picks up steam, it seldom lets up and builds to a genuinely creepy and (at least for this fella) scary climax. A superb supporting cast includes an extended cameo from the always-delicious Christopher Lee as a collector who realizes and tries to warn Cushing about the dangers of hoarding occult items and we’re blessed with a truly slimy turn from Patrick Wymark as an underground occult dealer and an even sleazier one from Peter Woodthhorpe as the dealer’s foul landlord.
“The Skull” is one of several British genre pictures distributed in North America by Paramount Pictures and yet another undiscovered delight being unleashed upon the world through Legend Films.
If you’re a fan of British horror films, this won’t be the best you’ve seen, but you’ll still be glad you did – if, indeed, you do – and, of course, you should.
“The Skull” is available on DVD from Legend Films