Friday, June 1, 2018


"When The Skull Strikes, You'll Scream!!"

     Formed in 1962 by American producers/screenwriters Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg as a UK based film company, Amicus was to compete in the what was then rapidly growing British horror industry which was initiated by Hammer with CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and DRACULA (1958). In a pre-Amicus period, the duo collaborated on the magnificent THE CITY OF THE DEAD in 1960 and earlier in the 50's had proposed a Frankenstein script for American producers A.A.P. who in turn forwarded the script to Hammer and Subotsky went to his grave insisting he should be listed as a producer on CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
   Although most famous for their anthologies Amicus also released a fair number stand-alone horrors which range from the ridiculously fun (THE DEADLY BEES 1966) to the wonderful Gothic overdrive of 1973's AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS! (which I really hope some fellow blogger will cover). 1965's THE SKULL was Amicus's second horror film after DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS and stands out as one their best efforts featuring the always welcome duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee along with a gaggle of British character actors and inventive direction by Freddie Francis. The film (however lightly) contains themes & relationships that are head and shoulders above what Hammer was tackling in their run of Gothic horrors and psychological thrillers.

    The script by Subotsky (based upon a short story by Robert Bloch) could have easily fit into one of Amicus's anthology works as after the initial story setup not a not really happens but because of its strong cast and Francis direction it never feels padded (although there are few instances of characters coming and going from the same location to complete a single task). This was also due to fact that Francis had to pad out the script, which only amounted to 52 minutes of running time, to which he also added fluid long tracking shots with stretches of no dialogue which was unheard in horror films of the time.
     Opening with a bit of preamble to the origins of the title "character" a trio of grave robbers led by Pierre (Maurice Good QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) are shown excavating the body of the Marquis De Sade. Chopping of the head Pierre scuttles back to his quarters where is surprised by the uninvited sight of his unnamed mistress (April Olrich) in the bathtub (with a surprising amount of backside nudity for a film from this era). Quickly dipping the head in acid he's interrupted by an unseen calamity which is mirrored in a closeup of his screaming mistress face (and Olrich is a great screamer by the way).
    Jumping ahead to contemporary times we're introduced to Christopher Maitland (Cushing) and Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee) fellow collectors of weird and satanic objects d'art who are at an auction presided over by the scenery chewing Michael Gough (in a short cameo). Maitland is approached by the seedy Marco (Patrick Wymark THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW) a supplier of strange artifacts to the two men who ends selling Maitland a satanic book bound of human skin. Teasing him with the promise of a special piece he later returns to Maitland's with a skull purporting to be that of the Marquis de Sade (which also gives us the rest of the flashback story from the preamble). Deferring on the purchase he later finds out from Sir Matthew that the skull was stolen from him but he is reluctant to pursue its return as he claims he has a certain diabolical "power" over its owner.

     Soon Maitland comes to possess the skull and finds that it does indeed make for a disturbing piece in his collection. Although Lee and Cushing share only a few scenes together as Lee's role is just a cameo it's interesting to see them pitted against each other as rival obsessed collectors (a trait familiar to many of my fellow video collectors I'm sure). Maitland claim that he's acquiring the items for "research" seems to be an excuse mealy for his character to revel in various he ignores everything around him us objects notorious past histories and shut out the duties of marriage & responsibilities. His obviously long- suffering wife (played by Jill Bennett from Hammer's THE NANNY in a sadly underused role) is resigned to fact that she secondary to his collection as the couple sleep in separate rooms. Anna Palk who was a lead in THE FROZEN DEAD and TOWER OF EVIL has a small role as Cushing's housekeeper and one wonders if both roles were cut down at some point in production.
     Set up as the nominal hero (or even ant-hero) Maitland is not a very nice person, but it's to Cushing's credit that as an actor he enlists sympathy as you feel for the character even has begins to his decent into evil. As I mentioned before his "collecting" mania enters his personality and the sleazy Marko knows exactly how to play him in to snag him into a deal while Lee even with his short screen time seems much more grounded and rational.
     Francis used a large skull apparatus on the front of the camera to give a pov view through the skull's eye sockets and as to be expected he makes great use of the scope compositions, plus you'll want to freeze the picture at certain points just to study all the creepy bric-a-brac displayed in Cushing's study. There's a terrific Kafka like dream sequence that looks like something out of an Avengers TV show with creepy set design.
    Peter Woodthrope (who had just co-starred with Cushing in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) shows up as Marco's shady landlord and there's Nigel Green (COUNTESS DRACULA) and Patrick Magee (DEMONS OF THE MIND) as the fact-based police inspectors.
   A very big thanks goes out to Cinematic Catharsis & Reelweegiemidget Reviews for hosting this blogatohn.

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