A stable of fine English actors, solid source material, and a truly-unnerving feeling of dread make 1965's The Skull a standout horror film that levitates above its limitations.
There's a lot to appreciate with 1965's The Skull, from the cast, to the story, to the production itself. The film comes from Amicus, a studio that--for a time--stood toe-to-toe with Hammer Films as the pinnacle of British horror. This success was an ironic achievement, considering that Amicus was founded by two Americans working in the English film system. And while this movie doesn't quite have the Gothic grandeur that graces so many Hammer productions, it does excel through a story first penned by legendary genre-writer Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho), outstanding cinematography, and a capital cast culled from Hammer's finest players.
Peter Cushing (Horror Express) stars as Christopher Maitland (dedicated Amicus fans will recognize the surname "Maitland" as a recurring trope throughout the output of the studio), a collector of the occult who researches the unknown and allegedly writes his own treatises on these subjects. I say "allegedly" because we never actually see him put pen to paper once in the film, but his reputation apparently precedes him. Christopher Lee (Dracula A.D. 1972), appears in a small role as a fellow collector and distinguished gentleman, as well as an associate of Cushing's character. They know each other well, often bidding on the same occult collectible items at auction. Patrick Wymark (Witchfinder General) is the dealer who supplies Cushing with many of these rare items, often gained through dubious means. Michael Gough (The Horror of Dracula, Alfred from Tim Burton's Batman) makes a brief appearance as the auctioneer.
When Wymark supplies Cushing with a rare book bound in human flesh that recounts the ill deeds of the notorious Marquis de Sade, it sends the collector down a dark path of obsession. Wymark makes things much worse when he offers to sell the actual skull of the Marquis to our protagonist. The skull, it would seem, has a dark history and is both cursed and possessed by something incredibly evil. As the movie unfolds, Cushing is driven from his comfortable collection and thrown directly into madness and murder.
The script of The Skull--adapted by Amicus' co-founder Milton Subotsky--is pretty thin, and the original Robert Bloch short story is perhaps even thinner, not needing to fill 83 minutes of cinematic screen-time. Yet, what makes this movie so much fun to watch is all the little things between the lines of dialogue and plot. Director Freddie Francis (an Oscar winner for cinematography), who himself cut his teeth by directing surrealistic and unnerving Hammer Films like Paranoiac in 1963 and Nightmare in 1964, manages to turn these bare-bones into a behemoth, taking eerie delight in removing the viewer from comfortable reality. Any audience familiar with this era of horror cinema usually comes expecting the same thing: macabre melodrama played to a maximum on modest stages, complete with an excess of hand-wringing, brandy-swilling, and scenery chewing.
Yet The Skull surprises viewers by subverting our expectations and introducing a strong surrealistic element mid-way through the film and we never again recover our reality. Cushing's character enters into a nightmare and we accompany him, often unclear of what is real and what is an illusion. The film's cinematographer, John Wilcox (another Hammer stalwart) captures Cushing's creepy collection in terrifying shadows, bringing life to statues, masks, and artifacts that seem to jump forth with evil intent. There are long stretches of the film where, technically, nothing is happening; yet the filmmakers are still telling their story by moving the camera constantly and dragging us further into the nightmare that we're witnessing. It's a remarkable lesson in how low-budget film-making can overcome limitations through style and innovation. The Skull is an unnerving film, setting an unease early on that grows unbearably as it progresses. I must also mention the intense sequence in which our protagonist is forced at gunpoint to play Russian Roulette with a loaded pistol. This sequence was filmed years before the famous scene involving Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. An influence on that film's director? Perhaps.
None of these horrors are meant to imply that The Skull isn't fun to watch; it's actually terrific fun, with Cushing, Lee, and Wymark bringing their absolute best. Cushing throws himself into the role with no reservation, and Lee brings his stately dignity. The real star of the movie might very well be Patrick Wymark, who manages to convey a slimy desperation in his role of the rare item dealer with dubious methods. The Skull manages to make quite a bit from just a little, and when we see the wires that help the titular skull to levitate across the room and down the darkened hall, it somehow adds to the carnival charm.
In 2017, The Skull was issued on a fantastic Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics (there's also a UK edition from Eureka dating to 2015). The HD transfer really brings out the blacks and deep shadows that often shroud the sets, and is quite serviceable for this low-budget, fan-favorite tale. The Kino disc really shines in the extras department, offering an audio commentary with Tim Lucas, a 24-minute featurette with Jonathan Rigby, and a 27-minute overview of Amicus and this film by Kim Newman, one of my favorite genre film enthusiasts. The icing on the cake is a "Trailers From Hell" for this movie featuring none other than the founder himself, Joe Dante, discussing the picture and what makes it stand "head" and shoulders above so many other Amicus films.
For fans of British horror and sixties cinema, The Skull offers a lot to appreciate. It's brief, packed with some of the most watchable talent that was working in the U.K. during this era, and based on a story by one of horror's most beloved writers. Milton Subotsky's screenplay isn't spectacular, but just about everything else in this movie is, at least for those who seek out and appreciate a particular kind of style. After fifty years, many of the horror films from this era can feel a bit dated and their scares slightly muted, but The Skull is still very effective and creating a feeling of dread that hangs on all the way until the end credits.
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