The Skull (1965) Review
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.
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.
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.
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.