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The Skull (1965)

Any film that lists the contributions of actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, writer Robert Bloch and director Freddie Francis in the credits becomes required viewing in my world resulting in multiple viewings over a number of years and probably more to come in those ahead.

Amicus Productions under the rule of Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg put out this feature released on the heels of  their successful anthology kick off, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. The pair were wise enough to once again bring back Lee and Cushing for this follow up and even genre regular, Michael Gough, who had also appeared in Dr. Terror turns up briefly in this eerie tale involving the skull of the Marquis De Sade.

Playing it both in a gothic style and a modern day London setting, the story begins with a prologue in the early 1800’s when a phrenologist, Maurice Good, has a Burke and Hare like pair of diggers exhume the body of the Marquis. All so he can remove the head from the body for his studies. What’s a Phrenologist you ask? Here you go…… Phrenology is a pseudoscience which involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. Back at his lodgings we have April Olrich as his lover but despite her best efforts, Maurice, is for the time being more enamored of his newly acquired skull than he is of her naked torso. A little chemical solution and “Behold the Skull!” followed by Miss Olrich’s piercing scream leading to the opening credits.

Not only are Cushing, Lee and Gough involved in this 83 minute thriller but you’ll recognize the likes of Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green, Jill Bennett, Patrick Magee, George Coulouris and Peter Woodthorpe’s name splash across the screen making this a first rate cast gathered by our Amicus producers.

Moving along were brought into the present even though you’d never know it if it weren’t for a car ride that Dear Peter is subjected to at a later point in the film. As it turns out, Peter and Christopher are friendly competitors when it comes to collecting satanic items and researching the occult. We’re introduced to them as they bid on a quartet of hideous statues at the latest auction conducted by Mr. Gough. Peter may covet the statues but Chris is in a trance as he bids more than double what they are probably worth to secure the bid. Though he may have lost the statues, Peter, will be paid a visit by the shady Wymark who acquires rare items by any means including theft thus sell to high end clients. First up he has a book bound in human flesh to peddle to Peter. A book concerning the Marquis. In his next go around he’ll be attempting to unload the actual skull to Peter which gives Director Francis a chance to once again take us back in time to learn more about the Marquis himself and the origins of the skull and how it affected the couple from our opening segment and their solicitor, Mr. Coulouris.

While the price may be high, Peter is hooked. Even against the warning of Chris who as it turns out was the previous owner. In fact Wymark has stolen it from his collection but Lee’s happy to be rid of it and speaks of the evil spirit that possess the skull. “It’s dangerous.” he warns Peter and urges his friend to leave it alone. But where would our thriller be if Peter didn’t give into temptation and go to visit Wymark and pay the small ransom he’s asking for it. Let’s just say the transaction doesn’t go as planned and we’re too soon meet a landlord with blackmail on his mind, Peter Woodthorpe, the local  the local police inspector Nigel Green and the coroner, Patrick Magee. Yes, the bodies have begun to pile up.

I think for those that had seen the film as youngsters on late night television, what we likely recall most is the photography Freddie Francis employs by filming in a point of view style with the camera looking out through the eye sockets of the skull. That and seeing it float about the night as it drives Peter towards insanity.

As much as I’ve always enjoyed the film as a whole, I sometimes think it may have been better suited as another anthology presentation that became synonymous with the company. Keep the Peter and Chris segment and the opening one but flesh it out with two more and a wrap around with Wymark. I say this cause deep down though I hate to admit it the film drags at times and doubles up the script pages in the final reel. What isn’t affected is the overall look of the film. It’s gorgeous on the blu ray I picked up via Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The bright reds, purples and greens used in the set design have it looking like a Mario Bava shocker.

Not lost on me is that Cushing is once again dabbling in the familiar territory of demonology without the tenacity or strength of character that Van Helsing has in the actor’s Hammer go arounds, The Horror of Dracula and The Brides of Dracula. By this point in their careers, Cushing and Lee, were the Karloff and Lugosi of their era. This was their tenth collaboration together. Possibly eleventh if we count The Devil’s Agent (1962) that supposedly cast but deleted it’s scenes with Peter leaving Lee to himself. Don’t they know what they’ve done. Damn those producers!

Both the actors involved and the director alternated regularly between Amicus and that other “horror” studio, Hammer, throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. Lee and Cushing need little introduction when it comes to their output at Hammer. Freddie Francis had some solid thrillers under his belt as a director for Hammer including Paranoiac as well as directing Cushing’s The Evil of Frankenstein and eventually Lee’s Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. Once hiring on with Amicus he would helm seven features for the studio if my count is correct.  

Among them is a nifty chiller, The Psychopath that also featured Patrick Wymark in a leading role and The Deadly Bees starring Frank Finlay and Suzanna Leigh. Patrick Magee would also work for Hammer on Demons of the Mind, Nigel Green would star opposite Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt in the studios cult favorite, Countess Dracula and would also star alongside Lee in the new series of Sax Rohmer titles, The Face of Fu Manchu as Lee/Fu’s nemesis Nayland Smith also released to theaters in 1965.

Filling out our comparison notes between studios, Woodthorpe also went to work for Hammer in The Evil of Frankenstein, Gough had appeared in Horror of Dracula, Jill Bennet who here plays Cushing’s wife starred alongside Bette Davis in Hammer’s The Nanny and finally George Coulouris even turned up in 71’s Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb at Hammer. Yes indeed, both production companies liked to dip into the same talent pool beyond just Lee and Cushing.

The Skull is a memorable film for those of us who are fans of Lee and Cushing and it’s always worthy of a revisit or a recommendation to those who have yet to experience the terror that the skull of the Marquis De Sade brings with it.

And the original insert? Like the skull itself, it too has a power that draws me to it.

7 Comments »

  1. Like yourself, I have a soft spot for this based on viewing at an early age, and of course the wonderful cast and that attractive visual aesthetic. I agree too that it’s not all it could be in the final analysis, there’s just not enough story to sustain it.

  2. With its shots from the viewpoint of the skull and other effects, at one time I imagined that this had originally been shot in (or planned for) 3D, but of course, by 1965 the 3D craze was long over. An entry in the IMDb trivia page has director Francis claiming that they started filming with a screenplay that was barely more than an outline, and they had to fill out the story while they were filming and even in post-production — which is somewhat difficult to believe.

    P.S.: You mention Patrick Wymark in The Psychopath, which I agree is a very nifty chiller and deserving of a proper video release. Also scripted by Robert Bloch.

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