Skull, The (1965)

The Skull (1965)

When the Skull strikes you’ll Scream!

Dr Maitland collects curios and artefacts of the occult from across the globe to help him with his research. On one night, his disreputable source offers him the chance of a lifetime – to own the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Previous owners of the skull had suffered unpleasant fates but Maitland dismisses the rumours as nonsense designed to make the sale more lucrative and essential. He eventually gives in and takes possession of the skull. Slowly but surely, he begins to lose his mind as he is possessed by an evil force which threatens to destroy him and those around him.

 

British studio Amicus are better known for their anthology horror films but they did make a handful of stand alone horror films and attempted to differentiate themselves from Hammer back in the day by not setting them in Hammer’s traditional period settings. Instead, a lot of the Amicus films were set in contemporary time, mainly so that the viewer would hopefully be able to associate themselves more with what was going on. Although some of the anthologies were good, Amicus were never able to capture the essence of what the Hammer films were so good at. Indeed, a lot of these Amicus productions seem slow, plodding and with very little to talk about on screen.

Their stand alone efforts seem like some of the short anthology stories were dragged out into feature length films – clearly something like The Skull could have been trimmed down into a fifteen minute segment for Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or one of their other anthologies. This is the main problem with The Skull – the story just isn’t really interesting enough to captivate the audience and hold their interest. Little else happens in the film barring what is in the description on the DVD cover. At 83 minutes, even that seems stretched out and padded out with filler material. Apparently the final script only ran for around about 53 pages which was nowhere near enough for a feature length film so lots of extra scenes were added to pad out the running time – and it blatantly shows.

The skull itself doesn’t look intimidating and attempts are made to give it a bit of character including POV shots from the skull. It even floats around from time to time, looking like a cheap prop from a school Halloween production. An idea would have been to give the film the illusion that the skull isn’t actually doing anything and it’s all a figment of Maitland’s imagination that he has been possessed. I wish they’d have stuck with this more psychological approach instead of relying on silly floating skulls! The script never really explains too much about the skull and why it has been possessed by the Marquis de Sade and why it comes to possess others. There are times when the film borders on genius – the is-it-a-dream-or-isn’t-it finale in which Maitland is escorted by two police offers to see a judge who then forces him to play Russian roulette – but one wonders whether these moments were stumbled upon by mistake given how droll and bland the rest of the film is.

As much a load of rubbish as The Skull is, at least it’s one of the rare occasions in which Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starred in speaking roles opposite each other. Cushing is simply a marvel to watch. This is his film as you slowly watch him unravel into a man completely possessed by an evil force. His performance and insanity towards the end of the film is just intense. The nightmarish finale really gives Cushing the chance to show off a more explosive, uncontrolled side to him that I can’t recall him using too many times since the BBC’s version of Nineteen Eighty-Four went out in 1954. Lee isn’t in the film a lot and is credited as a ‘guest star’ but manages to boom and bluster his way through most of his scenes with his usual authority and gusto. The scenes in which the two men share screen time are great, if somewhat underwhelming. There’s a whole load of other old school British actors involved here including Peter Woodthorpe, Patrick Magee, Nigel Green, Michael Gough and Patrick Wymark, particularly memorable as Maitland’s shady associate, Marco.

 

The Skull is exactly the sort of film that I have come to associate with Amicus – decent but not memorable in the slightest. It’s good in small doses but there just isn’t enough to stretch out for a full length feature. A criminal waste of the excellent talent in front of the camera.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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