The Skull (1965) [31 Days of British Horror Review]

Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, Jules is at it again in March, treating us to a chronological run through the classic era of British Horror, from the late ’50s to the end of the ’70s, with one review every day for the entire month.

You can check out the rest of our “31 Days of British Horror” by CLICKING HERE.

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee
Director: Freddie Francis

A mere few months after making an instant mark on the world of horror with Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors, Amicus proved it wasn’t a fluke with another (minor at least) classic.

Instead of the portmanteau format this time, producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg looked to adapt Robert Bloch’s short story The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade into a full-length feature. Once again drawing on the unquestionable talents of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, not to mention Freddie Francis amongst others behind the screen, Amicus had all the pieces in place to all but guarantee success.

1814. With the death of the infamous Marquis De Sade, a phrenologist named Pierre (Maurice Good) decides to rob his grave in order to acquire his skull, but meets a horrific death soon after it comes into his possession.

150 years later, in present-day London, Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), a collector and noted author on the occult, is offered the skull by Marco (Patrick Wymark), a shady dealer in antiques and curiosities. Maintland learns that the skull is indeed genuine, but was recently stolen from his friend and fellow occult collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee). Surprisingly, he does not want his property returned and warns Maitland to steer clear of its evil influence which he is happy to have escaped.

Unfortunately for everyone concerned though, the pull of the skull is strong and it may already be too late to escape its dark power…

Despite being based on a short story that would have been perfectly at home in one of their portmanteau films, The Skull has enough going on to justify its feature-length and is a shining example of how frequently Amicus got it right in their early years.

Right from the off, with their logo crashing out the dead eye socket of the eponymous relic, this a lurid and enthralling piece of horror cinema that keeps you riveted throughout.

The evil and seductive nature of the Skull itself is established early doors, with the intrigue supplied by watching the characters who have come into it’s orbit and the terrible consequences it has on each of them.

As for those characters, they’re bolstered by yet another first-rate cast in an Amicus film.

With the lead role and almost all of the screen time, it’s essentially the Peter Cushing show and he gives a typically flawless performance, bringing out Maitland’s competitiveness, but also his warm friendship with Sir Matthew, before slowly charting his tragic descent into madness.

Lee is more of a supporting role, but gives good gravitas whenever he is required. There’s a lovely scene of him and Cushing playing snooker in Philips’ elegant house that almost steals the film. It’s an exposition scene, but the genuine friendship between the two men in real life comes across in their characters, like you are watching two old friends catching up. Wonderful. That situation is returned to towards the end of the film, but with tragic consequences, given extra weight by what was established earlier on.

The rest of the cast is, if not Cushing/Lee level, remarkably strong. Patrick Wymark is brilliantly slippery as the unscrupulous Marco, while talents like George Couloris, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee and even a cameoing Michael Gough make up the numbers. No role is too small not to have a great actor in this film.

It’s a gorgeously decadent looking film, which feels somewhat appropriate considering the subject matter of the Marquis. Scott Slimon and Bill Constable’s set design is astonishing, with each main character’s homes full of little details that both talk of their personality, but offer a visually dazzling experience even during the most talky of scenes.

Maitland’s library is dark and full of arcane volumes and collectibles; Sir Matthew has opulent billiard room with tribal masks; the original phrenologist’s apartment us awash with lush purples and reds, as well as a range of masks, dragons, books, crystal balls and skulls. There’s been a huge effort made here and it shows on the screen.

Francis handles the creeping tension and feelings of impending doom masterfully, initially allowing us to see through the skull’s eyes to a historical murder that it was responsible for, but then cutting to the present day with the viewer still trapped behind its eyes, looking out at Maitland and Sir Matthew. They might be ghoulish collectors of the uncanny, but Francis is making sure that we know that we as viewers, are no different in our desire to see the dark side of life.

There’s a nightmarish quality to The Skull that takes a while to get fully going, but doesn’t let up once it does. The Russian roulette in the pseudo-courtroom scene is as surreal as it is nasty, while the later scenes of the skull flying around are given an accidental otherworldly quality by dint of the less-than convincing effect used.

It’s the final scenes that really set The Skull apart though, as with the exception of Christopher Lee’s last, desperate words in his billiard room, the film is almost entirely silent for the last 30 minutes or so. It’s all about Cushing, plummeting into madness and murder.

As soon as Marco falls/is pushed to his doom, the skull begins to exert its influence on Maitland, it’s baleful gaze following him around the room.

As it builds, avant-garde composer Elisabeth Lutyens really comes into her own. There’s a throbbing, pulsating sound and a droning organ in the background, accompanied by flashing lights, that really hits home the psychic onslaught Maitland is under and it’s all the more remarkable that it’s done without the need for any dialogue.

The Skull is that rare thing, a short story that deserved being stretched out. Visually stunning, with a cast to die for and some genuinely unsettling scenes, it saw Amicus score two classics in a row.

Rating: 4/5.

JULESAV The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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