The Skull


Now available on DVD


Peter Cushing as Dr. Christopher Maitland

Patrick Wymark as Anthony Marco

Jill Bennett as Jane Maitland

Nigel Green as Inspector Wilson

Directed by Freddie Francis


Best known for the many successful anthology films – such as Tales from the Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum – that they produced during their heyday competing with Hammer Studios in the ’60s and early ’70s, the famed British horror outfit Amicus Productions always seemed to be at a loss whenever developing feature length stories (like 1973’s underwhelming…And Now The Screaming Starts!) and so it goes with The Skull (1965) – a lesser-known Amicus effort now being released to DVD for the first time – which unfortunately represents another promising but failed attempt a full-length horror movie from The Studio That Dripped Blood.

Initially raising expectations of something special, The Skull boasts a high pedigree of talent. It’s based on a Robert Bloch short story (“The Skull of the Marquis De Sade”), it’s directed by Hammer and Amicus Hall of Famer Freddie Francis (best known for his work as a cinematographer with films such as The Elephant Man and The Innocents but also an accomplished director as well, responsible for some of both Amicus and Hammer’s best-remembered films) and it stars an All-Star cast of British horror stalwarts – such as Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Patrick Magee (with a brief appearance by Michael Gough of 1959’s Horrors of the Black Museum) so at first glance The Skull looks like an obvious winner. But you’d be oh, so wrong. This is a film of tepid terror, guaranteed to bore any and all viewers out of their you-know-what.

The venerable Cushing stars as Christopher Maitland, an antiquities dealer who loses a bidding war with his millionaire competitor Sir Matthew Philips (Lee) over a set of demonic figurines that are meant to represent “the hierarchies of Hell.” Philips won the auction by doubling Maitland’s already oversized bid and Philips is convinced that the influence of a skull in his possession is what led him to purchase the figurines at all costs.

The skull is rumored to be that of the infamous Marquis De Sade and soon after the purchase of the figurines, the skull is stolen from Philips’ home by an underhanded dealer (played by Patrick Wymark) who in turn sells the skull to an unknowing Maitland. Despite his skepticism towards the occult, Maitland finds himself falling under the influence of the skull – even as Philips warns him to rid himself of the artifact. The viewer will wish Maitland sat up and paid attention to Philips’ advice, as it would’ve meant that this movie might’ve come to a mercifully quick end. But Maitland hangs on to the cursed cranium and sure enough, he finds himself fighting off the effects of the skull.

As I proceed to knock The Skull upside the head for realizing its vision of an entirely scareless horror film, let me just say this: when the focal point of evil in a horror film is nothing more than a skull – a skull that doesn’t even glow in the dark, cackle, or burst into flames, mind you – a filmmaker in that situation would do well to figure out exactly what’s supposed to be scaring people in their film because a skull sitting on a table – and occasionally levitating – just isn’t going to cut it (someone needed to find a way to pimp The Skull‘s skull!). Francis was clearly trying every trick he could to make the skull come across as threatening but nothing quite works. There’s even some examples of Skull-O-Vision as Francis places his camera inside the skull at times for some hoped-for dramatic effect but as it turns out, looking at Peter Cushing through the nose cavity of a skull just isn’t all that scary. And even as a surreal nightmare sequence provides a fleeting moment of intrigue, it’s quickly over. While it’d be hard for even an exceptional genre picture from over forty years ago to deliver the same effect on jaded modern audiences, I’m guessing that even in 1965, The Skull didn’t raise a single patch of gooseflesh.

The fact that the screenplay – penned by producer Milton Subotsky – is so inert is the prime reason The Skull isn’t the sublime shocker one might have hoped for. The story is just a royal dud and despite Cushing’s solid performance, the possession angle doesn’t produce any tension. But when one of the first scenes in The Skull is of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing competing in an auction presided over by Michael Gough, my first thought was that this movie couldn’t help but be fun as a forgotten example of ’60s-era horror goodness with genre royalty in full attendance. In an age where horror fans are subjected to one lame, teen-pandering remake after another, how could The Skull help but be a welcome antidote to that?

But that thought died pretty quickly as the goodwill engendered by its cast bled out. The only thing this film is an antidote for is consciousness. I’m all for ‘quiet’, moody horror that trades on atmosphere rather than jolts but despite the accomplished look of the film (well-served on Legend Films’ widescreen DVD) – courtesy of the efforts of frequent Francis collaborator cinematographer John Wilcox, along with art director Bill Constable and set decorator Scott Sliman – The Skull doesn’t rate in that league. Instead, this is just lethargic.

For the always welcome chance to see Cushing and Lee share some screen time, The Skull is going to automatically warrant some interest. And for fans of both gentlemen, this disc might be considered essential. But even with a short running time of 83 minutes, The Skull had my skull yawning.