Starring Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett
Directed by Freddie Francis
Distributed by Eureka! Entertainment
The second horror film – following Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors — to come from the stables of Hammer’s greatest rival, Amicus Productions, Freddie Francis’ The Skull stars Peter Cushing as wealthy curio collector and author Christopher Maitland.
Approached by a shady dealer, Maitland is offered a pair of esoteric antiques – one, a book detailing the life of the infamous Marquis de Sade (and bound in human flesh, no less) and the other… the skull of the Marquis himself.
Maitland is warned off of purchasing the grim ornament by his friend, and fellow collector, Matthew Phillips (Lee) – who reveals that it was, in fact, recently stolen from him… and he would rather not have it back. See, the skull remains the vessel for a demonic spirit that once possessed the Marquis, and will call out to its owner, leading them down an irresistible path of madness and murder.
Of course, Maitland has already found himself rather taken with the piece, and despite all warnings continues to pursue it. Soon, the malevolent power of the skull is in full swing, and poor Maitland will realise that he has bitten off far more than he can chew.
Adapted from the 1945 short story The Skull of the Marquis de Sade by Robert Bloch, The Skull is quite an effective chiller in the classical vein, but marred by a lack of momentum. Screenwriter Milton Subotsky, in sticking as closely to the source material as possible, ran into a major problem – one that was passed on to director Francis – when the completed script for his film was barely feature length.
This led to Francis being forced to dream up additional scenes and drag current ones out when shooting. The result is a number of extended sequences in which very little happens, or the events portrayed play out in drawn-out style. In testament to the skills of legendary actor Peter Cushing, however, it actually manages to work – the man proving as captivating as ever no matter what he’s doing. Cushing adds a gravitas to his slower scenes, especially given the almost dialogue-free final act, serving to increase the skin-crawling threat that pervades much of The Skull’s later runtime.
On the whole, Francis’ direction is slick – though there are moments of off-putting editing during conversations – and the lo-fi special effects employed to create the finale’s malevolent floating skull don’t actually come across as entirely ridiculous given the film’s success in generating a solid atmosphere of doom.
The Skull would perhaps have been better served by inclusion in one of Amicus’ anthologies rather than being forcibly stretched to feature length, but it still manages to succeed in its aims. With Cushing and Lee on top form and enough mystery and suspense to go around, The Skull makes for a great pick for a rainy evening in the company of a good old-fashioned spook show.
Eureka! Entertainment bring The Skull to UK homes in a double-disc set featuring both DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film. Only the DVD was supplied for the purposes of review, and it’s suitably well presented, exhibiting only very minor instances of picture instability – excusable given the source material.
Extras on the disc include two on-camera discussions of the film, one with film historian Jonathan Rigby and the other with critic and author Kim Newman. Both are entertaining and informative, though it’s natural that some duplicate information about the film, and the history of Amicus, is espoused. Physically, there’s a reversible sleeve so you can choose exactly what goes on your shelf, and a collector’s booklet featuring a very well written short essay by film historian Vic Pratt and a wide selection of historic promotional materials from The Skull’s release.