YEAR RELEASED: 1965
DIRECTOR: Freddie Francis
CAST: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Michael Gough
REVIEW BY SELENE PAXTON-BROOKS
Here we have a great little film, The Skull (1965) that is quite tricky to get hold of in the UK, but if you have the opportunity of seeing it, it’s well worth the watch!
The opening scenes of the film step back in time to 1814, and echoes the real life story of the exhumation of the Marquis de Sade’s body and the loss of his head. In the film Pierre (Maurice Good) is the grave robber, who boils the skin from Sade’s head and pays the consequences for his evil act. Amicus’ historical beginning mirrors Hammer’s own atmospheric classics of around this time, but with the chilling titles it moves swiftly into modern day 1960s.
We start with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as friends bidding against each other for four demonic statues at an auction. Something’s not quite right. Sir Matthew Philips (Lee) seems possessed by the auction lot, paying over the odds and beating his friend Christopher Maitland (Cushing) to the prize. Even at the start Cushing and Lee play alongside each other beautifully, their traditional British characters directed in Freddie Frances’ innovative manor draws you straight into the story, based on Bloch’s ‘The Skull of the Marquis de Sade’. We also meet the shady, snuff sniffing character of Marco (Wymark) and the scene is set for the horror to begin.
The next scene gives us the chance to find out more about Dr Christopher Maitland. He is a scholar and writer of the occult, and revels in the dark side of the supernatural. He is a collector who wishes to possess artefacts and books to enlarge his collection and increase his knowledge of all things strange and macabre. He has a beautiful wife, Jane (Jill Bennett), and he is researching for his next paper. So when Marco arrives offering him a rare book bound in human skin Maitland can not resist. Not only that but Marco hints at an even more extraordinary purchase, that of the evil skull of the Marquis de Sade.
The skull begins to create havoc and Marco is quickly disposed of, leaving Maitland desperate to add it to his collection, by any means possible. Maitland discusses the skull with his friend Philips, and we find that the skull was originally in Philip’s possession and that Marco had stolen it from him. Philips warns Maitland off, but Maitland is truly obsessed and refuses to listen to reason.
There are some really effective camera shots throughout the film, particularly in Maitland’s house and library, which are very eerie and atmospheric. The odd camera shots through items, such as the fire, staircase and even the skull itself, give an unusual tenseness to the film. Peter Cushing’s ability to portray fear and panic is used wonderfully during a dream sequence to create a very believable nightmare, Maitland is escorted by police to be judged for his sins, Cushing’s facial expressions and the sound track are a perfect combination. In fact, this sequence is very reminiscent of the TV series ‘The Prisoner’, which was first broadcast in the UK in 1967, I wonder if ‘The Skull’ influenced its, at times, stark and oppressive style. The only thing that I particularly dislike are the floating skulls, specially when you see the wires holding them up!
On the whole this is a real gem of a film, the story works, in a strange sort of way, and the quality of the acting is a credit to it. What I don’t understand is why it is so hard to get hold of, and I wonder if it is because this film doesn’t fit into the Amicus portmanteau slot that it is so well known for. Keep your eyes open, it’s definitely one to watch, especially if you are watching through the eyes of the skull itself!
SELENE PAXTON-BROOKS is The Spooky Isles’ South East England Correspondent. She is particularly interested in folklore and historical hauntings, “I’ve been intrigued by the paranormal from an early age. I am also an avid fan of British horror, particularly Hammer and Amicus productions, and I love all things strange and macabre. ”
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