Horror fans couldn’t wish for a more Gothic introduction as we drift through a rusty iron gate into a ramshackle cemetery. A well-heeled French gent of the 18th century is about to pay off a couple of sweaty grave-diggers before cracking open the lid of a freshly exposed casket and in doing so release into the mortal world a spirit more dazzlingly evil than any cheap absinthe you could down in the back alleys of Montmartre.
We know this because back at his gaff something mysterious is about to emerge from the depths of a steam filled room and it isn’t the glossy mademoiselle waiting in his bathtub. Freshly powdered his squeeze settles in for an evening of bonbons but soon tires of their company and goes in search of her beau. He’s been busy with the chemicals and upon entering his room there’s only one thing left for her to do; and that’s screeeeam.
The Skull is low on gore but high on visual atmosphere. You might actually find yourself peering into some of the on-screen shadows – is that Dennis Wheatley taking notes! Derived from a story by writer Robert Bloch (a supplier of plot lines for Amicus in these early years) the skull in question belongs to the Marquis de Sade whose unholy influence still crackles in the brain pan, casually willing people to do the kind of unspeakable things the Marquis did best when he was alive. No reason to stop having a good time when you’re dead huh?
Bookending an impressive roster of English acting from the period are Peter Cushing as Dr Christopher Maitland and guest-star Christopher Lee as Sir Matthew Phillips who as rival collectors of satanic antiquities become the perfect professional agents for the skull to go about its nasty business. Patrick Wymark is Anthony Marco, the grubby fence, supplying Maitland with the choice materials he needs for his intriguing research into the unknown. “Do you imagine I’d ask you for a thousand pounds for the skull of a nobody” he exclaims as Maitland scoffs at the price.
These disembodied bad boys of history never work alone. The Skull is supported by a hierarchy of hell represented by four stone effigies owned by Matthews who – in a triumph of telepathic over telephonic bidding by the Skull – was willed to pay over the odds for the grisly quartet. Also on hand although unseen throughout the film; a band of spiritual followers who show up twice a month to commune with the criminal cranium.
Maitland, unable to resist the skulls ability to hover at will and lurk in dark corners undergoes a fascinating and surreal dream sequence worthy of Hitchcock; not surprising then that even wife Jane (Jill Bennett) isn’t safe in spite of some de rigeur crucifix dangling – remember this isn’t any old evil you know – its MdeS evil!
The story ends with walk-on Inspector Wilson (Nigel Greene) too ready to dismiss the possibility of witchcraft – “not in this day and age” – as the skull grins triumphantly from its cosy vantage point. “Who me?” It’s not quite the spine-chilling twist of the knife that ends most Amicus product but it conveys the moralising be careful what you wish for undertone.
The Skull looks a lot like Hammer and given the read across in cast and crew would easily have passed for one from the Bray team. Producers Rosenberg and Subotsky must have realised early on the portmanteau approach would give them the USP they needed in the market, setting their output apart from Hammer. Its fine late night viewing and for the visual signature of Freddie Francis alone worth collecting on DVD. Recommended for atmosphere and dark corners.
Review by Dancemakr
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