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Schlock & Awe: Cushing and Lee Take on THE SKULL

Schlock & Awe: Cushing and Lee Take on THE SKULL

As much as I love Hammer Films and their impressive dominance of the horror genre between roughly 1958 and 1970, a lot of their movies became very samey, with sequel after sequel of their Dracula and Frankenstein series, and more Victorian Gothic than you could shake a stake of holly at. This is when the upstart British horror companies, who lacked the depth of budget to create a constant stream of movies, could excel. Hammer’s only major competition was Amicus Films, who were best known for their portmanteau horror flicks, but when they made single-story movies, sometimes they’d give us brilliance like 1965’s The Skull.

I haven’t talked about Amicus as much as Hammer, for obvious reasons, but they made some excellent films that I’ve written about, including the anthology film Tales from the Crypt, the funky werewolf movie The Beast Must Die, and even the two feature film Daleks movies. Amicus made the most of Hammer stars and creative types not being signed to exclusive contracts, which is how you can have an Amicus movie starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis.

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The Skull is notable among the crop of Amicus titles for being an incredibly artful, weird, and macabre masterpiece. The script was based on a short story called “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by the great Robert Bloch (he who wrote Psycho among many, many other great TV and movie scripts and short stories) concerning all the evil that befalls a collector upon obtaining the titular skull of the infamously evil French aristocrat. I mean, the term “sadistic” only exists because of the Marquis de Sade for pity’s sake. The script — by producer and Amicus co-founder Milton Subotsky — was reportedly way too short so director Francis had to fill out the runtime with new scenes conceived of on the fly, and they resulted in some of the most surreal and expressionistic British horror moments ever put to celluloid.

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The movie opens with a French phrenologist in the 1800s who decides to see if he can tell whether evil exists in a person by looking at their skull. Naturally, he decides to dig up a renowned evil person, the Marquis de Sade, but the skull seems to attack and kill him. We then cut to modern day when Christopher Maitland (Cushing), a collector and writer on the occult, is at an auction for strange old artifacts and finds himself bidding on purportedly evil-causing totems against his friend, Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee), who seems oddly compelled to bid an exorbitant amount on the objects. This confuses Maitland, but as Sir Matthew is a rich guy, he can’t possibly outbid him.

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Maitland has an associate named Marco (Patrick Wymark), an unscrupulous finder and dealer in the kind of strange artifacts that Maitland adores. The scholar secretly loves that Marco gets these pieces via nefarious and salacious means, but pretends to be above it, and Maitland’s wife (Jill Bennett) hates when Marco visits. One evening, Marco claims he’s got a lead on a piece that Maitland will surely want to have: the skull of the Marquis de Sade. He acts against such a piece, but given the strange history of both the man and his cranium’s supposed evil powers, Maitland is persuaded.

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It turns out, Marco’s lead on the skull is that it belongs to none other than Sir Matthew, and following a break-in and robbery, the scoundrel obtains the piece. Maitland is invited over to Sir Matthew’s house, where surprisingly the nobleman tells his friend that he was aware of the robbery and wants Maitland to get rid of the skull immediately. It made him do strange things, like buy more and more evil ephemera, and he’d hate for his friend to befall the same fate. However, Maitland’s sick fascination refuses to let him give it up, and starring at it in his home puts him in trances, gives him horrendous nightmares, and even makes him kill.

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On the surface, a movie about a skull that makes a guy go nuts is not necessarily praise-worthy, but Francis fills it with truly weird visuals and dream sequences. A notable one has Cushing’s character in a Kafkaesque courtroom where the bewigged judge fires a pistol at him. Another later in the movie shows the skull floating around his home, where we see from the skull’s point of view. A lot of these scenes feel like a silent movie from Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau, where the camera movements and Cushing’s brilliantly unhinged performance are the only factors. In fact, the final 25 minutes of the movie contains only about four lines of dialogue. It becomes more about the skill of the people involved than the story itself, and boy does it ever succeed.

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The Skull now looks as good as it ever has thanks to an HD transfer on the new Blu-ray release by Kino Lorber. On top of the movie — itself very fun to watch — there’s also a highly informative commentary by film critic Tim Lucas and two half-hour discussions with British scholars Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby. I would highly recommend checking out both the movie itself and this release, because if you’re a fan of ’60s Brit-horror the way I am, few movies will give you so much to mull over.

Images: Amicus/Paramount


Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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