Tuesday, 20 October 2015

the skull

the skull is a rather strange horror movie about a possessed skull that makes people go mad and then bites them to death. if that isn't enough to spark your interest, it also features peter cushing and christopher lee playing best friends, which has to be a rare occurrence (please leave other examples of this in the comments!).

the skull follows demonologist christopher maitland (peter cushing) and his dealings with dubious antiques dealer, marco (patrick wymark). marco has recently acquired a human skull that he is convinced is the skull of the marquis de sade. it’s also possessed by the same demon that possessed the marquis and marco is understandably keen to pass it on. despite being warned off by his friend and fellow collector sir matthew phillips (christopher lee), maitland decides he needs the skull. not long after he takes it the bodies start to pile up.

the skull is an amicus production, which on the surface means it’s hammer in all but name. kim newman explains the history of amicus in a much better way than i ever could on a special feature on this release, so check that out if you’re interested in finding out more. amicus used the same stars as hammer and many of the same personnel, including director freddie francis who had worked on a number of hammer films as cinematographer. he was also the cinematographer on jack clayton’s the innocents, which is a really beautiful, creepy film. there are a couple of moments in the skull that seem like pure visual indulgence, particularly in the dream sequence, and it’s in these moments that francis really stands out as a filmmaker.

the dream sequence is by far the best moment in the film, partly because it’s unclear for most of it that it’s a dream. maitland is 'arrested' and taken to a large, empty courtroom, where a judge forces him to put a loaded gun to his head and indulge in a light-hearted game of russian roulette. it’s an incredibly tense and wonderfully weird scene that jars against the rest of the film in the best possible way.

the other highlight of the skull is the relationship between maitland and phillips as fellow collectors. while we have seen lee and cushing onscreen together many times, it seems rare to see them in such informal, even friendly circumstances as are shown here. in a key scene, maitland and phillips discuss the skull over a game of snooker, and their friendship in the scene is one of the most genuine moments in the film. i don’t know if cushing and lee were friends in real life, but they do a good job selling it here if not.

the skull is based on a short story by robert bloch (who also wrote psycho) and while the story itself is good, the fact that it’s a short really shows. at times the skull feels like it should be a shorter piece and would have fitted in well as an episode of a portmanteau movie, like dead of night or dr. terror’s house of horrors. as a feature, it sometimes doesn’t feel like there’s enough story to fill the running time. a parallel story showing the fate of the skull’s first owner helps, but even this occasionally feels like filler. as a result, the skull often feels slow-moving, particularly as it’s clear from the outset where the story is going.

the film is also let down by its climax, which is particularly hard to take seriously. it’s not an issue with the effects, just the idea of a floating skull that bites people to death is kind of ridiculous and really dissolves the tension built up by maitland’s struggle with madness.

despite the ridiculous concept, cushing plays every scene as seriously as if it were shakespeare and in very convincing as a much more vulnerable character than we are used to seeing him portray. maitland is a really interesting character, and i could quite easily have watched a film about cushing running around london solving demonology-related incidents, as that’s certainly how it’s set up at one point (possibly wishful thinking on my part). what we actually get is a character who so badly wants to believe in the existence of the supernatural that he will put himself in serious danger to prove it and that's a fascinating concept, far more interesting than the idea of the possessed skull itself.

like it's namesake in the film, the skull is more of a curiosity than a forgotten masterpiece, but there are certainly some interesting elements to enjoy and some unusual moments. it’s also worth watching simply for the dream sequence, which looks stunning on blu-ray.

eureka entertainment release the skull in dual format blu-ray and dvd on 26th october 2015

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