Title: The Skull
Distributor: Amicus Productions (Paramount Pictures – U.S.)
Writer: Milton Subotsky (screenplay), Robert Bloch (short story)
Director: Freddie Francis
Producers: Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Peter Woodthorpe
Released: August 1965
The Amicus Films Production company gets very little press outside of the horror community, and that should not be! The company was only around (making films) for about fifteen years, but it made an impact nonetheless. With perennial stars of the horror genre, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in a few of the films, they knew that had bankable “stars” to get some people into the theaters. Throw in stalwarts like Michael Gough, and Peter Woodthorpe, and you have a solid cast that delivers.
This film was one that dove into the “cult” fascination of the time, but not too heavily. Certain things were shown/talked about, and others mildly insinuated. Either way, you’ll be excited to see the cast, and the crazy scenes with Cushing. He really is over-the-top in this one, and any fan of the genre or the cast must watch it! let’s get on with the show!
The film begins with a couple of guys robbing a grave. A young man then returns to his apartment with something wrapped in a cloth. He enters his bathroom only to find a beautiful woman bathing. She’s apparently a love interest, but he tells her to get out. She can’t understand why, but he doesn’t care, and tells her to hit the road. She gets out of the tub, and asks why, but he tells her that he must be alone tonight. We then see him boil something, and when he pulls it out of the pot, we see a skull. Suddenly, a fog envelops the room, and when the woman returns to see if he’s changed his mind, she screams in horror. We then cut to the credits.
The next thing we see, is an auctioneer (Michael Gough – image above), pounding his gavel. Two men then get into a bidding war over four stone statues of evil. The first, Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), and the other, Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee), go back and forth until Phillips doubles Maitland’s bid, and it ends. Afterward, they discuss the bidding war, and Matthews cannot recall why he bid so high. He seems to have been hypnotized by the statues, and couldn’t control himself.
The next evening, another man, Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark), heads over to the home of Maitland, to sell him something. He has a book from the infamous Marquis de Sade, and it’s actually bound in human skin! Mr. Maitland is so intrigued, that he buys the book for £200. Marco tells him that he’ll be back tomorrow with something even more wild. Upon his return the following evening, he brings a skull, and tells him that it is the skull of the Marquis De Sade himself! Maitland doesn’t believe him at first, but then he tells him a story (one that connects to the pre-credits scene, and shows the murder of the girl), and then after dropping the price a bit, Maitland agrees to think about purchasing it. Marco gives him his address, and tells him to come over the following evening.
Maitland then goes to his friend’s house, and Matthews Phillips and he have a pool game, while discussing the skull. Matthews tells Maitland that the skull is genuine, and that it was stolen from him, days earlier. Maitland encourages Matthews to come with him later when he goes to see Marco, but Matthews refuses, and tells him that he’s glad it’s gone. He states that the skull is evil, and that occultists use its powers to some sadistic means. He begs Maitland to not buy it, but you can see he’s still very interested in it.
Over at Marco’s place, he rushes in to get ready for Maitland’s visit, but finds that the skull isn’t where he left it. He searches the closet vigorously, but to no avail. Suddenly, he turns around, and comes face to face with the skull! Holding it, is the building manager, Bert Travers (Peter Woodthorpe – image above), and he questions Marco about his “artifacts” that are strewn about the room. Marco tells him that nothing is of any value, and Travers leaves the room. Meanwhile, Maitland is reading his skin-bound book, that he purchased only days ago. He then gets a knock at the door, and when he answers it, two men, dressed as police officers tell him he’s under arrest, and must come down to the station.
On the way to the police station, Maitland notices that they aren’t stopping there, but some other undisclosed location. He’s lead into a room, with a judge sitting at a bench, with a gavel and everything else. The two men that brought him in have a revolver, and load a bullet into it. They also load their own pistols, and point them at his head. The judge motions for him to play some Russian roulette (image above). three successful attempts, Maitland is allowed to leave the room under escort. He’s placed in a hallway that closes on both sides, and a gas begins to fill the room. Maitland passes out after seeing the skull moving towards him through the gas, and ends up in the apartment building of Marco, the shady antiquities dealer (not knowing where he is though). He goes home, and finds the address of Marco, and sees that it was where he was after the crazy roulette/gas chamber scenario. He tells his wife (Jill Bennett) what happened, and he thinks it was a nightmare.
Later that night, Maitland sneaks out, and heads over to Marco’s place. The door is open, so he proceeds inside, looking for the skull. He finds it in the closet, but as he attempts to leave, he’s knocked over by the dead body of Marco. He hides the skull in the hallway closet, then calls the police. Bert is then brought in by the police, but doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on. They ask if there are any pets in the building, such as a large dog, but Travers tells them that they aren’t allowed. The next night, Maitland is over at Matthews house again, playing pool. He once again begs Maitland to disavow anything to do with the skull, and then gives him a crucifix to protect him against evils. Maitland then returns to get the skull from the closet, but is confronted by Travers. Maitland tries to push by him, but he wont let him pass, and threatens to call the police. Maitland then shoves Travers, and the railing breaks, and Travers plummets to his death.
I’ll stop here, but rest assured, this doesn’t end happily for Maitland, and those that surround him!
OK, here are my thoughts:
Of all the Amicus films I’ve seen, this one holds the most water. The story is good, you have four really strong players in this film (six if you count the few moments Michael Gough is on-screen in the beginning), and some good special effects. The sets are very good too, well, except for the Russian roulette scene where everything looks vanilla. Now, that may have been the choice to not give Cushing’s character anything to go off of if he went to the police, but that’s kind of doubtful. Although Lee isn’t in more than a few scenes, he does add his normal macabre atmosphere even though he’s the voice of reason in this film. You get what you expect from a pro like Cushing. His character delivers a believable performance, and mixes well with Lee, Woodthorpe, Wymark, and his on-screen wife, Bennett (who died tragically from suicide in 1990).
The musical score is good, but not anything super exciting. It does add some intensity to the last chapter, and for that, we have Elisabeth Lutyens to thank. The film does give you that Hammer film feel, but it is set in modern times, not the previous century (or earlier) that Hammer typically used. The film holds up well for one that was released fifty years ago (wow, 50 years!), and I can’t see it losing any of its charm in another fifty years. Get out and see this one, you wont be disappointed!