Cinema Sunday: The Skull (1965)

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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

MPAA: NR

 

 

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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!

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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!

Click here for the trailer!

 

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Cinema Sunday: Horror of Dracula (1958)

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Title: Horror of Dracula

Distributor: Hammer Studios/ Universal Pictures

Writer: Jimmy Sangster (Screenplay)

Director: Terence Fisher

Producer: Anthony Hinds

Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh

Released: May 8th, 1958

MPAA: PG

It just occurred to me that this film wasn’t among the many Hammer films that I’ve reviewed. This cannot be so any longer, as I intend to showcase the first vampire film that Hammer Studios released, and the one that vaulted the career of Christopher Lee into orbit! Peter Cushing was already a commodity, and Michael Gough, Lee, and others had plenty of experience, but Cushing is the driving force behind the movie, make no mistake. Rather than me slobbering on forever about it, I’ll just get to the plot, which isn’t exactly like the Bram Stoker novel, due to legal issues with Universal and the estate of the Stoker family, but rest assured, it still is a classic!

The film opens with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), a young man who’s making his way through the Carpathian mountains, to reach a castle. Once there, his internal monologue tells us that he has a “job” to do, but what that is, we’re not sure. He sees food on the table, and decides to sit down and dine. After starting a fire, he begins to go through his personal items. He accidentally knocks over a plate, and as he’s picking it up, a beautiful woman (Valerie Gaunt) approaches. He introduces himself as the new librarian of the estate, but the woman only wishes to be rescued from being held a prisoner by the owner of the castle. Just then, the woman quickly races away, and Harker has a feeling there’s a good reason. He slowly turns around, and at the top of the staircase, is a dark figure, looking down ominously. The man quickly descends, and greets Harker, introducing himself, as Dracula (Christopher Lee).

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After they exchange pleasantries, Count Dracula shows Harker to his room. He informs him that he’ll be away until tomorrow evening, so he can make himself at home. Dracula then notices a picture on the desk, and asks who the woman is, and Harker tells him that it is his fiancé, Lucy Homewood. Harker then writes in his journal, that he has gained access to the house, and that he is ready to do what must be done, about Dracula. As Dracula leaves, Harker is startled by the fact that he locks him in his room for the night. Later though, he hears the lock get unlocked, and he investigates to see who it was that was responsible. He heads downstairs, and runs into the same woman who approached him before. She pleads with him to rescue her from Dracula, but she isn’t clear about why she needs rescuing in the first place. As she hugs on to Harker, she also moves closer to his neck. He fangs pop out, and she readies herself to feed on the unsuspecting man.

Just as she attempts to bite him, Harker feels it, and shrugs her off. In the next seconds, you hear a godawful hiss, and we see Count Dracula at the top of the stairs, blood dripping from his mouth, and looking insane. He pounces on the woman, and scares Harker. But Harker tries to stop him from manhandling the woman. Dracula chokes him nearly unconscious, then grabs the woman, picking her up like a child, and carries her off to some other place in the castle. Harker then passes out in the living room.

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The next morning, Harker awakens in his room, and is horrified to see that the woman actually broke through his skin, and bit him on the neck. He breaks down emotionally, and we see that he has some knowledge of this affliction. He writes again in his journal, and leaves a message for someone who he hopes will read this, and be able to help.

The next day, Harker embarks on a mission through the castle, to find the resting place of Dracula. He finds the woman, slumbering in a coffin. He wastes no time in driving a stake through her heart, but then notices the sun has gone down. As he looks towards the door, Dracula creeps in, and you know that Harker is no more.

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Soon after, a pub is the new scene, and we watch as a man, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), enters and begins to ask questions about his friend who recently passed by, named Harker. The pub owner (George Woodbridge) acts as if he doesn’t know anything, but the waitress tells Van Helsing that she remembers him. The pub owner scolds her, and sends her into the kitchen. Van Helsing questions the pub owner some more, but he refuses to get involved. When the meal is ready, the waitress brings it out, and hands a journal to Van Helsing. It is the journal of Harker, and it details the happening at the castle. Apparently, both men are sort of vampire hunting team.

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Van Helsing goes to the castle, and searches for Harker (having not yet read the journal). He finds that Harker’s room has been ransacked, and that he seems to be missing. As he descends into the lower levels, Van Helsing finds Harker, dead in a coffin, with bite marks on his neck. He then reaches into his bag, and pulls out a stake and a hammer, then proceeds to do the deed. The next scene shows Van Helsing at the residence of the Homewood family. Van Helsing informs them that Jonathan is dead, and that he was cremated. Arthur Homewood (Michael Gough), is the brother of Lucy (Jonathan’s fiancé), and he is quite upset with Van Helsing, and his being very mysterious about Jonathan’s death.

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later that evening, Lucy is in bed, and she gets out, with a very creepy look on her face. She makes sure that her door is locked, then she unlocks the patio doors, that lead to her bedroom. She also removes her crucifix, and readies herself for a visitor. We then see that she has bite marks on her neck. Across town, Van Helsing is listening to a recording about ways of fighting these undead creatures, such as Dracula. The following morning, Lucy is very ill, and almost on the brink of death. Mina Homewood (Melissa Stribling) goes to see Van Helsing, and to ask for his help with Lucy. Van Helsing then examines Lucy, and sees the bite marks on her neck. He then instructs Mina to keep her doors and windows locked at night-time, and to keep garlic flowers in her room.

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After she does what Van Helsing instructs, night falls, and Lucy cries out to the maid to take away the flowers, and to open the windows. She does as Lucy asks, and the next morning, Lucy is dead. Van Helsing visits, and Arthur is very crass towards him. Van Helsing then tells him to read Jonathan’s journal, and then, he will understand. In the evening, a policeman visits and brings Tania (Lucy’s niece) back to the house. Tania claims to have been visited by Lucy. Arthur then goes to the crypt, and finds that Lucy is missing. He then witnesses Lucy, as she’s about to snack on Tania. He calls out to her, and she attempts to attack him, but Van Helsing is there as well, and brandishes a cross. He burns her forehead with it, and Lucy runs away screeching. Van Helsing and Arthur then go to the crypt, and pound a stake through Lucy’s heart, ending her nightmare, and releasing her soul.

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Dracula then focuses his attention on Mina, and it’s up to Van Helsing and Arthur to try to stop this evil entity!

OK, here are my thoughts:

If there’s anyone out there that hasn’t seen this film yet, get to it. Even if you aren’t the biggest horror movie fan or a fan of old movies, you need to see this one. This is the beginning of the Cushing-Lee horror combo, that Hammer Studios would use to build an empire. The acting is superb, as the two main characters, along with Michael Gough, put on performances that make this classic what it has been and always will be as a landmark in cinema. This film was made only one year after Hammer struck gold with Frankenstein, and the hits would keep coming for more than a decade.

Along with the great acting, the people behind the scenes were just as responsible for this gem. Starting with James Bernard, and his wonderful music score. You get some thunderous music, and other times a frightening interlude. He really nailed this one, and was simply perfect. The script by Jimmy Sangster was quite good considering he couldn’t use the story from the book or the screenplay from the Universal film either. Terence Fisher gives us his usual brilliance with direction, and the team of Hinds and Keys rounds out the production of the film. Everything from the costume designs, the sets, lighting, you name it, this film was top-notch. Hit up your local store or just get to Amazon and grab a copy, you wont be disappointed. I own a set a four Hammer Films that TCM put out a few years ago. It has this film, plus three other classics that you’ll love.

 

Click here for the trailer!

Cinema Sunday: The Phantom of The Opera (1962)

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Title: The Phantom of the Opera

Distributor: Hammer/Universal

Writer: John Elder (novel by Gaston Leroux)

Director: Terence Fisher

Producer: Anthony Hinds

Starring: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza, Thorley Walters, Michael Gough

Released: June 25, 1962

MPAA: UR

I own this version and the Universal film as well, but as with other previous reviews, you’ll find out why I think the Hammer Studios version is superior. Heck, just watch them both, and you’ll probably agree. Lon Chaney did a fantastic job as the Phantom, but Herbert Lom brings it to another level. This film did have the advantage of being shot many years after the Universal version, but it wasn’t some big budget film full of incredible special effects. No, it was the acting of Lom, De Souza, and Gough, that makes this film a winner. Now let’s get down to the story!

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The film begins with some organ music playing in the bowels of an empty opera house. We then see the Phantom (Herbert Lom) and his minion (roll opening credits). We next see the opera house, as it’s filling up for the first night of a new show, allegedly written by Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough). Ambrose and the theater manager, Mr. Lattimer (Thorley Walters), are quite excited about the good showing of people. In a dressing room backstage, a woman is readying her voice for the show. She’s the lead in this version of ‘Joan of Arc’, and seems a bit nervous because of some shenanigans that have plagued the theater as of late. As she continues warming up, the light in her room is put out by a creepy looking hand. Another man then enters the backstage area of the theater, the producer, Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza). He speaks with the stage manager, and the conductor about more mischief around the theater, but then he’s summoned to the dressing room of Maria, the star of the show. She’s terrified and explains to him that a man, dressed all in black, and with only one eye, entered her room and scared the life out of her. She claims she can’t go on, but Harry convinces her otherwise.

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The play begins, and we see Lattimer and Hunter discussing the riddle of how a man like Ambrose wrote such good music. Ambrose then walks in, and sarcastically thanks Harry for his “compliment’, and Harry gives him a snarky comment right back. Harry then leaves the box, and Lattimer and Ambrose talk briefly. Ambrose notices an empty box, and questions Lattimer about it. Lattimer tells him that people do not like to sit there, because they believe it’s haunted. Ambrose gets angry, and tells Lattimer that he’ll speak to his superiors in the morning about this matter. Things are going fine, but then suddenly, we see something ripping through a piece of the set, and it reveals a man, hanging by his neck. People scream in terror, and the theater empties out. Ambrose instructs Lattimer to let no bad press attach itself to the opera, and the two part ways for the day.

Meanwhile, Harry is holding auditions for the lead role of St. Joan. One girl in particular, Christine Charles (Heather Sears), is singing her heart out, and impresses Harry. Ambrose and Lattimer walk in, and get angry at first, but when they hear the voice, they settle down. Ambrose is especially taken with Miss Charles (basically, he’s a horny dude that uses his money and power to get girls). He tells Lattimer to give her a note to meet him later for dinner. As the evening gets older, we watch, as Ambrose and Miss Charles have dinner, and at first, it seems very cordial. But, as Ambrose gets more and more drunk, he begins to show his true colors. He tells her that essentially, she has to sleep with him if she wants the lead role in his opera. She’s completely embarrassed, but gives in to his request in the end. Just as the two are leaving, Harry comes into the restaurant, and Miss Charles asks him to help her out of this jam. He gladly accepts, because he can’t stand Ambrose. When he realizes the scam is up, Ambrose leaves in a huff.

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In the next scene, the two (Harry and Christine), are taking a carriage ride through the park (driven by Michael Ripper). She tells Harry that she recently had an experience just like the previous lead role, and that the same man spoke to her in the dressing room, telling her to get away from this place, and Ambrose D’Arcy. Harry then instructs the driver to take them to the opera house, to look for clues (Scooby-Doo style). The cleaning ladies are still there and don’t believe him when he tells them that he’s the producer of the show. He then asks if ay of them have found a diamond broach, and they scatter to search for it (a ruse to get them out-of-the-way). As the two get to the dressing room, the lights go out, and that sinister voice orders them to get away from this place or else! Just as they’re trying to figure out who this is, the cleaning ladies shriek, and run off. Christine and Harry are then greeted by the rat catcher (Patrick Troughton- image below), and he offers a few of this evenings catches for a nice “pie”. They tell him that they’re vegetarians, and then give him a few pounds to get lost. As he leaves the room, he gets stabbed in the eyeball by the Phantoms diminutive sidekick. The rats then scurry away, and Harry and Christine wonder what’s happened to the rat catcher. As Harry investigates, Christine is approached by the Phantom, she screams in fear, then faints. This draws Harry back to the room, but by that time, the Phantom is gone.

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The next day, Ambrose is holding auditions for the lead role. When Harry finds out, he’s furious, and confronts him about it. Ambrose tells Harry that it’s his opera, and he’ll make the decisions. Harry accuses him of mistreating Christine, and basically firing her for not sleeping with him. Ambrose then fires Harry. Harry goes to see Christine, and tells her that he’s been fired as well, so they’ll go celebrate because they both ‘got the sack’ today. Harry notices some sheet music in the room, and asks the landlord where she got it from. She tells him that a musical genius named Professor Petrie used to live there, and wrote some incredible music while living at the apartment. Harry asks what became of him, and she tells him that he was killed in a fire at a printing shop years earlier. They (Harry and Christine)  then spend a beautiful day together, and are falling in love with each other.

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They later investigate the printing shop, and the man tells them that the man who broke in didn’t die, but ran off after being burned by a fire and some acid that he thought was water, trying to douse the flames. They go to the river (Thames), and then decide it’s time to call it a night. The two take another carriage ride (this time driven by Miles Malleson), and kiss in the carriage. Harry then takes her home, but not long after getting in the door, Christine is assaulted by the Phantom’s sidekick, and taken to his lair. Christine awakens to find herself as a captive of the two men, and then is told by the Phantom, that when she sings, it will only be for him. He will instruct her on how to become a great singer, or suffer the consequences!

Will Harry be able to save Christine, and figure out the secret identity of the Phantom? Will someone put Ambrose out of his misery?

OK, here we go with my thoughts:

As i said earlier, if you’ve seen both films, you’ll probably agree that this one is better than the Universal film overall. Herbert Lom is a great Phantom, but he really sells his role as Professor Petrie. Those scenes are extremely emotional, and he really shows his acting chops in them. As the phantom, he’s creepy, but the film has a different angle than the Universal film, and you’ll either love it or hate it, in the end. I won’t give it away, but the person who you really want to see get theirs at the end of the flick might not be the Phantom.

The supporting cast is very strong too, and Edward de Souza deserves the lion-share of the credit. He really has you believing he’s a big time music producer, and an all around butt kicking dude! He has a fight scene with the sidekick/minion guy, and tells off Ambrose every ten minutes. He’s a ‘man of action’ type in this film, and really reminds me of a James Bond sort of character. Michael Gough is also sensational, in his portrayal of the dastardly Ambrose D’Arcy. You really want to see this guy get throttled about ten minutes into the film. Thorley Walters adds his usual oddity to this one, and you get the quick cameos by Michael Ripper and Miles Malleson, too!

Listen, before you start throwing rocks at me for saying this one is better than the Universal flick, get out there and grab this movie, and give it a try. It’s extremely underrated, but has a great cast, solid plot, a top-notch music score, and incredible sets as you’ve come to expect from Hammer Studios!

Click here for the trailer!