The Skull (Freddie Francis, 1965)
Amicus Productions–the infamous Hammer rival and nicknamed the “studio that dripped blood”–churned out a raft of above-average horror films during the sixties and seventies, hitting their stride with DOCTOR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS. An enormously entertaining portmanteau film, DOCTOR TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS would serve as a blueprint to what would become a successful formula for Amicus, with many other anthology films following in the decade to come.
Though synonymous with the portmanteau film, Amicus were also responsible for making many a conventional horror film and it must be said, most are lacking the punch of their anthology counterparts, and this is certainly the case with Freddie Francis’ 1965 effort, THE SKULL, which has just been released on Region 1 DVD by Legend Films.
THE SKULL—based on the novel by PSYCHO author Robert Bloch—concerns one Christopher Maitland, collector of all things sinister and macabre who, through an unscrupulous dealer, is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Though declining a potential purchase, Maitland becomes obsessed with infamous Frenchman’s former brain vessel and it’s not long before he is becoming consumed by it, despite being warned by its previous owner, Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee). Phillips had been overcome by the skull’s otherworldly power but managed to escape its hold after realising evil spirits were harnessing its energy on the first two nights of each new moon. But is it too late for Maitland? Will he manage to resist the heinous artefact once and for all, or will he—like many others before him—succumb to it completely?
So begins THE SKULL, which starts promisingly enough but is soon diluted into a whole that is ultimately unsatisfying. Watching the film, one cannot help but think the film would have worked so much better as a component of one of Amicus’ anthology films, rather than a full length feature. Even though it clocks in at a brisk 83 minutes, the film feels very protracted and padded, with the writers merely going through the motions to sustain a feature running time.
If you can overcome any initial disappointment—and let’s face it, some of Amicus’ other forays into horror are a high benchmark for comparison—there’s still plenty to enjoy and admire. Cushing is wonderful and Christopher Lee adds plenty of prestige to a role that is little more than a cameo. Though Francis’ direction is a little more languid than it is at best—and again this adds yet more weight to my argument—he certainly gets the most out of his cinematographer, John Wilcox, who manages to achieve some truly remarkable and visually arresting compositions. The interior of Maitland’s home, particularly his mauve hallway, and a set-piece involving a death and some stained glass serves as a glimpse to the future world of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, a film that would be made some eleven years later.
Legend Films has done a stellar job of creating a pleasing transfer for THE SKULL’s worldwide premiere outing on DVD. The film is framed in anamorphic widescreen, preserving the original 2.35:1 Techniscope ratio. The image is very solid, though there is some grain evident in darker scenes. The films mono soundtrack is also solid and the package comes complete with the film’s original theatrical trailer.
Gripes aside, THE SKULL is a pleasing enough addition to the British horror canon but should be judged on its own merits, rather being compared to the genre’s best. This is the first of the discs from a catalogue of titles Legend Films has licenced from Paramount Pictures and it must be said that its presentation bodes well for the rest of them.