The Screaming Skull is a low-budget 1958 American horror B-movie from AIP that just doesn’t really have much going for it at all.
It starts with a William Castle-like gimmick - a warning from the producers that the film we are about to see is so terrifying that they will offer a free funeral to any member of the audience who dies of fright. Unfortunately that’s the highlight of the movie. And I don’t think there’s a great deal of danger that anyone will actually die of fright whilst watching this movie, although they well die of boredom.
It’s not that the idea is especially bad. Great horror movies have been made from flimsier plots. It’s the execution that is sadly lacking.
Eric Whitlock brings his new wife Jenni home to his palatial but strangely empty house. He explains that he and his former wife had intended to re-furnish it but that she had died. Apparently in mysterious circumstances. He keeps a portrait of his first wife in the house, and for some reason Jenni is rather spooked by the painting. She’s also somewhat uneasy about the gardener, Mickey. Mickey had been devoted to the first Mrs Whitlock and doesn’t seem to have accepted her death. Mickey is obviously rather simple, and walks with a strange shuffling gait (this movie does tend to throw too many horror movie clichés about in a rather ineffective fashion).
Jenni has had several “nervous breakdowns” and has spent time in a mental hospital. She has never recovered from the drowning deaths of her parents, and from her own feelings of guilt (she hated her mother). Finding out the way that her new husband’s former wife met her death - she slipped on a pathway in the garden, cracked her skull and drowned in the pond - doesn’t help matters. And the screaming of the peacocks in the garden is not exactly reassuring (I didn’t know that peacocks scream but apparently they do).
And then Jenni finds a skull in the house. She hurls it out of the window, but this skull proves to be difficult to get rid of. Jenni is starting to lose her grip. The Whitlocks’ neighbours, a clergyman and his wife, are concerned. Eric assures them that things are under control, but it soon becomes obvious that that is far from being the case.
One of the many problems this movie has is the exceptionally inept acting. Alex Nicol, the director of the movie, also plays Mickey. His acting is about on par with his directing, and that’s not a good thing.
Even worse, the movie telegraphs its punches in a very clumsy fashion. The vital clue to the mystery is revealed much too obviously much too early on. And the main plot point is revealed too early, so you know there has to be a twist and it’s obvious what the twist is going to be.
The biggest problem is that the movie doesn’t really deliver the horror goods, and it doesn’t really deliver much in the way of silly fun either. It seems to be trying to take itself fairly seriously.
It’s a public domain movie, and the fact that the downloaded copy I saw was in atrocious condition didn’t help. Perhaps seeing it on a decent DVD release might have made it a more entertaining experience. But I don’t think I could honestly recommend the purchase of this film to anyone. Maybe as a rental, but if you’re going to watch a bad horror movie you’re better off watching a bad horror movie that is fun as well. Something like Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.