Friday, 30 March 2012

The Skull (1965)

Amicus were best known for their horror anthology movies but not all their productions fell into that category. There were also movies like The Skull, which is a pretty fair little horror flick.

Like most of Amicus’s horror offerings it could be described as gothic horror but in a contemporary setting.

Peter Cushing plays Dr Christopher Maitland, a man who is something of an expert on the occult. Not that he believes in any of it - it’s more of an academic interest. He is also an avid collector of occult paraphernalia, an enthusiasm he shares with his friend Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee).

Maitland has a little man named Marco (Patrick Wymark) who procures items of particular interest for him, all choice items for the discerning collector who is prepared not to ask too many question about the provenance of their puchases. Marco offers him a life of the Marquis de Sade, bound in human skin, and tells him he has an even more desirable item for sale. It is nothing less than the skull of de Sade.

It turns out that it was stolen from Sir Matthew Phillips but Phillips is glad to be rid of it and warns Maitland to have nothing to do with it. Like Maitland he is a confirmed sceptic on the subject of the occult, it being merely a fascinating and esoteric hobby, but he makes an exception in the case of the Marquis’ skull which he believes to be truly evil.

Maitland soon has cause to wonder if perhaps his friend was right. After obtaining the skull he has disturbing dreams that seem more real than dreams should be. If they really are just dreams. These provide director Freddie Francis (a dual Academy Award winner as a cinematographer) with the opportunity to do some rather effective nightmare sequences.

There are of course worse horrors to come.

There are flashbacks to the early 19th century when the skull first started to work its evil but most of the horror in this movie strikes its victims in the apparently safe settings of their own homes.

The problem facing horror directors in the days before CGI was always how soon to reveal the monster, given that the monster was not always going to be convincing enough to live up to the build-up. Francis doesn’t have that problem here since the monster is an unseen disembodied terror. He does however have the problem that he has to show something and he solves it fairly successfully with shots of the skull floating about. As you’d expect when the director is himself a distinguished cinematographer he and his director of photography John Wilcox pull off these scenes and the nightmare sequences rather well without trying to get too ambitious or too gimmicky.

While this movie has a dream cast of cult supporting players - Christopher Lee, Patrick Magee, Nigel Green and Michael Gough - it’s Peter Cushing who has to carry the film while they are left very much in the background. Wymark is the only one with a relatively substantial role and he gives a fine understated performance. Surprisingly enough (given the presence of Patrick Magee, Nigel Green and Michael Gough) there’s no scenery-chewing in this movie. The horror is the kind of horror that sneaks up on you without any fanfare.

There aren’t really any villains as such. Even the disreputable Marco is a pretty harmless if not overly honest individual. The horror comes from the fact that it’s a very decent, rather bookish and very gentle man who finds himself at the centre of a vortex of evil. This puts a lot of pressure on Cushing as an actor but as usual he is more than equal to the challenge.

Milton Subotsky wrote the script based on a Robert Bloch short story. Bloch provided the raw material for some of Amicus’s best films such as Asylum. There’s not really all that much to the story but Cushing’s performance combined with Freddie Francis’s skills as a director and his subtle visual flair are enough to make this an impressive piece of horror film-making.

The Region 1 DVD lacks extras but it does full justice to Francis’s rich colour palette and looks splendid.

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