We finally get a bit of classic Amicus on Blu-ray in the UK as THE SKULL comes out in a dual-format presentation from Eureka. It’s well known that Amicus’ forte was the telling of short horror stories on the big screen, usually in the anthology format that became their trademark. When they tried to expand a short story to a ninety minute length the results weren’t as successful - AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS is a ponderous version of David Case’s novella Fengriffen, and THE SKULL is a (very) padded out version of a Robert Bloch short story.
That doesn’t mean THE SKULL is a bad film, though. In fact, far from it. Saddled with a script that lasted 50 minutes at best, director Freddie Francis proves to be one of the real stars of this one by giving us plenty of atmosphere and interestingly lit scenes that don’t feel like padding unless it’s pointed out. I haven’t mentioned what plot there is because to be honest there isn’t much, but here we go:
Anthropologist Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) acquires the skull of the Marquis de Sade from sleazy dealer Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark). Maitland’s friend and rival in All Things Expensive & Satanic Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) warns him that evil invisible forces seek to worship the skull and will cause him no end of trouble. Maitland goes mad and eventually ends up as the skull’s latest victim.
The joy of the first half of THE SKULL lies in the deliciousness that British horror cinema of the period was capable of. The design and dressing of Cushing’s study is a Jamesian delight, filled with books, dried specimens and weird paraphernalia, and Freddie Francis makes the most of what he’s given. It’s also a sheer pleasure to enjoy the interplay of the talents of Cushing, Lee and Wymark, with added Michael Gough, Nigel Green and Patrick Magee for good measure. The flashback scenes have a decent cemetery set and good old George Coulouris as well.
It’s the second half of the film where THE SKULL runs out of dialogue (and script, one suspects) that it actually moves from a delight to something weirder and more interesting. Cushing’s descent into madness and horror relies not just on his acting, but excellent use of lighting, sound effects, and a great discordant Schoenberg-like music score from Elizabeth Lutyens. People who don’t get these sorts of films may laugh at the floaty skull, but those of us who first watched THE SKULL at midnight on a BBC double bill will probably remember how unnerving all of this can feel under the right conditions. Hammer were the best at gory period horror, but Amicus often gave us stuff that was more interesting, even if it was more by accident than design, and THE SKULL is very interesting indeed.
Eureka’s Blu-ray & DVD set comes with just over forty minutes of extras in the form of interviews with Jonathan Rigby and Kim Newman, both of whom take sufficiently different angles in their approach to talking about the film that they’re both well worth watching. An excellent package - now can we have Blu-rays of THE BIRTHDAY PARTY and THE PSYCHOPATH?
Amicus' THE SKULL is being released on dual format Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray on 26th October 2015 by Eureka