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A Movie A Day: Quint on THE SKULL (1965)
All I can say to you is keep away from the skull of Marquis de Sade.

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day. [For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.] Today we jump from Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON to the 1965 Amicus horror flick THE SKULL via Patrick Magee. Oh boy, am I looking forward to the next month or so. Thanks to the connecting tissue aspect of this column we’re getting into a lot of horror movies. Hammer, Amicus, Bava… And it kicks off with this one, a great little flick directed by Freddie Francis who you may now more for his brilliant work as director of photography on films like Lynch’s ELEPHANT MAN, THE STRAIGHT STORY and DUNE as well as Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR remake and the awesome black and white atmospheric ghost story THE INNOCENTS starring Deborah Kerr. As would be expected when a DoP helms a film, the color cinematography in THE SKULL is rich and elegant, thanks to the great work by Hammer staple John Wilcox, who also shot one of my all time favorite Hammer flicks LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES, a Hammer/Shaw Bros co-production… That’s right, a kung fu vampire flick starring Peter Cushing! What a great movie.

At any rate, what you have here is Peter Cushing carrying a film about an occult author and collector of the macabre who acquires the legendary skull of the Marquis de Sade. The Marquis was known for his cruelty and obsession with witchcraft, according to this story. I like to remember him as the quirky perv as portrayed by Geoffrey Rush in QUILLS, but in this story he was darker. Based on the short story by Robert “Psycho” Bloch, the main conceipt of the plot is that the Marquis wasn’t evil, but rather possessed and his possession didn’t end with his death. The head from his corpse is taken at the beginning of the film and the poor bastard who did it has about enough time to dunk the body part in an acid bath before he’s taken over by the evil that surrounds the Marquis’ very bones and takes a dip himself. Then we jump forward a number of years where we meet Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee bidding against each other at auction for rare occult items. They are friends who share a common interest in creepy artifacts. We don’t ever really know Lee’s backstory, but Cushing is an author who writes about this stuff without believing any of the superstition surrounding them. He’s fascinated by the superstition and the power it holds, but is himself a cynic. When Cushing is offered the skull by Patrick Wymark he at first refuses as the creepy snuff-addict wants too much for it. But Cushing is drawn to it and consults Christopher Lee over a billiards game. Lee warns him to avoid the skull, vouching for it’s authenticity, but says it really is evil and will make whomever is in possession of it do unspeakable things. Of course Cushing doesn’t listen to him, being the cynic he is. And thank God, because if he did we wouldn’t have a movie. The direction is tight and inventive. After spending months going over dramas, comedies and westerns it’s a refreshing to be reminded why I love horror so much. Francis has the freedom to take some brilliant characters, like Cushing and Lee, and play with the camera, finding awesome dutch angles and unique ways of telling the story. For instance there’s a fucking great Skull POV thing they do at a few key moments in the movie where you see essentially from inside the skull, looking out of its eyeholes and nose hole. Francis always uses this to frame the characters (Cushing’s face in one eye-hole, his hand holding a pipe or book or something in the nose-hole) and it really is a creepy effect. Sure, when the skull goes crazy in the last act of the film and flies around you can see the wires, but I was so into the story by this point that it didn’t bug me. Instead I was focusing on Cushing’s great demented and tortured performance and the lighting.

The last 2 reels are essentially played without any dialogue as we see the influence of the skull on Cushing. Francis chooses to keep the tension with his lighting and shot selection, all anchored by a great performance by Peter Cushing. He’s aided greatly by a fantastic score composed by Elisabeth Lutyens who scored many other British horror movies of the era, like THEATRE OF DEATH. It’s an odd score, but great at putting the viewer on edge. Final Thoughts: The flick is paced wonderfully, lightning fast, and is just plain fun. It doesn’t really give you something to chew on for days or weeks, but it doesn’t need to. The entertainment is in front of you, the story engulfing enough to let you buy into this world for the 80 plus minute runtime. Cushing is fantastic and once again his partnership with Christopher Lee is a memborable one. The two really were great together and even though Lee’s not in a whole lot of the film, every moment he’s onscreen he’s magnetic. I really dug the hell out of this one.

The schedule for the next 7 days is: Wednesday, August 13th: THE HELLFIRE CLUB (1961) Thursday, August 14th: BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1963) Friday, August 15th: TERROR OF THE TONGS (1961) Saturday, August 16th: PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER (1962) Sunday, August 17th: THE DEVIL-SHIP PIRATES (1964) Monday, August 18th: JESS FRANCO’S COUNT DRACULA (1973) Tuesday, August 19th: DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) Tomorrow we follow Cushing over to THE HELLFIRE CLUB. We have a big run of Christopher Lee flicks coming up… some pirate films and a couple of his Vampire pictures. This is going to be a really fun month. See you folks tomorrow for more Cushing! -Quint

Previous Movies: June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon

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