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.
Published at: Aug. 13, 2008, 2:49 a.m. CST by quint
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.