I have come to the conclusion that my first non-anthology Amicus film I watched, Scream and Scream Again, may have been an outlier, in terms of quality. By contrast, The Skull, while very light on narrative, has some very nicely done imagery and well done cinematography, which makes it an incredibly fun film.
The Skull stars Hammer alumnus Peter Cushing as Dr. Christopher Maitland, a writer and occultist, ends up being offered by one of his contacts, Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark), the skull of the Marquis De Sade. He is originally hesitant, doubting its authenticity (Marco is willing to move a considerable amount on the price), before learning that the skull was stolen from his friend and fellow collector, Matthew Phillips (Sir Christopher Lee) – and that Phillips absolutely doesn’t want the skull back. Phillips warns Maitland that the skull has considerable occult powers, and not to buy the skull – as it only brings tragedy and death in its wake. Maitland goes to get the skull anyway, and (to the surprise of nobody who is familiar with this genre), finds himself greatly underestimating its power.
So, the concept of a magic skull with malign influences does, at first glance, feel like something out of a William Castle movie – that at some point in the film, a door is supposed to open in the theater and an attendant dressed all in black will run out holding an illuminated skull, and menace the theater goers with it. Thankfully, the film avoids that baggage entirely. Instead, it manages to make the skull feel menacing through some very good use of surreal imagery and camera work.
A great example of this is the first time the Skull works its dark magic on Maitland. It’s a surreal and nightmarish sequence, and could very easily have come across as hokey. Instead it’s really engrossing, helped by playing almost entirely without dialog. The film’s climax itself goes for almost half an hour with barely any dialog, with the film shooting from the literal perspective of the skull.
In short, The Skull has a much more coherent narrative, and with it a much stronger cast, which makes it a considerably more enjoyable film.The Skull is currently available on DVD from Amazon.com on its own, or on Blu-Ray as a double feature with The Man Who Could Cheat Death (buying anything through that link will help support the site).
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