Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Skull (1965) dir. Freddie Francis

Logline: A collector of arcane paraphernalia is placed in the path of bloody horror when the floating, exhumed skull of the Marquis de Sade decides it will do anything to join his collection—after all, it needs fresh sacrifices. And throats to tear out.

British production company Amicus, well-known for its many horror anthologies (including the superb EC Comics adaptations Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, alongside others like the cheeky and divisive The Monster Club (which I adore)), also produced a few less frequently cited full-length horror pictures in the 60s and 70s. Among these is The Skull, a pleasant little picture that, discounting any knee-jerk comparisons between it and its contemporaneous Hammer brethren, emerges as a quite unique and bold example of mid-60s British genre filmmaking. But first we need to shake that initial comparison because, of course, this appears at first blush very much like a Hammer film: frequent Hammer top-billers Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star, that work horse Freddie Francis directs, and it features an opening prologue in a period setting. But even in that opening graveyard scene we begin to sense different influences at work here: the expressionistic, primary-color drenched set design looks straight out of Bava’s gothic chillers, not the more naturalistic Hammer variety.

It’s a mixture of the two sensibilities that will ultimately define The Skull: a Hammer Horror envisioned through a slightly askew continental perspective. The little research I’ve done on the film has turned up nothing to support this thought, but it’s evident that the film does not conform to the typical standards of its day. For instance, look at the film’s best scene: midway through the film, Cushing’s character (under partial influence of the demonized skull) has an elaborate nightmare wherein he’s arrested in his home by two officers who refuse to tell him the charges and then bring him in front of a judge who forces him to play Russian roulette. This scene, bizarre, suspenseful, and played almost entirely without dialogue, is directly reminiscent of Kafka’s own prose phantasms and bespeaks its wider European sensibilities.

The Skull is also a confident film. It's well known in horror circles as “the one without any dialogue in the last half an hour,” and for the most part it carries this tactic off well. The fantastic score by composer Elisabeth Lutyens, Cushing’s frantic exasperation, and the endlessly intricate set decorations keep things interesting, considering that a levitating skull (visible string and all) is somewhere low on the list of compelling screen monsters (though I do appreciate the several skull-P.O.V. shots that we are given). Unfortunately, the fact that the film refrains from playing around in any of the more obscene or salacious aspects of de Sade’s mythology, casting him instead as a mundane demon-worshiper, is what most hampers the proceedings. De Sade’s skull wants Cushing’s character to sacrifice his wife to a demon, rather than whip, torture, or otherwise sexually abuse/liberate her. Obviously those concerns would have been nearly unimaginable in the censor’s eyes of 1965, but they also seem far beyond the aims and intentions of the film. So why de Sade in the first place? Why not someone like Crowley, who would obviously better suit the material? One might find the answer in the Robert Bloch’s source story, but I can’t be certain of this. My guess is that the film is simply perpetuating the mainstream conception of de Sade. In the early fifties scholars as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir and Horkheimer/Adorno were teasing out the relevance from de Sade’s work, but for most (continuing up until today) he’s still just that filthy man writing deranged things. Plus, like in the film, his skull actually was stolen from its grave. So why not imagine him, as the film does, as slave to a demon lord? It’s an easier explanation than assuming he was a self-possessed man who in fact enjoyed those things he wrote so freely about.

The Blu-ray release from Legend Films is quite good. The picture is clear and stable with a healthy amount of grain. Print damage in the form of dirt and specks is present throughout but never a detriment—adds to the charm, I say. That wonderful Lutyens score pipes through quite nicely, too. Legend has released it as a double feature with, what else, an early Hammer production: The Man Who Could Cheat Death, with Anton Diffring. Both films have their own disc, so there is no sacrifice in quality. Plus, the thing is an absolute bargain (I think I picked it up for around $10). Indulge.

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