Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Shepperton Screams (Part II): The Skull (1965) dir. Freddie Francis

For sixteen weeks, Jose Cruz of The Grim Reader and I will be delving into the complete horror filmography of Amicus Productions and regaling you with our spirited discussions. Below is our mutual consideration of Amicus's first standalone horror film, THE SKULL (1965). Check back every week for more dialogues and (naturally) more nightmares.

GR: So here we are a year on from Amicus' premiere with DR. TERROR and already things are looking fairly more polished. The company's sophomore effort, THE SKULL (1965), gets the gourd rolling right from the start when we fade in on that lovely studio-constructed graveyard set. The wind wails, the spades heave the ebony dirt hither and yon, and the moldy remains in the cracked casket are revealed to us in all their rotted gory. Erm, glory. This is quite the change of pace from when Freddie Francis took the reins for Amicus' first romp. It's incredibly stylized and darkly moody while simultaneously popping from the screen with retro-hot colors. As you mentioned in your own review, this is at odds with the stately and earth-hued Gothic architecture from Hammer and more in line with the vibrant hues of the Italians.

All of this perfectly sets the tone for the creepy opening where we see one of the eager gravediggers sever the corpse's head and take it home to give it an acid dip in his bathtub (without the use of any gloves!). We also get an all-too-brief glimpse into the world of grim antiquarians, including our hero Peter Cushing and his friendly rival Christopher Lee, who gamely bid to acquire all manner of horrible artifacts including a nice set of stone demons that would look great as a centerpiece on my dining room table. I kinda wish that this aspect of the story might have been explored just a little bit more, with some loving detail given to all the leafy-paged grimoires and hoary torture devices that adorned Cushing's home, in the same way that Polanski captured a similar world in THE NINTH GATE (1999). But enough about the movie that THE SKULL isn't. 

Speaking of antiquarians though, I was mildly surprised to see an addition that Subotsky had made to the story that was absent from Bloch's original yarn. The fact that Maitland, Cushing's character, has a devoted and loving wife is a subtle but fairly subversive--in its own way--change to the general depiction for this type of character. Just think of the collectors and historians from the stories of Lovecraft and James; romantic interests were about as common as happy endings in those tales. A marriage was all the more rare, if one ever existed at all. Not only that but, unless I missed it, I don't think we see Mrs. Maitland comment in any way on her husband's unorthodox interests.  

You would think that Subotsky would make her the "voice of reason" that the audience could find a line of sympathy with (maybe by making her say something like "I just don't understand how you enjoy all of these ghastly things" or something equally cliche), but she's loving and understanding all the way through. She stays up late worrying about where he's been and escorts odious guests like Marco into her home with nary a question. I don't mean to point this out as a way of saying "Good! That's how them wimmens should be treating their husbands!" but just to voice my surprise that, in the world of this story, Mrs. Maitland is willing to accept her husband and his proclivities because she cares for him that much. Even though he has a withered Hand of Glory hanging in his library, he's still her partner. 

Did you notice anything similar in watching all the skullduggery on hand?

NT: THE SKULL feels like the sort of film that would have been produced at the height of a production company's success, when those talents and bankrollers involved felt both skilled and financially solvent enough to experiment with the established genre formulas of the era, striving towards a new approach to horror storytelling. This is the type of film that Hammer wouldn't have made until 1972. Yet THE SKULL was only Amicus's fifth film production overall, and released a scant six months after their first horror outing, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965), arrived on British screens. As you've noted, the narrative and aesthetic transformations that take place between DR. TERROR and this film are remarkable, all the more so considering that THE SKULL is led by the same creative team of director Freddie Francis and screenwriter Milton Subotsky. Credit can of course be given to cinematographer John Wilcox (whose inspired shots place an unusual-for-the-time emphasis on visual storytelling and cause the film to resemble a hallucinatory, expressionistic silent for extended periods) and Robert Bloch (whose story, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade" (1945), Subotsky adapted for the screenplay), but it's clear that Francis and Subotsky worked to correct many of the flaws present in their first collaboration. Consequently, THE SKULL is assured, focused, and deliberate, unfurling its skull-centric horrors possessed with the confidence that we'll follow along with its surreal, ever-so-slightly perverse thrills. I'm glad you agree with the point I made in my earlier review of the film that THE SKULL feels far more continental than proper English: it's the nightmare Mario Bava would have after watching a Hammer marathon.

Having read Bloch's story in preparation for this viewing of the film, I also noticed a smattering of peculiar adaptational choices Subotsky made in his script. For instance, in its major plot points the script hews closely to the source text, but it diverges significantly in its characterization of Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing). As you point out, Maitland (in text and film) is derived from a long tradition of occult antiquarians, of which M. R. James's perpetually nerdy, library-dwelling bachelors are perhaps the finest examples. Bloch's story takes pains to demonstrate the perversity of such an occupation and lifestyle by drawing attention to the skin-crawling wrongness of finding it "nice" to possess a book bound in a woman's skin, as Maitland himself does. This is an interesting emphasis, as Bloch uses it to draw some faint parallels between the explicit sadism of the Marquis de Sade and Maitland's latent but unexpressed sociopathy. In the film, Subotsky revises Maitland into a character who is merely possessed by the titular skull's demonically persuasive forces, and thus we lose this sense of his own quiet, independent derangement.

And yet when combined with the fact that the cinematic Maitland also possesses a wife, this alteration on Subotsky's part proves more interesting, though I'd argue it's less subversive than you claim. True, Mrs. Maitland's seemingly blind acceptance of her husband's bizarre and time-consuming hobby (does Maitland even have a job?) is a refreshing alternative to the "nagging shrew" wife stereotype we're gifted in most other horror films. But the fact that Mrs. Maitland is by and large a non-presence in the film is revealing as to her function as a moral fixture rather than as an autonomous character. I think what is made apparent by their little shared screen time is that Maitland and his wife lead separate lives, and that their marriage (for whatever it's worth) is a union of holy chastity (as evidenced by their separate bedrooms, of course). If we want to get all psychoanalytical (and why wouldn't we when dealing with a film featuring a floating skull as its primary antagonist?), it's not difficult to see the skull's urging of Maitland to skewer his wife with a pointy phallic knife as an expression of his sexual desires turned sadistic due to constant frustration, and-- similarly-- it's easy to read the fact of a crucifix repelling the possessed Maitland as a symbol of the conservative affirmation of the denial and shaming of sexual impulse. Add to this that Maitland is then fatally punished for his desires at the film's conclusion (despite his obvious renouncement of them), and we've got a moral message akin to "keep your private thoughts (and private parts) to yourself." And what, pray tell, is subversive about that?

GR: I think Amicus took a pretty daring bet by choosing as the source of their second genre effort a fairly obscure short story that was originally printed in WEIRD TALES by Robert Bloch, who at the time of this adaptation was still riding on the success of PSYCHO and all the similar killer thrillers that it spawned in its wake. Bloch's tale is straightforward in its design, as is the film. There aren't too many deviations to speak of (barring the ones we've mentioned), and the only way that Bloch's story differs in tone is that it is unabashed in its lurid horrors and purple-hued prose whereas THE SKULL retains that proper British attitude while indulging in small but delicious dips into the surreal. The wildest episode from Bloch's story is the dream sequence. In the film it's beautifully realized as something like an episode from an absurdist play with two dark-suited men collecting Maitland from his house without explanation only to take him to a silent room where a grave judge forces him to play a round of Russian roulette. It's a fantastic sequence; Cushing's sweaty-lipped terror is palpable as the click of an empty round brings a breath of relieved air to the tension.

Bloch, though, goes full-force with the overwrought pulpiness. In the story Maitland is nabbed not by two detectives but a duo of masked fiends who bind him in chains and sear his body with hot pokers and stinging whips. It's positively kinky, more in line with the fascinations of the historical Marquis than anything we see onscreen. To add to the naughtiness, Maitland is then stuffed into an iron maiden, the body of the Marquis lowering down upon him as the lid closes. To briefly quote Bloch:

"And then, as the body gripped his body in blackness, as the head touched his head, as Maitland's lips pressed against the place where lips should be, he knew the ultimate horror.

The face that was not a face was the skull of the Marquis de Sade!

And the weight of charnel corruption stifled Maitland, and he went down into darkness again with the obscene memory pursuing him into oblivion." 

This seems interesting in light of the relationship you outlined in the film between Maitland, his wife, and the skull. Is the long-dead Marquis tempting the collector to give in to something other than the powers of darkness by killing his wife with the long blade of Gilles de Rais's knife? If one were determined to do so, there's probably a homosexual reading to be interpreted in the boy's world of antique collectors and delicious torture on display, as stereotypical as those hallmarks may be. This is especially notable in Bloch's story, as you note, as the latent (or are they repressed?) desires of Maitland seem to be awakened in his mind after the "delicate" skull of the Marquis is introduced into his life.

I did catch the fact that the Maitlands have their own bedrooms in the movie. There might be a fun backstory there; did the missus not take kindly to her husband reading flesh-bound books while she knitted? But more than likely it's just a signifier of their conservative union as you said. It's not unfair to say that Maitland's wife is kind of a non-entity here, serving more as a symbol of pure, white-linen virginity in the face of the skull's taboo-smashing depravity. I was admittedly just pretty surprised that she was implemented into the story without the express purpose of having her scream like Adrienne Barbeau.

And as daring as the bet was that Amicus made with choosing this story and as ably as they pull it off, I feel like THE SKULL starts to show its padding towards the end. I love the fact that it goes without any real dialogue whatsoever in its final moments, but I think it doesn't quite know what to with itself after a certain point. Maitland goes into the library, the skull slooowly floats out of the case, he saunters into his wife's room, he's repelled, he goes back into the library, he stabs the skull, he goes into his room, there's some screaming... Grant you, a stalking sequence from a slasher film can be described in much the same way, but seeing a man become "hypnotized" by a skull and fighting his dark urges isn't quite as compelling or suspenseful, as game as Cushing is. Some imaginitive decisions in the film's latter third could have probably pushed this one into being a definitive favorite.

NT: Maitland's primary color-drenched nightmare is (in my mind) the peak expression of the film's nigh expressionistic style. Through alternating long shots and extreme close ups, the sequence skillfully captures the mute terror of an incomprehensible fever dream with a perverse but inscrutable logic of its own. Francis and Wilcox find a more successful use of silence and visual suspense in this sequence than they do in the protracted finale (which I'd agree loses some of its tense charm as the minutes role on, although its hazy, somnambulatory mood and pacing don't feel totally inappropriate either).

Yet as much as I adore Maitland's dream sequence as presented in the film, its Kafkaesque thrills feel incongruous with those strands of thematic interest that surround it. It's as if Cushing took a midnight walk into the final episode of THE PRISONER. That's all well and good, but as you've pointed out and quoted, it comes nowhere near the unseemly Sadean ickiness of Bloch's version. The skeletal corpse-kissing and sadistic sexual torture that the story's Maitland endures in this dream seem like they would have been fruitful (and seedy) concepts for the film to explore, serving to underline the psycho-sexual dilemma that Maitland is working through at the climax. As I noted in my earlier essay on the film, why make the skull the Marquis de Sade's if you're unwilling to play around with the whips? What could have been a provocative slice of sexualized mid-'60s cinematic sadism, something on the order of the truly subversive BLOODY PIT OF HORROR (1965), falls instead into the usual traps of blaming it all on demonic influence and and tying the package up with a neat bow of unambiguous morality. In style, form, and content, THE SKULL feels like more of an obvious success than its immediate predecessor in the Amicus stable of horrors, but there's no denying that it fails to aim for the (ahem) jugular.

GR: Yes, if THE SKULL were willing to play more directly in the scintillating specifics of the Marquis' doctrine, this film would feel all the more subversive and unique. As it stands, you could substitute any name for the (former) owner of the skull and things would remain just about the same. Perhaps this is why Subotsky's take only goes by the title of THE SKULL as opposed to Bloch's full title. They didn't even bother to reword it into a slightly more cinematic name, like THE SKULL OF THE MARQUIS or something, as if the anonymity would be better for marketing. Just THE SKULL. So maybe it belongs to Aleister Crowley or maybe it's Little Orphan Annie. It doesn't matter. The fleshless gourd still hungers for blood and death either way. (Okay, maybe not.)

The first two horrific offerings from Amicus expose us to sundry supernatural horrors that come crawling forth from the abyss, washing them in popping colors that bring a little light to the darkness they are depicting; I love especially in this film the blue skull-o-vision that Francis employs and how a head injury that Lee suffers in the final third looks like a flash of paint from a comic book artist's palette. But with their next feature, we'll see the company dabbling in the calculations of a diseased mind, where methodic murder is the order of the day. And look at that, they got old Bob Bloch to come back to do what he does best: examining heads.

1 comment:

  1. Whoa! Must be something in the air. I just reviewed The Skull too. You both went miles deep on this one and this was a great read. Nice work, fellas!