THE SKULL, directed by ace cinematographer (and not-quite-so-ace director) Freddie Francis, will live in infamy as the film in which Peter Cushing plays Christopher Maitland and Christopher Lee plays Sir Matthew Phillips. The lovely, unusual, imaginative names (sarcasm alert) indicate precisely the kind of plywood bore Milton Subotsky’s script, from a story by Robert Bloch, is.
(That “is” doesn’t look right, all at the end there, does it?)
Through involved circumstances, Peter Cushing acquires the skull of the Marquis de Sade, which is apparently still animated by a malign intelligence. Cushing’s friendly rival, Lee, believes that the Marquis was “something worse than mad.” Hmm, worse than mad, you say? What would that be, Sir Matthew Phillips? Sane?
The titular head-bone has turned up in the possession of shady curio-hawker Patrick Wymark, an ambulatory Toby jug who guested in a number of ’60s horrorshows — REPULSION, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, WITCHFINDER GENERAL — and he would have undoubtedly done more save for his tragic implosion in 1970. Wymark narrates the cranium’s tragic history, which allows the canny producer (Subotsky again) to slip in another guest star, George Coulouris. It becomes clear that Subotsky has written this thing with the sole purpose of shoehorning in as many guest stars as the screen’s fabric can contain without splitting like P.J. Proby’s trousers.
Soon, swivel-eyed detective Nigel Green and police surgeon Patrick Magee are on hand, Jill Bennett is wasted as Cushing’s dull wife (her impressive scream of horror is the only moment when the film reaps any benefit from her unique gifts) and the guy who did the voice of Pigsy in the dubbed Japanese TV show Monkeyturns up. Fiona felt this was the film’s only interest — “Seeing Pigsy’s body at last… perambulating about under its own will.”
I admired the way Francis generated visual interest even when there was zero dramatic interest. He’s aided by rich set decoration, which he foregrounds at every opportunity, padding out the film’s slender running time by filming Cushing as he reads a bio of Sade (bound in human skin, naturally) from every conceivable angle and from behind every bit of bric-a-brac in the room, sneaking from one occluding prop to another like a cautious Rodent Of Unusual Size.
Having narcolysed the audience with this display of silent book-reading (although the attractive visuals prevent total somnolence), Francis then delivers a pointless-but-wonderful dream sequence in which Cushing is taken away by sinister “policemen” and driven towards an unknown destination.
Anxiously, Pete looks out the car window.
He tries the other side.
“We’ve had props, now we’re having shops,” observed Fiona.
“Next it’ll be cops,” I hazarded.
The car stopped.
“And stops,” I concluded.
Handsome in its widescreen colour cinematographer, and graced with the screwy “skull-cam” POV shots, the film nevertheless struggles to create any interest in any of its sluggish meanderings, and made us both nostalgic for Larry Blamire’s spoof THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, which has better, badder bad dialogue, and a talking skeleton. If Sade’s skull had spoken like the one in Blamire’s film, we might have had something. “Hi, Betty, it’s me — the skeleton!”
However, a lot of people enjoy this film, for its bountiful cast of supporting players (Subotsky often made compendium films, because with five or six stories there was more opportunity to grab a movie star like Chris Lee or Sylvia Sims or Herbert Lom for a day or two and bolster the marquee value — THE SKULL is like a compendium film with no story instead of five) and sumptuous visuals. The lack of forward momentum forces Francis to noodle inventively, coming up with crazy angles, sinuous camera moves, and lurid colours. Even at 82 minutes, the film feels heavily padded, but the padding is quality stuff.
(When Richard Lester accepted the job of directing his first feature, IT’S TRAD, DAD, for Subotsky, he was handed 23 typed pages, which he took to be a synopsis. It was the final draft script. Those were the days!)
Finally seeing this allowed me to tick off another film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s seminal A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I’ve vowed to see every film depicted in this book before the end of the century.
This is the still Gifford uses, although his is b&w. I think Cushing actually spent more time behind a magnifying glass than any other thespian — his various appearances as Sherlock Holmes aren’t the half of it. The gag in TOP SECRET! where he removes the magnifying glass to reveal that he really has one enormous eye makes more sense (although it’s still vaguely upsetting) when one bears this in mind.