Bad to the Bone

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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.

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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.

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Shops.

He tries the other side.

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Shops.

“We’ve had props, now we’re having shops,” observed Fiona.

“Next it’ll be cops,” I hazarded.

It was.

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The car stopped.

“And stops,” I concluded.

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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.

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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.

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19 Responses to “Bad to the Bone”

  1. I’ll happily stand up to be counted as one of the people who enjoyed the film, as I loved it from the moment it started. Possibly my favourite Amicus production, outside of Dr Terror . The opening sequence at the auction is wonderful – with Cushing and Lee as the bidders and an auctioneer played by Michael Gough . It’s not just the ridiculous cast, though Patrick Magee’s barely-there part is a small jewel, but also the colour and energy of the piece.

    It’s also perhaps THE Peter Cushing prop movie. A wonderfully tactile actor, he’s forever picking up and pouring over things, and as you rightly state, he’s got a great set to do it in, filled with all sorts of diabolical bits and peices. It has the courage to stick with Cushing alone for that last extraordinary near wordless fifteen minutes, which let’s face it, basically consists of Cushing walking up stairs and down stairs a few times. For other great Cushing prop moments, see the candlestick crucifix at the climax of DRACULA and the newspaper he reads in I, MONSTER. He really reads the hell out of that newspaper.

    Your repeated mentions of the Gifford have forced me to go to Amazon and purchase a copy for the princely sum of 92 pence. I hope it’s worth it! When do we get a list of the films you’ve yet to see?

  2. I like it in Hound of the Basks when Cushing throws a dagger into a table for no good reason. He plays Holmes as a man perpetually exhilerated by his own brilliance. A lot of the physicality was influenced by Olivier, whom Cushing much admired (he and Lee both pop up in the film of Hamlet).

    But I prefer Cushing. I’ll admit that Olivier took more risks, but while I’m often amazed at how good Cushing is, I’m generally amazed whenever Olivier is any good at all (Bunnly Lake is Missing, a couple others).

    Have you seen any of Cushing’s very early work in the US? Quite alarming to see him so young, he hasn’t grown into that face yet. I can just about stand Ray Milland in Blonde Crazy, although that face without its extra roll of chub just DOESN’T WORK, but in Vigil in the Night (1940) Cushing looks like a pubescent skeleton. The mind recoils.

    There are a LOT of films in the Gifford I’ve yet to see. I like imagining some of them. So I’m taking my time, but maybe I’ll draw up a list next.

  3. Oh yes! We do love lists.

  4. I stumbled across a VHS copy of Christopher Lee’s first film some years back, Corridor of Mirrors, starring Eric Portman. The notes on the package tout the music of Georges Auric and the cinematography, sort of like Beauty and the Beast, but without the Beast, and directed by Terence Young, who was no Cocteau. Still, I like this film, it has its virtues. Lee is one of a group sitting together in a nightclub, his face and presence unmistakable. My copy’s a Janus Films release, and really quite nice, not sure if it’s ever been released on DVD.

  5. Another one for me to look out for. I found that Lederer, but it’s not available for download at present. Might request it later, or see if it comes back.

    It took them a long time to figure out how to use Lee. Even Curse of Frankenstein is kind of a waste of his abilities (Cushing being the more physical actor, he would have made more sense as the monster, if not for the height thing), it all happens at once in the first Hammer Dracula.

  6. Cushing and Olivier both worked on the 49th Parallel, too, though only Olivier worked as an actor on that one, and then barely. I kid: I find his French-Canadian trapper hilarious, and won’t believe that it was intended any other way. Cushing was a props man on the film and was famously arrested for making lots of little swastikas.

  7. My favourite non-appearance by Cushing is in James Whale’s Man in the Iron Mask, where he played against Louis Hayward as one twin, only to be optically replaced by Louis Hayward, if that makes sense. He was rewarded with a little cameo role, however. I love it that he got to work with Whale.

    Olivier’s trapper is ludicrous indeed, and it may be deliberate, but if so I think it’s rather misguided… having seen his Othello, I’m quite willing to believe he meant it in all seriousnes though. When Olivier gets it wrong, he gets it very wrong indeed.

  8. “Worse than mad” = demonically possessed.

    “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” – That scene is a direct lift from Lang’s Testament of Dr. Mabuse.

    Lee and Cushing both had good early supporting roles in Huston’s Moulin Rouge. Lee plays Seurat!

  9. Yeah, I got the demonic possession thing, but it was still a silly line.

    I don’t recall that bit in the Lang, but I bet it makes more sense there! It’s nice that Freddie F would think of swiping from the meister.

    Francis appeared at the Edinburgh Film Festival and appealed to anyone in the audience with a copy of Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girl to come forward — it was apparently a lost film at the time. FF believed it to be his best work as director. When I eventually saw it, I thought he was right — it’s utterly bizarre and rather delightful.

    Wow, I wonder what Lee has to say about Huston?

  10. “Lee plays Seurat!” So that explains the spattering blood that comes from nowhere at the start of Hammer’s Dracula — it’s Lee, practicing his pointilism and discovering action painting.

  11. David, you omit any mention of an actress in “The Skull” whom I’ve always liked: Jill Bennett. Does she have any good moments here? Anything as juicy as in Holt’s “The Nanny”? Frankly,. it’s been so long since I’ve seen “The Skull” — which I enjoyed a lot — I don’t remember.

    For me, one of the many pleasures of “The Sheltering Sky” was its opportunity for one more glimpse of Bennett.

  12. Paragraph five — she’s a typical staid Brit horror movie wife, and the only point where you “get the benefit” of a powerhouse like JB playing the part is when she lets rip with a terrific scream. At the end we’re told she’s gone mad, but we don’t get to see this: Bennett doing hysterics would have been awesome.

    So, nothing NEARLY is strong as her role in The Nanny, which is strong meat indeed.

  13. Oops. My fault. Speaking of “Worse Than Mad” epics … do you care for “Hands of the Ripper”?

  14. Christopher Says:

    I think part of what appealed to me as sort of “fan boy” teen seeing this in the 70s on TV,was the novelty of seeing respectable gents like Cushing and Lee as collectors of RUBBISH!..We know Cushing is married yet spends every waking hour in his Study amongst his “things”..Is Lee also married ?..is he forced to sleep in the Den with his new tacky devil figurine collection(Beelzebub makes a good club if you just gotta),which he proudly displays around the Pool table?…I was given a DVD copy for Christmas..and I still like it..My only gripe maybe ..that the Marquis in reality,is just that bad.

  15. If we could get into the Marquis’, er, head, we could learn his motivation, and maybe being dead all these years has made him nastier. So it COULD make sense.

    Yeah, as a film about obsessive collectors, it has its points. Lee’s figurines are positively beautiful compared to the illustrations in the Sade book, which are unbelievably poor, not only not accurate to period in terms of style, but just badly drawn. Strange, when the production design is so elaborate, but probably they just hired the stuff as a job lot.

  16. I like Hands of the Ripper quite a bit… Eric Porter was always a dignified sort of chap, and it achieves a kind of tragic seriousness most Hammer films aim for but fall short of.

    Incidentally, I belatedly looked in my wordpress spam and found lots of nice comments I’d missed, songs from Peter, hymns to Jimmy Olson from David E, etc. I’ve unspammed them all, although there might be some repetitions now, at least they’re readable online.

  17. Christopher Says:

    I like the lighting and mood in The Skull also.Amicus seems to dress a better Set than Hammer where so often things a pretty stark..”Well ya got Dracula !what more do you want??”..Some of the lighting and color effects in The Skull remind me of Bava..

  18. Yes, I really liked the rooms in Cushing’s dream where he’s judged. Bava always seems to have more mystery going on, whereas here it’s all a bit straightforward except for the dream. But this and The Ghoul really show what Freddie F could do in a purely visual way.

    Apparently he would direct using cockney rhyming slang, which I find rather sweet. “Here’s where you get shot and you fall on your chip.” (Chips and peas = knees)

  19. […] Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier […]

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