Monday, 19 November 2012

The Skull

Amicus Gives Good Head

The Skull 
1965 UK
Directed by Freddie Francis
Amicus/Paramount Region 1

Well this was a bit of a surprise to me.

I’ve not seen very many Amicus films and, I’m pretty sure, none of their horror movies before now. I think the only ones I’ve actually sampled of theirs are the two Doctor Who movies and the three movies they did in the seventies based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve had a bit more exposure to their nearest rivals of the time, Hammer Films, which based on this viewing, I have to say, seem to be a lot less subtle and effective in comparison to this minor masterpiece.

Written by Robert Bloch, writer of Psycho, and directed by Hammer/Amicus alumni Freddie Francis, The Skull starts off with a gentleman in a graveyard who digs up a coffin, removes the head and takes it back home to boil the skin off to be left with just the skull. However, the skull has extraordinary powers and when his mistress comes to see him, concerned about the unnatural smoke coming beneath the door of the bathroom, she finds something and screams into the camera to usher in the opening title music.

Following this, at an auction of macabre rarities, hosted by Michael Gough, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are trying to outbid each other on various items for their collection. Both collectors of bizarre and unusual items, the friends also have a mutual acquaintance who supplies them with rare, black market goods and it is this guy who tries to sell Cushing the skull of the Marquis De Sade (Bloch’s source story for this movie was called The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade) but is initially turned down due to the high asking price. However, Cushing's mistake is he changes his mind and it’s here that his troubles begin...

The Skull is an absolutely beautiful horror film, I have to say. Right from the outset, the design of the shots, the clean framing, the use of various unnatural coloured lighting schemes which subtly recall the hallucinogenic colour palette of Mario Bava and foreshadow Dario Argento’s work and the way the camera moves through the shot set ups really make this film stand out. The principal actor in the pre-credits graveyard sequence can even be seen crouching down a little as he walks towards the camera and leaves the graveyard, you might notice, so that the director can keep him cleanly framed in the shot (wonder how many times they made him shoot that before he could adjust his height correctly?). Either that or he’s got a very funny walk.

The editing is good too. Nicely cutting on closer shots at key times to pull you into the movie and, it has to be said, this film is also filled with some great close-ups to allow the actors to really just use their facial expressions to the utmost, but in a way that takes you by stealth because of the well timed editing. And, of course, when you have such great actors as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, not to mention the likes of Nigel Green and Patrick McGee, then you know you have some of the best people making use of those close-ups.

It’s really great, also, because it’s very nearly a silent movie in many ways. Lots of the film plays out with very litttle dialogue and, for the last 20 minutes or so, there is almost none. A nightmare sequence in the centre of the film involving Peter Cushing, when things get decidedly real and Kafkaesque on him, involving an enforced game of Russian roulette where he is the sole player, is quite amazing to watch because everything is done with body language and it makes for a really effective sequence. Especially since each time he pulls the trigger the shots cut to a more close up version of the act, until eventually you are just left with Cushing’s head filling the frame, reminiscent of some of the scenes in the westerns shot by Sergio Leone.

And because of the long periods of dialogue free stretches, the film relies quite heavily on an amazing score by avant garde, concert hall composer Elizabeth Lutyens, who also provided scores for such films as Dr. Terror’s House Of Horrors and, of course, the astonishing British B-movie The Earth Dies Screaming. It’s a really strong score full of eerie atonalities and definitely supports and lifts the visuals when required. This, like many of her works, definitely needs a proper CD release.

Christopher Lee’s scenes are sparse but very effective... this is one of his most interesting performances, it seems to me. There are a few, quite startling compositions where he and Peter Cushing are arranged so that they are in conversation but with their backs to each other and, lovely though the design of these shots are, I couldn’t help thinking of Vincent Price’s story of The Return Of The Fly where he and another actor had to be shot back to back to avoid them looking each other so they wouldn’t keep cracking up at their ridiculous lines. One wonders if there’s an element of that, too, in these sequences.

It matters not, though. The Skull is a wonderful antidote to some of the work these two British stars were doing with Hammer and I have a feeling I’m going to be dipping a lot more into the back catalogue of Amicus horror titles in the coming months. If you like your horror lurid and gory then, alas, The Skull is probably not for you... if you want something a bit more subtle then this movie might be worth giving a go. And when I say subtle I should probably point out that this film has a flying skull mentally controlling people to commit murder, so maybe not the best use of the word but certainly it doesn’t bathe itself in blood and nudity just for the sake of it (although I’m personally not ruling out either of those elements as fine ingredients to any horror movie). Certainly, if you’re a fan of Christopher Lee and want to see him in fine form in what is ostensibly a small series of cameo appearances to lend context to the narrative, then this one should definitely be on your ‘to watch’ pile. So definitely check this one out, if you are so inclined.


  1. Nice, informative review. I really enjoyed The Skull and would recommend it to people who wan an alternate to the classic Hammer films of the period.
    Thanks again for a superb review.


    1. Hi Jake,

      Cheers for reading. I'll try to get back to Amicus later in the year or sometime next year if possible.

      Thanks for the kind words.