The Skull Review
The back catalogue of Amicus has come out on DVD very slowly and often been treated poorly. Last year saw a cut version of Vault of Horror limp out along with two better treatments of From Beyond the Grave and Tales From The Crypt, but a number of their sci-fi and horror movies still remained unreleased. The Skull was probably the most glaring omission simply for the film pairing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and being adapted from a Robert Bloch story. Thankfully, Legend have convinced Paramount to let them offer this release.
If you are familiar with Guy de Maupassant's much filmed story "The Hand", then the story of The Skull will not strike you as particularly original as another body part comes back to haunt and destroy the able bodied living. This is the bonce of the Marquis de Sade, and collectors of the macabre and occult soon learn that owning this cranium is a vicarious thrill too far. Cushing plays a writer fascinated by witchcraft who ignores the wise words of fellow collector Christopher Lee about the powers of the dead head, and watches as death after death follows his compulsive acquisition until his own home is at risk if he fails to feed the Marquis' blood lust.
As with the film adaptations of the De Maupassant's story, several hurdles need to be overcome to render the story of an evil body part horrific. First of all, is it just enough to say the article is evil and therefore has powers which allow it to move despite its lack of a body. Secondly, is it enough to say it's malevolent and give it no motive for its misdeeds? And thirdly, why would characters find themselves in fear of this and not simply ridiculing what it is basically a limb on a string.
In The Beast With Five Fingers, the body part was a revenging hand of a dead pianist complete with locomotion through dragging itself using its fingers and a crystal clear motive. In The Skull, motive is left non-specific and the screenplay is quite hypocritical over the mode of transport for the noddle. For example, iIn order for the head to be free it has to be liberated by a gravedigger and requires stooges to carry out its will, but then it can magically fly in the air and kill under its own steam when the plot needs it.
Possibly because of the time of its production, little is said to explain the nature of the evil of de Sade, and therefore his noggin, and connections are made with Satanism with little explanation. The screenplay is also one which is poorly paced and episodic, and the completed film suffers from scenes of prosaic exposition jarring with more inspired moments. Adapted by Milton Subotsky, the writing is nowhere near as interesting or charming as the compendium movies that would be the hallmark of Amicus co-founder.
The exceptional moments depart almost completely from the main story, and the best segment of the film is Cushing's dream sequence which involves Russian roulette, a strange nameless judge and court, and a descent into an imaginative vision of hell. This seems to be the work of the director, Francis, and what is best about the film comes from the fine photography and use of composition that has always been his hallmark as a DP. There is an overuse of the perspective shot from within the skull, but this is a horror film every bit as well shot as the best of Hammer.
Cushing is wonderful as a driven collector, Lee cameos in a few short scenes, and Wymark is his splendidly seedy self. Nigel Green turns up as an inspector and Patrick Magee boggles his eyes and wobbles his larynx in a very small part as the police doctor. This movie supports the notion that Amicus single story films were far less fun and value than their portmanteau productions, and here that is because the central device of the skull is never realised well and because of that the best efforts of cast and director can never amount to too much.
The Skull is diverting, but a minor entry in Amicus' history.
This is again a single layer disc, about 75% used, and the main feature is presented at the OAR of 2.35:1. The single extra is the trailer which is at 1.78:1 and softer and more faded than the film, the menu is static and uses basis cover art.
The transfer is very nice with good sharpness in the centre of the frame but less detail in the periphery than you might like. Colours are usually strong with the opening twenty minutes suffering from overheated flesh tones and contrast which is rather uniform. I did notice some examples of compression artifacts and edges look pronounced giving the impression of some objects in the foreground being like cut outs. This isn't the cleanest transfer but given some of the Amicus films that have made it to DVD, this is rather good and credit is due to Legend for their efforts. The sound is a single mono track which at the beginning of the film seems a little muffled in the dialogue, but the track has admirable bass, very minor distortion and again represents a fine effort.
A good presentation of a much awaited Amicus flick, not a classic but essential for fans of British horror as this is the film's debut on DVD.