The Skull Blu-ray Review
A highly atmospheric film that must have been utterly shocking on its initial cinematic run
What connection could there be? Witchcraft?
Hardly. Not in this day and age... not in this day and age.Released in 1965 from Amicus Productions (rival to fellow British production company Hammer) The Skull is heavy on atmosphere, strong on visuals and contains a commanding performance from its lead, Peter Cushing. Based on a short story by Robert Bloch, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade", the plot follows the misfortunes of anyone who comes into contact with a mysterious skull reported to be that of notorious Donatien Alphonse François (the Marquis), French aristocrat, philosopher and writer who spent most of his life in prison/asylums producing stories of sex and horror. The film opens with the skull being grave robbed then passes to the modern day where collector Dr Christopher Maitland (Cushing) is tormented by its demonic behaviour.You simply do not get films made like this anymore, and it is such a shame. The film’s latter half contains no dialogue and is just Maitland slowly turning insane. It is enhanced by a rich tapestry of colour, mood lighting, camera angles and an extraordinary score by Elisabeth Lutyens which taps into your emotions giving rise to a highly atmospheric film that must have been utterly shocking on its initial cinematic run. Sadly, times have changed and today’s audience weaned on graphic violence and nudity might not see the true magnificence that director Freddie Francis delivers. Containing a 'who’s who' of cinematic horror talent as well as an electric central performance, The Skull is a simple story told terrifically well and even has a macabre ending to boot!
Picture QualityThe disc presents a theatrically correct widescreen 2.35:1 1080p transfer using the AVC codec and is Region locked to B.
On the whole not a bad picture considering the age and pedigree of the source, the restoration job has been very sympathetic. Detail is quite impressive, skin texture (or bone texture!) is clean and clear, pores are evident as are wrinkles and cracks on close ups. Mid-ground also fairs well, check out the various masks and totems of Maitland’s study. Being a studio bound production there are no landscaping establish shots, though the over-views of the opening graveyard are keenly established with trees, gravestones and grassy knolls holding tight edges. Mist, smoke and fumes all fair excellent with no hint of banding or blocking.
Colouring is well realised; it isn’t ‘thick’ as you would expect on modern digital prints, but there is a sense of vibrancy and some nice depth to the primaries. The whole piece is about mood and atmosphere generated by music and lighting and this is where the colours add much to the image quality; reds, blues and greens are rich without being garish. Flesh tones are ‘English pale’ but natural enough for the time.
On the whole not a bad picture considering the age and pedigree of the source
Brightness and contrast are set satisfactorily; the black level never reaches the inky depths, preferring to hover around a deep, dark blue/grey, though this does add some nice punch to the picture even if it is at the cost of depth. The shadows hold some detail when needed and there is no crush. Not quite so firm are the whites, where detail is lost on a couple of occasions (the first snooker game, checkout the establishing shot on the lights above the table and there is occasional clipping in white linen as well) though this is quite rare. In the early part of the film the contrast level does vary a bit leading to a ‘pulsing’ of the image as many older films are wont to do, it does clear up though.
Digitally there were no compression problems or edge enhancement. There was some very slight banding but nothing terrible. The original print is in a pretty good state, still contains some nicks and pops though (both black and white) with the occasional tram line and on one occasion of perforations to the right edge. Grain is still intact though giving a nice organic feel to the piece.
Sound QualityJust the one track: English LPCM 2.0 mono. A very serviceable track that gets its information across very well. Dialogue sounds very natural and is never lost in the mix. Effects are well layered but it is the score where the real meat is; Elisabeth Lutyens’ makes full use of her repertoire to engage the audience on an emotional level and there is a real sense of depth that the orchestral accompaniment delivers in spades. There is no background hiss, no distortion and, even at reference, doesn’t soun shrill. About 20 minutes in there was a noticeable drop is quality – nothing drastic it’s as if the ‘tone button’ was knocked down ever so slightly which after the initial change, I felt, suited the film more. Bass is very limited and whist all sounds natural, LF effects are confined to the dramatic conclusion, and then only the deep drums of the score.
ExtrasVideo Interview – Newly recorded for this release with film scholar and author Jonathan Rigby who in 30 minutes discusses the film, the production, the actors, and the production company and its place in history in a very informative and engaging way.
Video Interview – Newly recorded for this release with critic and author Kim Newman who in 30 minutes covers very similar ground, but from his own view point and is equally entertaining.
Booklet – Touted as ‘Limited Edition Collector’s Booklet’ (probably only in first pressing) this essay by Vic Pratt looks at the film through the ‘eyes of the skull’ and is very informative as to the production of the film and its lavish praise of Peter Cushing.
Blu-ray VerdictPeter Cushing heads up an all-star (horror icon) cast including Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee and Peter Woodthorpe in this horror film from Hammer rivals Amicus Productions based on a novel by Robert Bloch, telling the story of the Marquis de Sade’s skull which terrorises anyone who comes into contact with it. Filmed with consummate gusto by Freddie Francis the film is chock full of atmosphere created by lighting, colour, camera angles and music, supplied by avant-garde composer Elisabeth Lutyens.
The effect is something quite wonderful, with deliberate pacing and a reliance on the visual medium to push the story forward, making the terror quite palpable. The latter half of the film, where Maitland is tormented by the skull into committing murder, contains no dialogue at all and is told purely in the visual medium; it is such a shame that current movies with their reliance on gore and flesh, seldom tell a good story let alone show it through imagery – a lot could be learned from The Skull; a simple story told exceptionally well.
The film is chock full of atmosphere created by lighting, colour, camera angles and music
The disc from Eureka is, on the whole, pretty good. The picture has had some restoration and is reasonably clean (barring a few spots here and there), bright and colourful with good detailing throughout. The sound comes in 2.0 mono LPCM flavour and is also clean, clear and precise with no hiss or distortion, though lacking in any significant bass. The extras amount to two newly recorded interviews that are both informative and entertaining, even if they cover a bit of the same ground; top it off with a reversible sleeve and a Limited Edition Booklet and you have a winner.
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