Both films appear in hi-def courtesy of AVC encodes. Neither are going to set the world on fire with their transfers, however. But I will say that they should both please and reward the purists, as no digital tinkering appears to have been wrought across them. This being the case, it is quite apparent that there has been no extreme makeovers or overly-judicious restorations, and the lack of information regarding the source of the material they hail from leads me to wonder if the floodgates have now been opened and virtually any label can unveil a prized genre classic on the format without the sort of bells and whistles and transfers that we, as ardent and devoted fans, crave. Still, to have the films in their raw state and unmolested by DNR is enough.
Let's look at the films then.
The Man Who Could Cheat Death is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect with its grain intact, and this is, undoubtedly, the best the film has looked on home video. There have been some tremendously ropey looking prints of this one in the past, with the colours horribly faded. This transfer, which I can only presume (or hope) comes from the original negative does its best to retain that painted-on sheen of 50's Technicolor. The hues do vary in saturation, sometimes from shot to shot, but this is a product of the source and not a fault with the transfer. Contrast is a little too high and there are moments when whites bloom and faces shine a touch too brightly. Blacks are adequate, with some concessions made for the vintage. Sometimes the picture seems to veer towards the greener end of the spectrum, but I would say once again that this is probably a product of how the original source has weathered. But, speaking of green, the transfer handles the imagery of the elixir and of the decaying flesh very well … all looks very luridly comic-book. The red of Court's hair and the blue of Diffring's eyes also come over well, as do some of the costumes. The orange flames of the conflagration at the end is also bright and vivid.
Detail is actually pretty decent. Once again, the eyes have it, as well as the paraphernalia of the various antiquated sets. Oh, and look out for the little fly that goes buzzing around Diffring's head in one early scene. The print has the odd wobble, and the signs of wear and tear are still in evidence. There are some faded portions and pops and speckles but, to be honest, I was pleased with the overall appearance of this movie.
The Skull is immediately the more eye-catching and splendid-looking film, with its wonderfully composed 2.35:1 image. Once again, grain is intact and the image looks nicely film-like. It may not cater for the most colourfully demanding of aesthetes being as it favours the shadows more, but there is still plenty of that old school lustre to the image. The skull, itself, is nicely highlighted whenever it is on the move, blood is theatrical and bright. Skin-tones aren't particularly natural, but then this is a circumstance of the makeup and the lighting and the original photography … not the transfer. Contrast isn't too bad, it certainly isn't as glaring as in the previous film, with the opening flashback set in the misty graveyard much better looking than an equally misty scene at the start of The Man Who Could Cheat Death, which mires things up quite badly, and faces resolutely un-shiny and whites that don't bloom. Blacks have some fine stability and depth, and this leads to a few choice atmospheric scenes. Though you will have seen much more assured shadow-definition elsewhere, The Skull provides its quota with plenty of moody richness.
Damage is light and un-distracting and the image is sharp enough and detailed enough to satisfy even the jaded old Marquis. Even background objects in Maitland's study yield lots of information, and since much of made of the items dotted around the place, this is a great bonus. Facial detail is good too – from the sunken features of Cushing to the swarthy sweat on Wymark.
Both films look better than I have ever seen them before. It is clear that they could look much better again, given the royal treatment, but it is unlikely that any fuller restoration will be granted. This being the case, I can't imagine any fan finding much to complain about with Legend's bare-bones hi-def transfers. In my opinion The Skull would garner a slightly higher score but, collectively and realistically, the transfers get a strong 6 out of 10.
Both films are somewhat disappointingly presented with only Dolby Digital 2.0 audio tracks. I'm not entirely sure how much of a difference lossless mixes would have made to these Silver Age horrors, but we always want what we can't have, don't we? And it is probably a safe bet that The Skull, in particular, would have benefited the most, being as it has the more audacious sound design and much more aggressive use of scoring.
Anyway, both films sound fine, to be honest. There is certainly some hiss and background crackle to them, the audio wrinkles of old age, but this is not something that you will be constantly aware of. In fact, there are only a couple of instances where I actually became aware of it at all during The Skull with its already violent symphonic approach. The Man Who Could Cheat Death, on the other hand, does sound appreciably older and more weathered. Dialogue levels drop from time to time with this one, though there is never an instance when speech cannot be clearly heard. Hammer's film is the more sedate and quietly composed. Richard Rodney Bennett's score is smaller and less overtly dramatic. It doesn't possess much reach or warmth and sounds a little brittle but, really, you couldn't expect much more. There is some shrill screaming from the ladies, but really little in the way of effects to punctuate the dialogue.
The Skull contains some screaming too and some fierce pounding on the spectrally locked doors from Cushing. There's also a few gunshots and the crashing of a body through a couple of windows to add to the strenuous cacophony that Elisabeth Luytens provides. The little tokk! of the snooker balls makes a nice contrast to the dull thud as a statue is brought down upon someone's head later on in the same games room. I'm tempted to believe that a remix could have worked wonders with this track as it offers so much in the way of supernatural effects during the final quarter but, hey, this still does the best it can with the source elements without anything bogus having been added.
As with the video, The Skull rates more highly. But, being charitable and bearing in mind the source material, I'm awarding the overall audio package a 6.
Sadly, there are no extra features with this 2-film package, which is a shame.
It's a vintage fright-fest from Legend Films, who have unearthed two lurid gems from yesteryear. Hammer and Amicus go rotting head to demonic skull in this double-bill that brings such genre greats as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee back to do battle with evil, and pits Anton Diffring against the ravages of time. The luscious Hazel Court provides the eye-candy in Hammer's talky-but-fun The Man Who Could Cheat Death, amply proving why she became one of the genre's great scream-queens. And the peerless Peter Cushing goes through a haunted hell conjured up by the spirit of the Marquis de Sade in The Skull from Amicus. Both offer heaps of nostalgic chills and gothic atmosphere, but it is The Skull that contains most of that essential black magic and shock-value.
Purists can relax in the knowledge that neither film has been digitally messed around with. They may look their age, but they still pack a sumptuous punch. It is a pity that there are no extra features at all in this package, though. I'm sure that something could have been added. I'm always up for recording a commentary track, even if no-one else is!
But at least fans of these two illustrious studios can rejoice in the fact that, slowly but surely, some of those great titles that they grew up with on late-night double-bills are now clawing their way out of the cobwebbed VHS casket and dusting themselves down for reappraisal on Blu-ray. And at this low price, these two productions are well worth adding to any horror film collection.
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