The Skull Review

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It appears that vintage and classical horror fans are getting what they want

by Chris McEneany May 9, 2011 at 10:16 PM

  • Movies review

    The Skull Review
    Well, folks … it appears that vintage and classical horror fans are now getting what they want. You all know me and how much I adore these older productions. Whilst I still eagerly await the classic Universal Horrors, the RKO's and things like The Thing From Another World and Night Of The Demon, I know that I am not alone when it comes to salivating over the arrival of Hammer and Amicus titles on Blu-ray. And with Hammer making a well-received and profit-turning resurrection in the last couple of years, it is now fantastic to look back upon the sort of films that made the studio, and their rivals, such household names, and a vastly influential stable of the imaginative and the uncanny.

    This wonderful double-disc Blu-ray presentation of Hammer's 1959 chilling melodrama The Man Who Could Cheat Death and Amicus' superior riot of occult mayhem, 1965's The Skull, provide an immediate snapshot into the styles and concepts of what made the genre so downright appealing and taboo-breaking during this glorious renaissance. Neither offering is from the top drawer, but although I can hardly wait to dissect the more infamous treasures from these studios and from this revolutionary period (the Frankensteins, Draculas, Quatermasses from Hammer and the fabulous anthologies and, my favourite, The Beast Must Die, from Amicus) it is highly satisfying to pore-over these lesser regarded and often forgotten entries.

    1959 was a busy year for Hammer. Besides The Man Who Could Cheat Death, their releases also included the excellent trio of The Revenge Of Frankenstein, their very successful and clever follow-up to the groundbreaking Curse Of Frankenstein, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Mummy, all of which starred the ever-resourceful Peter Cushing. In fact, Cushing was up for the lead part in this as well, but had to bow out due to other commitments. What a time this must have been for him – straight from one job to the next and with a new film of his coming out almost every other month! The film was based on Barre Lyndon's play The Man In Half Moon Street, which had been produced under that title in 1944 for an extremely dull Paramount adaptation starring Nils Asher in the nefarious lead role. This version was written for the screen by Hammer's Jimmy Sangster, who would also pen a tie-in novel to help with the marketing, and relocates the action from London to Paris. Terence Fisher, totally relaxed with the studio, the cast and crew and the material, after having helmed the previous four massive Hammer hits is perhaps guilty of slackening off the reins this time out. His handling lacks the vigour and intensity that he brought to the gripping debuts of the Baron and the Count, and the sense of excitement from The Hound and The Mummy is heavily diluted until we reach the shocking finale.

    A sedate and measured film, then, The Man Who Could Cheat Death is part of a sub-genre of horror pictures that critically dissect the vain obsession of the artist devoted to his work, even to the point where he will seemingly return from the grave to carry on or, in this case, attempt to perpetually stave-off their mortality. It fits right in with Murders In The Wax Museum, The Phantom Of The Opera and The Hands Of Orlac (aka Mad Love) in this regard. And, naturally, there is a very conscious evocation of Dorian Gray about the penalty that must be paid for seeking eternal youth. Although based upon Lyndon's heavily theatrical tale, Sangster, with an eye on the sensation-hungry market that Hammer had already created for itself, throws in some murders and some very provocative sex appeal from the luscious Hazel Court who, along with fellow Brits Barbara Shelley and Barbara Steele, became part of an iconic trio of scream-queens from the sixties, in this tale of a renowned doctor/sculptor, Georges Bonnet, played with icy, aristocratic relish by the Germanic Anton Diffring, and his self-absorbed quest for immortality.

    Bonnet has discovered the means of keeping death from the door with the aid of a potion concocted from a special gland stolen from some rather unhappy donors. These victims end up mutilated in a sort of Jack The Ripper fashion, even down to the notorious Gladstone bag and foggy cobbled streets. Bonnet is also something of a ladies man, as his affairs with the comely models who pose for him bear testament to. His latest lover, Margo (Delphi Lawrence) gets a bit upset when Bonnet's old flame, Janine Dubois (Court, looking as stunning as ever), turns up unexpectedly at the socialite gathering for his newest unveiling and the two instantly strike up the old rapport. But relationships are a touch difficult for our Bonnet (pronounced Bon-ayy), who has a ghastly habit of deteriorating if he doesn't get his regular fix of the youthful elixir … that we see smoking with a deliciously SF-tinged green glow from within a locked wall-safe.

    Hoping to win Janine over again and make her his bride forever (quite literally), the twisted Bonnet intends for them both to undergo the same unique operation that he has had to go through at the hands of the skilled surgeon, Prof. Ludwig Weisz (Arnold Marle), every ten years. This operation extends his life but is not quite the full success it should be … hence the rather unsavoury necessity to commit the odd murder in order to sustain his youth before the ravages of age and every disease the elixir has helped him to elude catch up with his flesh. But Weisz is now too old to fully perform the procedure so Bonnet turns to Christopher Lee's younger and healthier Dr. Gerard – and, herein, lies the problem. Gerard is in love with Janine as well and, to be honest, he isn't all that keen on Bonnet in the first place. The police are also probing around the place, what with the curious manner in which his models keep going missing. What a to-do! More murder, kidnapping and blackmail ensue and Roy Ashton gets to work with some pasty fungus-like makeup effects and Richard Rodney Bennett ladles on the Gothically melodramatic score.

    Looking at Anton Diffring now, I am visually reminded of Andrew Lincoln, who has so brilliantly evolved his English tonsils to speak with a Texan drawl as the star of the great show, The Walking Dead. The eyes certainly, but the shape of the face too. Diffring was, for a short flirtatious period, the genre's quiet understudy, providing terrific work that often slipped under the radar when compared to the performances of Horror's more immediate celebrities. But you only have to watch him in Circus Of Horrors, the brutal Mark Of The Devil II and even savour his winning turn in The Beast Must Die to see how effective a screen presence he could be even when removed from his more formulaic and incredibly numerous portrayals of Kraut officers in things like Where Eagles Dare and The Blue Max. Here, though, he can't help but overact. The film is so pedestrian in its mood and so restrained and talky that I suppose he thought he would have to do something to inject some vitality into it.

    Indeed, all the cast seem to do their best … perhaps realising that the story is all concept and no real substance.

    Marle is good value. Working from beneath a massive Einstein-like bouffant and with a withered hand lodged, Napoleon-style, in his waistcoat, he becomes the voice of conscience and reproach. He has a frightful time of it, though. His world comes crashing down as he makes some unfortunate discoveries in Bonnet's laboratory, and his moral principles become an obstacle to his old(er) friend that must be violently swept aside. Court is as voluptuous and desirable as ever. She had appeared for Hammer in The Curse Of Frankenstein and, after this outing, would find herself whisked off to the States for a screaming reign of terror for Roger Corman.
    I have to say that the praise Bonnet gets from everyone for his statue of Court's Janine is a bit misplaced. It looks nothing like her and, truly, doesn't do her any justice at all. But, on the technical side, Hammer's production retains that polished attitude and sumptuous air despite only requiring a couple of lavishly decorated sets over at Bray.

    In a way, The Man Who Could Cheat Death feels like a departure for Hammer. We may have an awesomely heaving cleavage on display during the grand finale, and one of those trademarked blazing infernos to round things off, but the parlour-room ambience and hugely verbose script confine the action and the menace quite considerably. The film also suffers from the fact that we know exactly what Bonnet is up to right from the get-go, and the plot hinges back the wrong way with the fact that he is neither a monster nor much of mad man. Thus, there is very little in the way of threat or menace. Be this as it may, there is much pleasure to be had from seeing such a great cast banter back and forth, verbally weaving in and out of dark suspicions and depraved thoughts.

    Poor old Bonnet was never going to get that statue of Janine finished, but then men always suffer for their hobbies, don't they? And, proving this adage once and for all, we now come to what is, by far, the more exciting and dramatic film in this package.
    Based on Robert Bloch's short story, The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade, Hammer contemporary and rival, Amicus, unleashes a demented and quite disturbing tale of possession from the beyond the grave, foul murder and the occult in this visceral adaptation called simply The Skull. Under the auspices of the portmanteau-king, Milton Subotsky, the film, written for the screen by Subotsky, himself, and directed with fire and thunder by the great Freddie Francis, is just like one of his many anthology episodes, although stretched-out with a truly wonderful and totally bravura final third that must have been a real endurance test for audiences of the era. And, make no mistake, those audiences would have flocked to see this starring, as it does, British horror luminaries Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The two icons had already appeared together, of course, in Dracula, The Curse Of Frankenstein, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Mummy, all for Hammer – the first two films putting the British wing of the genre well and truly on the cinematic map forever, whilst the others created a steadfast bond between the pair that ensured they were a box office draw with a winning on-screen chemistry. Their names appearing on the billboard and those splendid British quad-posters was the promise of bloodcurdling chills and intense performances … and, in this regard, The Skull wouldn't disappoint.

    Cushing is the esteemed occult and black magic writer, researcher and, most importantly, collector, Christopher Maitland, into whose possession comes the titular skull, which had once housed the infernal notions and desires of the wicked Marquis De Sade. We see the skull being obtained during a creepy grave-robbing session in the flashback prologue before hurtling forwards to sixties London.
    You know that you are in for a bit of class and sinister relish when you see Michael Gough and Patrick Wymark and Patrick Magee in the line-up, but a rare treat is finding the great, though tragic Nigel Green called-up for duty. Gough only gets a small part as the auctioneer who presides over the bidding war between Cushing and Lee's rival collector and friend, Sir Matthew Phillips, for a quartet of devil statues, but that gaunt and distinguished face still makes you think that he knows a lot more about such things than he is letting on. Wymark is great as Anthony Marco, the slimy dealer that acts as a go-between for Cushing's more down-to-earth curio-collector and Lee's stern-faced and far less sociable obsessive. Looking dishevelled and grubby, Wymark has the air of the paparazzi about him, a gutter-level opportunist forever on the take. No stranger to psychological thrillers with Roman Polanski's Repulsion behind him (see separate BD review), he is very effective in what is something of a pivotal role. Both Green and Magee had seen service together fighting gallantly at Rorke's Drift in Cy Enfield's magnificent Zulu and even played guests of Vincent Price in Corman's The Masque Of The Red Death, and here they assume the stance of the authorities in the sordid mystery that ensues once the skull flits from one owner to another, as police inspector and coroner, respectively. Funnily enough, Magee only manages a couple of face-to-camera shots, but that amazing voice glimmers through the various crime-scenes like a dreaded portent, muttering darkly about torn-out jugulars. Green, on the other hand, allows his normally stoic-yet-humane persona slip into something a little less commanding. Although he always looked tough, with that perpetual Sgt. Major demeanour, Green was able to imbue his characters with real warmth and depth, to wit, his foolish but loyal Hercules in Jason And The Argonauts. He appears here in a typically thankless genre stereotype, but that class still shines through. These guys are the rocks to which many a film from this period would cling. Whilst Green would go on to work with Hammer on the lacklustre Countess Dracula, Magee would provide many a creepy turn for the likes of Amicus, Hammer and others, with memorable performances in Asylum, Tales From The Crypt, A Clockwork Orange and even Lucio Fulci's really rather wretched 1981 take on The Black Cat. Along with the two leads, they all take it very seriously indeed and that is absolutely vital to a genre-flick about a demonic floating skull. For his part, Lee is sidelined for much of the time, cropping up to extend grave warnings and provide sinister hints of what will befall Cushing if he clings to the skull, but it is just great to see the two powerhouses chewing the supernatural fat. I've always said it and it becomes abundantly clear even when watching this one example of their work together, so I'll re-affirm it right now as well. Peter Cushing was, by many leagues, a better actor than Christopher Lee. Barring only a handful of admittedly exceptional characterisations – Duke de Richeleau from Hammer's The Devil Rides Out, Lord Summerisle from The Wicker Man, Scaramanga from The Man With The Golden Gun and Rochfort from The Three Musketeers – Lee's imperious and regal airs confined him to a very restricted arena of performance, although it is certainly true that he had to do little more than stand in the frame and deliver one of his trademark stares in order to frequently steal the show from anyone other than Cushing.

    And The Skull belongs to Peter Cushing, who puts himself through the wringer as the hellishly tormented Maitland.

    Hand in hand with this startling performance, Freddie Francis goes all-out to produce an atmosphere of the utmost dread and depravity. The supernatural shenanigans are brilliantly orchestrated. Windows fly open, doors play tricks, objects move about all over the place, the skull levitates in shots that are either truly spellbinding or ever-so-slightly let down by the fact that we can see the wires in a couple of frames, and we are treated to a couple of shocking dream sequences that are genuinely unnerving and rug-pulling. And, as I have said, all of this is bestowed a grand charge of life by the always wonderful Peter Cushing, who is tremendous as making those sly transitions from safe and loving Christopher to cruel and despicable Sadist. People always remember Cushing as being the nice one of the two genre titans, a few increasingly callous turns as Frankenstein notwithstanding for the man who embodied the valiant vampire-slaying Van Helsing, and a slew of other charmingly upper-class monster-bashers. But Cushing was extremely adept at twisting the psychological thumb-screws and mutating those manners into menace. Here, he is outstanding as both the loving husband (although, curiously, he and his wife, played by Jill Bennet occupy separate bedrooms) and dedicated scholar, and as the evil-influenced perpetrator of crimes he cannot control. Cushing, to me, is the epitome of dignity and grace in the face of the monstrous (usually depicted by noggins festooned with Roy Ashton makeup), and yet he was endowed with a simply amazing range. I just love the change from sensitive and conscience-addled to cold and deadly that he exhibits here. You can really comprehend and see the intense emotional and psychological turmoil that the character is undergoing. To make a comparison, however unfair it may be, Christopher Lee simply could not perform to anything like this standard.

    Elisabeth Luytens provides a score of Satanic proportions. Just as bravura and wildly written as anything by Hammer's James Bernard, and twice as aggressive, this is the sort of wall-to-wall musical chaos that separates the men from the boys. With long passages featuring just Cushing and a wealth of bizarre and wrathful phenomena taking place, there are times when Luytens' work reminds of the wall of sound that Dario Argento was frequently after to serve alongside his powerful visuals. Here, the score serves exactly the same purpose – to shred the nerves and make even the most stalwart of horror fans squirm and fidget uncomfortably. It is possible that even Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert had just this sort of ethic in mind when they crafted The Evil Dead, another film very notable for its senses-paralysing and, indeed, deliberately unpleasant soundmix. Luytens' music is just as violent and just as unstoppable as any innovative sound design. There is an early passage when Wymark's unscrupulous dealer is simply walking down the street to call upon Maitland, and Luytens' music drives him along like a Goldsmith-fuelled tempest from The Omen. At first, this seems more than a touch much, but then this becomes the style that Francis is after, giving even slower, less interesting moments an internal and, indeed, infernal vigour. She had already composed for Hammer's Paranoiac (see separate BD review) and Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors for Amicus by this time, but The Skull would cement her credentials as a leading light in British fright-flicks. The Psychopath, The Terrornauts and Theatre Of Death would follow.

    The excessive use of mind-warping dream sequences is something that Francis may have taken from Roger Corman and his Poe adaptations for American International. We had the gorgeous and very naughty Hazel Court the earlier Hammer film, of course, and she had delivered full-throttle spice 'n' terror in the celebrated nightmare scene from The Masque Of The Red Death, and the exhilaration of this sequence is recalled with Maitland's increasingly unhinged hallucinations. The Skull also seems evocative of the garish decadence and vicious surrealism of The Masque's main character, Vincent Price's debauched and cruel Prince Prospero, who is clearly inspired by De Sade. Masque was released the year before The Skull and a terrifically visual and stylish exercise it was, too, and this must have made an impression on Francis, for The Skull is possibly his retaliation to such an atmospheric new aesthetic from across the Pond. Thus, The Skull is very much a film of images. It is not a wordy film at all, the opposite of The Man Who Could Cheat Death, for example, which relies heavily on dialogue. The art direction is the main focus of our attention beyond the grimly influenced histrionics from Cushing. The spooky sets and sheer proliferation of gruesome artefacts and occult object d'art is particularly mesmerising. Just take the time to peruse the collection in Cushing's study. Look at the wacky monkey-head on the wall that looks like it is wearing a busby. The photography by John Wilcox creates fine use of depth and space within the wide frame, our attention cleverly drawn towards dark corners and things lurking at the threshold. Francis also makes the effort to enable us to enjoy the POV of the Marquis de Sade's wicked spirit with views of characters framed within the empty eye sockets of the skull and us looking out at them from the inside, thus cheekily establishing illicit viewer-empathy with the monster. The floating skull shots, as quaint as they are, also remind of the old visual tricks from Cinema's earliest days, as well as the simple ploys set up by fake mediums during seances. There is a level of macabre ingenuity and wit at play with all this William Castle-ish creativity.

    The actual horror scenes are strong too. Francis gets some suspenseful mileage out of the fact that we can see something ghastly in the shadows behind an open door that Maitland, distracted, can not. One death is brilliantly audacious, and makes shocking use of two large stained-glass windows. I'm tempted to believe that this demise could have influenced the spectacular nature of similar kills made in the Omen trilogy and in the early shockers from Argento. I like the skin-prickling notion that de Sade is also employing “unseen helpers” to do his vile bidding, a concept that was revisited in the poltergeist rape-chiller, The Entity. And, with the big startling dream sequence, there is even a hint of the sublime absurdity that would prevail in The Avengers and The Prisoner. The movie may be just an exercise in style and atmosphere, but there are so many terrific and jolting little touches like this that Subotsky's production comes alive with diabolical zest.

    It is great to see both films again, and in hi-definition, but The Skull is the clear winner in the race to thrill and chill. The production is far more polished and dramatic and, without a doubt, actually very scary too, it weaves an insidious little story and assails you with imagery and music that will not soon fade from the mind. The Man Who Could Cheat Death is still a terrific little yarn that exploits the finely on-edge talents of Anton Diffring and the lascivious and buxom delights of Hazel Court in a Grand Guignol tale of vain obsession, but its stagebound origins are not easily masked and, in the end, it boils down to much ado about nothing.

    Both are expertly rendered by consummate professionals who took the genre to their hearts, and both are determined to move against the tide of the majority of horror productions from other studios. But it is The Skull that carries all of the impact and intensity.

    Fans of vintage horror should have lots of fun with these two resurrected gems.

    The Rundown

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