Talk about British horror in the 1960s, and the first company name that will immediately come up is Hammer Films, which specialized in bloody gothic re-imaginings of the old monster movie standards (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, et al). The second name would have to be Amicus Productions, which took many of the same actors (Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee) and directors – and put them to work in more contemporary settings. Though best known for their anthology horror films (Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, the first adaptation of Tales from the Crypt), Amicus also released some tidy little full-length horror features, of which the newly DVD-ed The Skull (1965) proves a strong representative title.
Adapted from a Robert Bloch short story, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade," by producer/screenwriter Milton Subotsky, The Skull concerns an occult writer named Christopher Maitland (Cushing) who comes into the possession of the title bone after it's stolen from rival collector Matthew Phillips (Lee). De Sade's skull, we're shown, brings disaster to all who've kept it, but Maitland, being the type of well-schooled English intellectual who spends nights in his beautifully furnished library reading books bound in human skin, pooh-poohs the legends. We in the audience, who've already seen a French phrenologist buy it in an atmospheric pre-credits sequence, wait for the know-it-all Maitland to learn the awful truth.
The skull, Lee's occult collector tells us, is possessed by an evil spirit. When the moon was right, invisible beings would steal the artifact out of Phillips' curio cabinet for use in demonic rituals. The specifics behind these rites are purposefully kept vague, but it's clear that human sacrifice is a part of the deal. Our hero starts to experience stylized nightmares of being trapped in a red room with the walls closing in and of getting dragged before a sinister court where he's forced to play Russian roulette. As Maitland grows increasingly more enthralled by the skull, all of his acquaintances are placed in peril, including his sensibly concerned spouse (Jill Bennett).
Amicus director Freddie Francis was a prolific pro whose work ranged from the effective (Crypt) to the egregious (the infamous Joan Crawford caveman flick Trog). As a gifted cinematographer (cf., his work on David Lynch's Elephant Man), he was capable of imparting a visual elegance to his better horror films, and while The Skull may not be his best flick, it still looks pretty darn good. In line with its setting – the world of well-moneyed collectors – the film is richly hued. I remember viewing a television screening of this flick, years ago, which was so washed out from overplaying that it was a struggle to watch. The new DVD release, courtesy of the film restorers at Legend Films, retains the original's deep and somber color tones – much to the movie's benefit.
That noted, the fact remains that The Skull isn't a particularly frightening horror film. Scripter Subotsky struggles in places to expand Bloch's original short story, but once you've watched Cushing slowly putting on his smoking jacket, you can't help thinking that the whole thing might've fit more snugly in one of the company's horror anthologies. Amicus later would release two flicks collecting several of the Psycho author's sardonic tales (House That Dripped Blood and Asylum). Perhaps a trimmer version of "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade" would have been better placed in one of 'em.
Too, you can only do so much with a static gleaming white skull. And while Francis tries to trick things up with bilious green lighting and moody music, it just isn't enough. When the marquis' head bone finally starts floating across the room toward the horrified Maitland, the jaded modern moviegoer starts looking for the wire. (Oops, there it is!) To its credit, the flick does periodically give us a cool shot from the POV of the skull, camera peering through the eyes and nose hole at the doomed Dr. Maitland. Skullvision! I can think of more than one flick that would've been helped by this gimmick – and I'm not talking horror pictures.