IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE SKULL (1965)

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Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in THE SKULL (1965).

 

Amicus Productions, the other horror film company from Great Britain that competed with Hammer Films in the 1960s-70s, is famous for their anthology horror movies, but one of their all time best horror films is not an anthology flick but one that tells a single story.

It’s THE SKULL (1965), starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and it’s one of the better horror films to come out of the 1960s, if not for anything else, for its original story.

Of course, it helps to have superior source material.  THE SKULL is based on the story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by Robert Bloch.

THE SKULL (1965) tells the story of Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), a collector of all things macabre, who is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade by the shady buyer and seller Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark). Not sure if he wants to add it to his collection or not, Maitland visits his friend Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) to seek advice on the item’s authenticity and is shocked when Sir Matthew tells him it is the real deal because Marco stole it from him. When Maitland offers to help Sir Matthew get it back, Sir Matthew tells him he wants no part of it and warns Maitland against purchasing it, citing the skull’s dangerous supernatural powers. Maitland scoffs at his friend’s warning and even calls him a coward, saying he’d welcome the full force of the skull’s powers if they existed so he could write about them.

Maitland goes ahead and adds the skull to his collection.

You should have listened to your friend’s advice.

Because it turns out that the skull is indeed evil, and it leads to the death and destruction of everyone who comes in contact with it.

THE SKULL has a lot of things going for it, and it’s one of those movies that has aged well and holds up better today than when it first came out.

For starters, it’s one of the first Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee horror movies not to be a period piece. It’s set in modern times, and as such, as much as I enjoy all the period piece Hammer Films, THE SKULL plays like a breath of fresh air.

THE SKULL also gives Cushing and Lee a chance to appear in the same scenes together and actually hold some intriguing conversations. Prior to THE SKULL, most of their movie scenes together involved them dueling to the death, with Cushing’s hero usually gaining the upper hand over Lee’s monster. Here, they share some noteworthy scenes together. My favorite is their conversation over a game of pool where they argue over the power of the skull. With a little imagination it’s easy to perceive this scene as a dialogue between Baron Frankenstein and Scaramanga. It kinda has that feel.

There’s also a neat dream sequence— or is it?— where Cushing’s Maitland is whisked away by some weird gangster thugs and taken to a secret court where he’s forced to play russian roulette with a loaded pistol. It’s a bizarre sequence, but it really works.

The special effects here for a 1965 movie aren’t half bad.  The skull looks pretty cool, and the scenes shot from inside the skull, an idea conceived by director Freddie Francis, also work.

But what works against the movie, and in the past, used to prevent me from truly loving it, is it has pacing issues, especially towards the end, where there are long scenes of Peter Cushing sitting and staring at the skull, which are hardly all that thrilling.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

One, according to director Freddie Francis, the script by producer Milton Subotsky was largely unfinished and resembled more of an outline than a full-fledged screenplay. According to Francis, he had to add quite a bit to the film’s story to make it reach feature-length.

Also, while Freddie Francis directed a lot of movies, he’s more known for his cinematography, for films in the 1950s, and later, on such classics as THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) and GLORY (1989). He’s not one of my favorite horror movie directors, although I did enjoy his work on DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) which I think is his best horror movie.

But as I said, THE SKULL has aged well, and I regard it much more highly than I did say thirty years ago.

The pacing remains slow, but that seems to matter less now, because its scenes of horror have only gotten better. It opens with an extremely atmospheric graveyard scene which takes place in the 1800s, and so even though this one isn’t a period piece, it begins that way, which makes its switch to modern-day later all the more effective.

There’s something very intelligent and artistic about the entire production, and that’s the part that seems to have gotten better with age. The other notable thing about THE SKULL is it’s not a movie where the good guys win. The forces of darkness are the victors here. In fact, the entire movie seems to be seeped in an aura of evil. It really resonates.

And the film has a very strong cast.  Of course, you have Cushing and Lee, but they’re supported by folks like Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, and Michael Gough.

Peter Cushing always delivers a top-notch performance, although his best work is when he plays the hero or the villain. Here, as Christopher Maitland, he’s a flawed character who isn’t strong enough to fend off the powers of the skull, but as such, it’s rather refreshing to see him play this kind of role.

Christopher Lee’s Sir Matthew Phillips is largely a supporting role, but it is an excellent performance nonetheless. As many of Lee’s early performances so often were, it went largely unnoticed by critics, but he is quite good here as the man who, unlike Maitland, realizes just how dangerous the skull is and tries to tell his friend to walk away from the supernatural object.  Lee does a terrific job creating a character who shows both strength and fear.

Producer and writer Milton Subotsky had a vision for this film to be a feature-length horror movie with very little dialogue. He once said in an interview, “It’s a fantastic film and I think, will someday be considered a horror classic.”

It may have taken over 50 years, but I think Subotsky was right.

We’ve reached the point where we can safely call THE SKULL a classic horror movie from the 1960s.

–END—

 

 

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THE HORROR JAR: Genre Films Where PETER CUSHING Did NOT Play A Doctor/Scientist/Professor

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Peter Cushing - The Skull

Peter Cushing and the Skull in THE SKULL (1965), a horror film in which Cushing did not play a doctor.

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists of odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.

Up today, my all time favorite horror movie actor, Peter Cushing.

When you think of Peter Cushing, his two most famous roles immediately come to mind, Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing, two characters who were also both doctors.  In fact, a lot of Cushing’s roles in horror movies were of medical doctors, professors, or scientists.  So much so, that I thought:  when did he not play a doctor?

Turns out— many times.

Here’s a look at those roles, the times Peter Cushing starred in a horror or science fiction film but did not play a doctor or scientist.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959) – Sherlock Holmes.  Technically not a horror film, but that being said, Hammer Films added plenty of horror elements to their rendition of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tale.  Directed by Terence Fisher, with Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville.  Superior little movie, atmospheric and full of thrills, with Cushing’s energetic Holmes leading the way.

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Cushing as Holmes in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959).

 

NIGHT CREATURES (1962) – Rev. Dr. Blyss – even though the character is identified in the credits as “Dr. Blyss” he’s really the vicar of the small village of Dymchurch— check that, he’s actually the infamous pirate Captain Clegg, hiding out, posing as the vicar, while secretly smuggling rum in this rousing adventure/horror tale by Hammer Films.  Cushing at his energetic best.

Peter Cushing - Night Creatures

Peter Cushing delivers one of his best performances, as Captain Clegg/Dr. Blyss in NIGHT CREATURES (1962).

 

SHE (1965) – Major Holly – lost cities, a supernatural woman, and lots of action in this fantasy adventure by Hammer Films.

THE SKULL (1965) – Christopher Maitland – plays a private collector interested in the occult who purchases the skull of the Marquis de Sade with deadly results.  Christopher Lee co-stars as Cushing’s rival in this fine horror film by Hammer’s rival, Amicus Productions.

TORTURE GARDEN (1967) – Lancelot Canning – another film by Amicus, this one an anthology film featuring five horror stories based on the works of Robert Bloch.  Cushing appears in the fourth segment, “The Man Who Collected Poe,” once more playing a collector of the macabre.  Jack Palance co-stars with Cushing in this segment.

THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968) – Inspector Quennell-  One of Peter Cushing’s worst movies.  In fact, Cushing himself considered it his worst.  Produced by Tigon Films, a company that tried to join Hammer and Amicus as a voice in British horror but ultimately failed.  The monster is a woman who turns into a giant moth that preys on men’s blood, and Cushing plays the police inspector (in a role originally written for Basil Rathbone) who tries to stop her.

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970) – Major Heinrich Benedek – pretty much just a cameo in this film, famous for being the first time Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price all starred together in the same movie.  A bizarre flick, perfect for 1970, but ultimately a disappointment as Cushing and Lee only appear briefly, while Price gets a bit more screen time.

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) – General von Spielsdorf – Cushing finally appears in a vampire movie where he’s not a doctor or a professor!  This time he’s a general, but he’s still hunting vampires in this atmospheric and very sensual vampire film from Hammer, starring Ingrid Pitt as the vampire Carmilla.  The first of Hammer’s “Karnstein” vampire trilogy.

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) – Philip Grayson – Another anthology film by Amicus.  Cushing stars in the second segment “Waxworks” and plays a retired stockbroker who runs afoul of a nefarious wax museum.  Director Peter Duffell once said in an interview that Peter Cushing’s entire segment in this film was simply a contrivance to place his head on a platter, which remains one of the more shocking images from the film.

TWINS OF EVIL (1971) – Gustav Weil – Cushing is excellent (as he always is) in this vampire film from Hammer, playing a different kind of vampire hunter.  He leads the Brotherhood, a fanatical group of men seeking out witches in the countryside, a group that is every bit as deadly as the vampires.  As such, when the vampire threat becomes known, and the Brotherhood turn their attention to the undead, it makes for a much more interesting dynamic than the typical vampire vs. heroes.  It’s one of Cushing’s most conflicted roles.  There’s a scene where he laments that he only wanted to do the right thing, that really resonates, because for most of the film, he’s been doing the very worst things.  The third “Karnstein” vampire film.

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Peter Cushing as the fanatical Gustav Weil in TWINS OF EVIL (1971).

 

I, MONSTER (1971) – Utterson – plays a lawyer in this version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale by Amicus, which changed the names of Jekyll and Hyde to Marlowe and Blake, played here by Christopher Lee.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) – Arthur Edward Grimsdyke – famous Cushing role in yet another anthology film by Amicus.  Cushing appears in the third segment, “Poetic Justice” where he plays an elderly junk dealer who is terrorized into suicide by his neighbors, but a year later, and this is why the role is famous, he returns from the grave.

DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972) – Captain – cameo in this Vincent Price sequel.  Blink and you’ll miss him.

ASYLUM (1972) – Smith – appears in the segment “The Weird Tailor” in this anthology film by Amicus.

FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972) – The Headmaster – plays a sinister headmaster, in this thriller written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, and also starring Joan Collins and Ralph Bates.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) – The Proprietor – plays the owner of an antique shop, and the man in the wraparound story in this Amicus anthology horror vehicle.

MADHOUSE (1974) – Herbert Flay – plays a screenwriter in this one, and best friend to Vincent Price’s horror actor Paul Toombes.  Toombes is having a rough go of it, as the character he played in the movies- Dr. Death – seems to be committing murders in real life.  A really interesting movie, not a total success, but definitely worth a look, mostly because Price and Cushing share equal and ample screen time in this one.

TENDRE DRACULA – Macgregor – bizarre ill-conceived French horror comedy, notable for featuring Cushing’s one and only performance as a vampire.

LAND OF THE MINOTAUR (1976) – Baron Corofax – plays the villain to Donald Pleasence’s heroic priest in this tale of devil worship and demons.

STAR WARS (1977) – Grand Moff Tarkin – aside from his work in Hammer Films, the role which Cushing is most known for.  As Tarkin, he’s the one character in the STAR WARS universe who bossed Darth Vader around and lived to tell about it.

Peter Cushing - Tarkin

Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS (1977).

 

SHOCK WAVES (1977) – SS Commander – Nazi zombies attack!    Nuff said.  With John Carradine.

THE UNCANNY (1977) – Wilbur – Cushing plays a writer who learns that cats are a little more “active” than he first imagined in yet another horror anthology film.

MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND (1981) – William T. Kolderup – plays the “richest man in America” in this bizarre horror comedy.

HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983) – Sebastian Grisbane – famous teaming of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and John Carradine in the same movie for the first (and only) time ever, this really isn’t a very good movie.  It tries hard, and ultimately isn’t all bad, but could have been so much better.  Price and Lee fare the best.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE MASKS OF DEATH (1984) – Sherlock Holmes – Holmes comes out of retirement to solve a case.   Again, not horror, per se, but since this film was directed by Roy Ward Baker, written by Anthony Hinds, and of course starred Peter Cushing, there is a definite Hammer Films feel about this movie.  John Mills plays Dr. Watson.

There you have it.  A list of genre films starring Peter Cushing where he did not play a doctor, scientist or professor.  Perhaps next time we’ll have a look at those films where he did don a lab coat or carry a medical bag.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price: Their Busiest Years

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Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price all share birthdays in May— Cushing on May 26, 1913, Lee on May 27, 1922, and Price on May 27, 1911.

To celebrate, here’s a column where we’ll look at their busiest years in the business, and they had a lot of them.  According to IMDB, Peter Cushing had 131 screen credits, Vincent Price had 201, and Christopher Lee surpassed them both with a whopping 281 screen credits.

But which years did they appear on screen the most?

For Peter Cushing, he had three such years.  In 1940—very, very early in his career— and in 1972, he made seven screen appearances.  But he did one better in 1974, with eight screen appearances.

Here are his eight screen credits from 1974:

1. SHATTER – Rattwood

2. FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE  – The Proprietor

3. FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL – Baron Frankenstein

4. THE BEAST MUST DIE – Dr. Lundgren

5. THE ZOO GANG (TV series) Episode:  “The Counterfeit Trap” – Judge Gautier

6. MADHOUSE  – Herbert Flay

7. THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES – Professor Van Helsing

8. TENDER DRACULA, OR CONFESSIONS OF A BLOOD DRINKER  -MacGregor

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Peter Cushing plays Baron Frankenstein for the last time in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974), the year he made the most screen appearances, with eight.

There are a couple of “lasts” and a “first” in this list of credits for Peter Cushing during his busiest year in 1974.  Both his role as Baron Frankenstein in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL and as Professor Van Helsing in THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES marked the last time he would play these characters.  He played Van Helsing five times in the movies, and Baron Frankenstein six times.

TENDER DRACULA, OR CONFESSIONS OF A BLOOD DRINKER, marked the first and only time that Peter Cushing played a vampire in a movie.

Also of note, Cushing co-starred with Vincent Price in MADHOUSE. And surprisingly, during his busiest year ever in terms of screen credits, Cushing did not star in any films with frequent co-star Christopher Lee that year.

 

Christopher Lee, with his 281 credits, seemed to be busy every year he was working, but his busiest year was very early in his career, in 1956, when he amassed 11 credits in that one single year.

Here they are:

1. CHEVRON HALL OF STARS (TV series), Episode:  “Captain Kidd” – Governor

2. PRIVATE’S PROGRESS – Major Schultz

3.ALEXANDER THE GREAT – Nectenabus (voice)

4.THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (TV series) – Louis

5. PORT AFRIQUE – Franz Vermes

6.PURSUIT OF THE GRAF SPEE – Manolo

7. BEYOND MAMBASA – Gil Rossi

8. RHEINGOLD THEATER (TV Series) – Appearances in various episodes

9. AGGIE (TV series) – Inspector John Hollis

10. SAILOR OF FORTUNE (TV series) – Yusif/Carnot

11. THE ERROL FLYNN THEATER (TV series) – The Visitant/Compte de Merret/Maurice Gabet

christopher lee 1950s

Christopher Lee in the 1950s, right around his busiest year in the biz, 1956.

And while 1956 may have been Christopher Lee’s busiest year in terms of screen credits, it would be the following year that all his hard work would come to fruition, for in 1957 Christopher Lee would achieve international stardom for his role as The Creature in Hammer Film’s megahit, THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), the film that also launched Peter Cushing’s international career, for his starring performance as Baron Victor Frankenstein.

 

Vincent Price didn’t have just one, but three busiest years of his career.  He made eight screen appearances in one year three times, in 1956, 1969, and 1970.

Here’s a look at those credits:

1956

1.SERENADE – Charles Winthrop

2.WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS – Walter Kyne

3.LUX VIDEO THEATRE (TV series) – Joseph Bentley/Dr.Austin Sloper/Christoff

4.THE ALCOA HOUR (TV series) – Alvanley

5.THE VAGABOND KING – Narrator (voice)

6.SCIENCE FICTION THEATRE (TV series) -Sgt. Gary Williams/Dr. Philip Redmond

7.THE TEN COMMANDMENTS – Baka

8. CROSSROADS (TV series) – Reverend Alfred W. Price/Rabbi GershomSeixas/Rev. Robert Russell

 

1969

1.MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE – Dan Ruffalo

2.DANIEL BOONE (TV series) – Dr. Thaddeus Morton

3. THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS – Mr. Morality

4.THE OBLONG BOX – Julian

5. BBC PLAY OF THE MONTH (TV series) – Dr. Austin Sloper

6.THE GOOD GUYS (TV series) – Mr. Middleton

7. WORLD WIDE ADVENTURES:  ANNABEL LEE (Short) – Narrator

8. GET SMART (TV series) – Dr. Jarvis Pym

 

1970

1.SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN – Dr. Browning

2.AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLAN POE – Narrator

3.CRY OF THE BANSHEE – Lord Edward Whitman

4.LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE (TV series)

5.HERE’S LUCY (TV series) – as Vincent Price

6. MOD SQUAD (TV series) – John Wells/Wentworth

7. HOLIDAY STARTIME SPECIAL (TV movie)

8.CUCUMBER CASTLE (TV movie) – Wicked Count Voxville

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Vincent Price in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)..

Some things of note regarding these credits:  in THE OBLONG BOX, he co-starred with Christopher Lee, and in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN he starred with both Lee and Peter Cushing, the first of only two times that all three of these actors appeared in the same movie together.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the busiest years in the careers of three of the busiest actors in horror film history.

Happy Birthday Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price!

Thanks for reading, everybody!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE QUOTABLE CUSHING: THE SKULL (1965)

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Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee discuss the dangers of the skull over a friendly game of pool in THE SKULL (1965).

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee discuss the dangers of the skull over a friendly game of pool in THE SKULL (1965).

THE QUOTABLE CUSHING:  THE SKULL (1965)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

Today on THE QUOTABLE CUSHING, that column where we look at Peter Cushing’s best lines in the movies, we look at one of my favorite Amicus movies, THE SKULL (1965) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

 

Amicus was the other British company making horror movies in the 1960s and 70s, forever stuck in the shadow of England’s more famous horror studio, Hammer Films.  Amicus even used the same directors and stars, including Cushing and Lee.  Amicus was most famous for their anthology films, movies which would feature several short horror stories in the same movie.  However, THE SKULL is not an anthology movie.  It features just one story.  Perhaps that’s why I prefer it.

 

The best scenes in THE SKULL are those that feature both Cushing and Lee, who play rival art collectors in this one. There’s also a neat nightmare sequence involving Cushing, which just might be the most memorable scene in the movie.

 

Let’s look now at some of Peter Cushing’s memorable lines in THE SKULL, screenplay by Milton Subotsky, based on the short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” by Robert Bloch.

 

In this early scene in the movie, the shady character Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark) attempts to sell a special novelty item to one of his best customers, an author who writes about demonology, Dr. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing).  Let’s listen:

 

Maitland:  What have you got for me?

Marko:  Something choice.  Very choice.

Maitland:  Why don’t you show me?

(Marco hands Maitland a book.)

Marco:  The life of the notorious Marquis De Sade.

(Marco goes on to describe De Sade’s experiences with inflicting pain on others, and his worshipping of the devil.)

Marco:  A most interesting man. A most interesting book.

Maitland: How much do you want for it?

Marco:  Two hundred pounds.  Look at the binding.

Maitland:  What’s it made of?

Marco:  Skin.  Human skin.

 

Maitland buys the book, prompting Marco to return the next night, where he makes Maitland another offer, this time attempting to sell him the actual skull of the Marquis De Sade.  Maitland decides he needs time to think about it.

 

Later, in one of my favorite scenes in the movie, Maitland’s friend and sometimes rival Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) tries to warn Maitland about the skull over a friendly game of pool.

 

Maitland:  I was offered an item last night by a mutual acquaintance, Marco.

Phillips:  Yes, a somewhat shady individual, but useful.

Maitland:  He offered me a Death’s Head which he said is the skull of the Marquis De Sade. He wanted a thousand but finally came down to five hundred.   Naturally, I’d like to have it in my collection if it’s genuine.

Phillips:  It’s genuine enough.

Maitland:  How could you possibly know that?

Phillips:  Because my dear fellow, it was stolen from me.

 

A few moments later:

 

Phillips:  I’m glad the skull has been stolen.  And I advise you to leave it alone.

Maitland:  Why?

Phillips:  Because it’s dangerous.

 

And later:

 

Maitland:  But how can a mere skull be dangerous?  Unless your mind makes it so.

Phillips:  De Sade said he wasn’t mad.  I believe him.  He was far worse than mad.  He was possessed- possessed by an evil spirit, a spirit which still inhabits the skull.  I kept the skull locked in a glass case in the library.  I had the only key.  Once a month during the two nights of the new moon, the time of devil worship and black magic, I found in the morning that the skull had been removed.

Maitland:  Who removed it?

Phillips:  Those who use its power.  Invisible beings, spirits from a strange evil world.  Sometimes I used to hear them calling me to join in their ceremonies.  It took all my powers of will to resist.

Maitland:  I wouldn’t resist.  Given the opportunity, I’d wait for them. It would make a good chapter for one of my books.

Phillips:  Don’t think that I wasn’t tempted.  But I knew the moment I set foot in the room I’d be unable to resist the forces of evil.  I would do whatever the skull wanted me to do.

 

And finally:

 

Phillips:  I never went into the library on the nights of the new moon.

Maitland:  You’re a coward.

Phillips:  Perhaps sometimes it’s better to be.

 

And in the film’s most memorable sequence, the dream sequence, two mysterious men burst into Maitland’s home.

 

Maitland:  Who are you?  What do you want?

Man:  Are you Christopher Maitland?

Maitland:  Yes.

Man: We have a warrant for your arrest.  I must caution you that anything you say will be taken down in writing and will be used in evidence.

Maitland:  What is the charge?

Man:  You’ll find out.  Come along.

Maitland:  My wife is out.  I must leave a note for her.

Man:  You can phone from the station.

Maitland is brought to a mysterious courtroom where he is handed a gun and forced to play a deadly game of Russian roulette.  No dialogue here, unless you count Cushing’s screams.  It’s a very weird and tense scene.

 

Okay, that wraps things up for today. I hope you enjoyed this look at THE SKULL, on THE QUOTABLE CUSHING.

 

See you next time!  Thanks for reading!

 

—Michael