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.