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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SHOCK SCENES: DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer DRACULA Endings- Part 2

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SHOCK SCENES:  DRACULA’S DEMISE- A Look at the Hammer Dracula Endings

Part 2

By

Michael Arruda

Welcome to Part 2 of our look at the endings to the Hammer DRACULA series, where we examine how Dracula met his demise in the various Hammer Dracula movies. In Part 1, we looked at the endings to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960).  Now, it’s on to Part 2.

And remember, if you haven’t seen these films, there are major spoilers here, so proceed with caution.

 

DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)

Although THE BRIDES OF DRACULA (1960) was a sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), it didn’t feature Christopher Lee.  DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS did.

And that’s because Lee had avoided reprising the role of Dracula like the plague to avoid being typecast, but after years of unrelenting Hammer pressure, he finally gave in and agreed to play the role again, providing fans a chance to be terrified once more by their favorite blood-sucking vampire.

DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS was released eight years after HORROR and the story takes place ten years after the events of the first movie.  It was once again directed by Hammer’s top director, Terence Fisher.  DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS probably comes closest to any of the other sequels to duplicating the feel of the original, although it certainly lacks its potency.

Dracula is absent for the entire first half of the movie, as the film uses this time to build up the dramatic rebirth of Dracula.  This in itself is a good idea, but the problem is, once resurrected, he’s only in the film for about 20 minutes before meeting his demise once again.  To me, Hammer would have been better served not to destroy Dracula at the end of every movie.  After all, he had survived hundreds of years before Van Helsing finally caught up with him and destroyed him, so wouldn’t it make sense if he survived that long again?  Wouldn’t it make him scarier if it really were that difficult to stop him?  Of course it would!  Plus, when Van Helsing defeated him, it made sense because Van Helsing was a brilliant scientist, a one-of-a-kind adversary for Dracula, but in the subsequent movies Dracula’s opponents  are less and less impressive, yet they still destroy him.  But I digress.

The ending to DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS is actually very memorable, but not quite as powerful or as visually impressive as the ending in HORROR.  Once more, Dracula is chased back to his castle, this time by the knowledgable Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) and the dashing young Englishman Charles Kent (Francis Matthews) as they try to rescue Kent’s wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) from Dracula.

As Dracula’s coffin lay on ice by the castle, having fallen there from the back of the horse-drawn coach at the end of the exciting chase, Charles attempts to drive a stake through Dracula’s heart before the sun goes down, but he’s too late.  Dracula bursts from his coffin and engages Charles in a physical battle on the ice.  Diana urges Father Sandor to shoot Dracula, but he tells her it would do no good, because as we all know, bullets cannot harm vampires.  But Diana grabs the rifle anyway and fires a shot, which rips a hole in the ice, which gives Father Sandor an idea:  according to vampire lore, vampires cannot cross running water (who knew!) and in this movie, they can’t swim, either!  How convenient!

So, Father Sandor shoots around the ice, allowing Charles to escape but trapping Dracula on the quickly sinking slab.  Dracula tries to hold on, but slides screaming into the underwater grave beneath the ice of Castle Dracula.  While it doesn’t contain the eye-popping special effects from the HORROR OF DRACULA ending, it’s still a pretty unique and impressive ending to a Dracula movie.  And director Terence Fisher gives it style, as the last part of Dracula to fall into the ice is his cape in a dramatic last shot.  We even get to see Dracula submerged in his icy grave as the end credits roll!

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Dracula (Christopher Lee) slips into his watery grave in DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

It would also prove quite convenient for resurrecting Dracula.  After all, Dracula was reduced to ashes which blew away in the breeze in HORROR OF DRACULA.  It took half of DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS to set the events in motion for his resurrection.  It would be much easier in the next film.  And there would be a next film because DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS made lots of money at the box office.  There would be no turning back now for Christopher Lee and Hammer.

As Dracula movie endings go, the conclusion to DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS is very, very good.  Definitely worth a look.

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DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

The third Christopher Lee Dracula film for Hammer was the aptly titled DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968).  Terence Fisher did not direct this movie, making it the first Hammer Dracula film that he did not direct.  In fact, Fisher wouldn’t direct any future Hammer Dracula films.  While he helmed HORROR OF DRACULA, THE BRIDES OF DRACULA, and DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS, from here on out Dracula would be in the hands of other directors.

For DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, it was Freddie Francis, a respected camera-man who also directed many horror movies.  While I’m not as big a fan of Francis’ work as I am Fisher’s, Francis struck gold here with DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE.  In terms of style, it doesn’t come close to the Fisher Dracula films, but it boasts a strong script by Anthony Hinds in spite of it being a simple revenge story.

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was so successful at the box office that it remains today Hammer Film’s biggest all-time money maker.  Dracula was Hammer’s bread and butter, and because of this, there would be four more Christopher Lee Dracula movies over the next five years.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) shows up much quicker this time around than he did in DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS.  A pair of priests go to Castle Dracula to perform an exorcism to keep Dracula’s spirit confined forever, but one of the priests, a cowardly sort, loses his way (literally and figuratively) and slips and falls on some ice, banging his head, cracking the ice where we see Dracula resting below.  The blood from the priest’s head wound seeps below the ice and makes its way to Dracula’s lips, reviving him.

While I do like DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE a lot, its ending isn’t the strongest part of the movie.  It’s okay, but it certainly falls several notches below the endings in the previous movies.  This time the hero is young atheist Paul (Barry Andrews) who’s trying to rescue his girlfriend Maria (Veronica Carlson) from Dracula.

Dracula forces Maria to remove the cross by the door to his castle, placed there by the priests at the beginning of the movie. She throws it off a cliff, where it lands upright, which is about as realistic as having Dracula spend an entire movie chasing down Maria in the first place to get her to remove the cross from his front door when he could have hypnotized anyone from his neighborhood to do it in about a minute’s time.

Paul arrives, he scuffles with Dracula, and they both fall off the cliff.  Paul is fortunate enough to grab onto some bushes, breaking his fall, but Dracula is not so lucky, as he lands directly onto— you guessed it!— the cross sticking out of the ground.  Yup, Dracula is impaled on a cross.  Sure, it’s somewhate dramatic, although like I said, it’s rather far-fetched.  There’s lots of blood dripping from Dracula’s wound and eyes as the cowardly priest, who had been turned into Dracula’s slave, redeems himself by reciting a prayer to help destroy Dracula once again, and he is destroyed, this time being reduced— not to ashes– but to gallons of blood.

Dracula Has Risen From The Grave ending

Dracula (Christopher Lee) gets a bad case of heartburn in DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968).

Not a bad ending, but also not one of the best. Still, the rest of DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE is excellent, and this one may be the most satisfying and entertaining sequel of the entire series.

Okay, that’s it for now.  Join me next time for Part 3, when we look at the endings to the next films in the Hammer Dracula series, including TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969).

See you then!

—Michael