|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Dec 23, 2005)
RT: 90 mins
Pro Co: Amicus Productions/Paramount Pictures Corp
Dir: Freddie Francis;
Pros: Milton Subotsky, Max J. Rosenberg;
Wr: Milton Subotsky.
Phot: John Wilcox;
Film Ed: Oswald Hafenrichter;
Sound Ed: Tom Priestley;
Mus: Elisabeth Lutyens;
Mus Arr: Philip Martell;
Art Dir: Bill Constable;
Set Décor: Scott Slimon.
SFX: Ted Samuels.
Pro Man: Ted Lloyd.
Cast: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennnett, Peter Woodthorpe, Christopher Lee, April Olrich, Michael Good, George Coulouris, Anna Palk, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Geoffrey Cheshire, Paul Stockman, Frank Forsyth, Michael Gough.
For roughly a ten-year period, from 1964 onwards, Hammer Films’ most consistent rival in horror cinema was Amicus Productions, owned and controlled by American émigré producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg.
The two men had impacted on the genre in 1959 with John Moxey’s highly regarded low-budget chiller City of the Dead, which they made under the Vulcan banner. However, before that, in the mid-1950s, Subotsky had submitted to Hammer the script for a proposed colour adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. The company passed on his screenplay, opting instead to accept one from their own employees Jimmy Sangster. The resulting movie, directed by Terence Fisher and retitled The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), became one of the key works in British commercial film history.
Best known for their anthologies like Freddie Francis’s breakthrough work Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1964), although their output is varied than generally acknowledged, Amicus employed both acting and behind the camera talent heavily associated with Hammer, including recurring stars Peter Cushing (She 1965) and Christopher Lee (The Gorgon 1964), and directors like Roy Ward Baker (Vampire Lovers 1970) and Freddie Francis (Paranoiac 1963), the latter helming the work under review here.
As well as employing Hammer talent, Subotsky and Rosenberg also transferred many of the gothic trappings found in their pictures. The main difference with Amicus is that, for the most part, they relocated them to the present day, as was the case with The Skull.
France – the early 19th century. A phrenologist arranges to have a grave opened up. Opening the coffin lid reveals a partially decomposed corpse. Using a spade he hacks the head off the cadaver. Arriving back at his house with the head in a sack, he finds his mistress taking a bath. She is none too pleased to be ordered out, as the phrenologist needs the bath for some work. Using a chemical solution he strips the flesh off the disembodied head to reveal a gleaming white skull. Some time later, the mistress becomes concerned at the lack of noise coming from the bathroom and at the chemical gas seeping under the door. Investigating, she is horrified to discover the phrenologist’s corpse lying in the bath, with the skull sitting nearby. Modern day London. Two specialists in the occult, Dr Christopher Maitland and Sir Matthew Phillips, are engaged in a friendly bidding war for some esoteric items on sale at a public auction. Both men’s interest is piqued by the appearance of four grotesque statuettes which are meant to represent the “hierarchies of Hell”. Phillips is particularly entranced by the objects and ends up bidding a ridiculous amount for them, much to his friend’s astonishment. When asked why he bid so much for the items, he claims he has no idea. That night, a mutual acquaintance of both men, Marco arrives at Maitland’s house. Marco has been supplying occult and other esoteric goods from highly suspect sources to writers and researcher for many years. His host’s wife does not care for the man and informs her husband of her feelings. He brushes off her concerns and allows him to enter his study. On this occasion, Marco has with him a large tome said to detail the life of the notorious Marquis de Sade. Marco wants £200 for the publication which Maitland rejects out of hand. The dealer manages to convince him to part with the money after explaining that the volume is bound in human skin. As he is leaving, Marco informs Maitland that he may have something of even greater interest to him the following evening. He also insists that it will take much more than £200 to secure this particular item. Marco returns to his bedsit where he goes to a cupboard and unlocks it. Inside is a gleaming white skull. The next evening Marco takes the object over to Maitland’s house. Maitland is incredulous at the dealer’s asking price of £1000. He is, however, intrigued by the claim that the skull belonged to the Marquis de Sade. The story of de Sade’s missing skull, involving grave robbing, murder and insanity, is then related by Marco to his host. When Maitland still refuses to pay the sum demanded, he is astonished when a far lower sum is suggested, leading him to believe that the object has been stolen. Taking the skull with him, Marco asks his host to consider his offer and leaves his business card with contact details. The next day Maitland visits Matthew Phillips at his house. Over a game of billiards, he describes the previous evening’s events. Phillips informs him that Marco stole the skull from him and that he does not wish it returned. He also warns his guest to stay away from the skull as it poses a very grave danger to whoever has it in their possession…
There is a maxim among low-budget filmmakers that “talk is cheap”. Due to a lack of money, time and resources, this usually means that events are often verbally described rather than shown, while large amounts of footage can be expended with the inclusion of much expositional dialogue. Freddie Francis’s The Skull, therefore, tends to stand out from similar ventures since this adage is not followed.
A previous Francis work, the Hammer production The Evil of Frankenstein (1963), was notable for featuring a lengthy flashback sequence, recording the fate of an earlier experiment by the title character (Peter Cushing), that was completely devoid of dialogue. That stylistic exercise, sometimes labelled “pure cinema”, is greatly extended to include the majority of the footage contained in this work. Here, dialogue is sparingly used, to set up individual scenes or establish the relationship between characters such as the friendship between Cushing and Christopher Lee, and their professional connection to Patrick Wymark’s Marco.
Reportedly, the major reason behind the director’s decision to adopt this approach was that the screen adaptation of Robert Bloch’s 1945 story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” completed by co-producer Milton Subotsky would probably only clock in at a mere forty minutes, somewhat less than the feature length that backers Paramount Pictures were expecting. To make up for this shortfall, Francis and his crew were basically required to improvise large sections of the movie, mainly be expanding existing scenes and devising new ones which did not require major script rewrites. The final result is a visual tour-de-force.
Much of the credit for the unique look of The Skull must go to Amicus regulars, art director Bill Constable (Torture Garden 1967) and set decorator Scott Sliman (The Day the Earth Caught Fire 1961). At the heart of the movie is the two-tiered library-cum-study located in Peter Cushing’s mews dwelling. Featuring extensive and elaborate wood panelling, heavy furnishings and lots of reflective surfaces, including glass and leather, this is an impressive creation. Featuring not just a very convincing selection of aged occult tomes, but also a quite staggering collection of bizarre and grotesque arcane bric-a-brac such as statuettes, weapons and jewellery, to name but a few, this room is not just an indication of the character’s obsession with all things esoteric, it is also the ideal setting to attract malignant supernatural forces since the groundwork has already been firmly laid.
Constable and Slimon’s other sets, such as Maitland’s wife’s bedroom, Patrick Wymark’s seedy digs and Christopher Lee’s billiard’s room are less elaborate but full of interesting furnishings and artefacts. Of particular note is the use of primary coloured wall coverings along with very interesting decorative features and effects. Obviously a lot of work has gone into designing a suitably weird locale for the movie to take place. This of course, also keeps the production visually exciting.
Here, making his second feature for Amicus after Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Oscar-winning cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis shows his reputation as one of the genres master stylists is fully deserved on this occasion. Among the most notable features of his direction his constantly roving camera which prowls silently around sets, objects and people adding to the growing sense of unease felt by Cushing. The weird atmosphere contained in the film is heightened by his decision to shoot many scenes from low-angles, something of a cliché in the horror cinema but here illustrating why this approach continues to be adopted by those familiar with the more worthwhile conventions of the genre.
In addition to the fluid camerawork and unusual camera angles, the director also makes outstanding use of composition, something that can only be really appreciated on a widescreen print of the film, in order to take advantage of the TechniScope image format. Francis mainly employs frame composition to underline how powerful the skull really is in relation to those around it. It easily dominates every shot in which it appears, not matter the location or the positioning of other characters. This proves particularly creative in the movie’s latter stages when a possessed Cushing has murdered Lee to obtain De Sade’s cranium. Coming to his senses back at this house, the occult writer securely locks the disembodied head in a glass cabinet, protected by a retractable crucifix on a necklace. No matter where Cushing’s character sits or stands the skull can either be seen either side by side in the same shot or on a reflective surface such as glass, either way dominating the entire frame, as if mocking attempts to restrict its power. To emphasise the power of whatever controls the object, Francis and regular collaborator cinematographer John Wilcox (Nightmare 1964) often feature it in extreme close-up with a wide-angle lens along with a slowly strobing white or green light. Green, in fact, is used throughout the work as a portent of evil. Extra visual density is added by the use of primary coloured spotlights, often lit from below, which throw up a strange assortment of shadows and other striking effects.
As a filmmaker, Freddie Francis is well known for his penchant for subjective or Point of View (POV) camera shots, and these crop up fairly regularly in The Skull, as evidenced by Patrick Wymark examines a jewelled dagger or where Cushing enters a room to encounter the title entity. By far the most elaborate use of this visual device is where the action is seen from within the skull itself. For this purpose, a large plaster-cast model of the skull was constructed and placed over the lens and hood of the camera. The contraption would then be manipulated by a camera operator (or Francis himself) on a pair of rollerskates. The final result is surprisingly effective and contributes an even more off-kilter visual quality to the proceedings. It is particularly well employed when it is shown silently observing events or moving down lengthy corridors to attack a victim, adding an additional visual dynamic the movie’s overall style. Francis later adopted a similar device for his 1972 production The Creeping Flesh.
Since much of The Skull plays without any dialogue, much use is made of lengthy periods of silence, broken only be exaggerated sound effects like footsteps echoing down a hall, creaking doors and the cocking of a pistol, all adding to the mood of the film. Also important in this respect is the superb music score by Elisabeth Lutyens (The Earth Dies Screaming 1963), the first woman to compose for a British feature film. Probably due to the presence of Hammer’s in-house arranger/conductor Philip Martell part of the score does resemble a typical piece from that studio, but there is enough discordant elements, such as a jarring piano solo, to identify Lutyens’ unique talents and to underline the weird nature of the overall work.
Francis pulls of some striking set-pieces during the course of the picture. Among these are spectacular death for caretaker Peter Woodthorpe, who is sent crashing through a series of garishly coloured plate glass windows to land on the ground floor of a building, and Cushing waiting silently in his study for a sign of the skull’s power. In fact he does hot have to wait long, as a gust of wind blows open the room’s French windows and an unseen force sets up a makeshift altar for a satanic ceremony, before attempting to release de Sade’s cranium from within a locked glass cabinet. Here, a mixture of inventive composition, fluid camera movements and the use of reflective surfaces together with creative sound design create a distinctly chilly atmosphere. The climax, which finds Cushing trapped in his bedroom as the skull seeks a victim for a ritual sacrifice, is well handled with the presence of the “skull-cam” along with the use of a hand-held camera and Cushing’s convincingly terrified performance combining to create a genuine frisson.
The sequence, however, which is most referred to when discussing The Skull occurs just after Cushing has handled the object and rejected Patrick Wymark’s asking price. Waking from a fitful sleep, Cushing’s Maitland is confronted by two very sinister detectives, in the form of Paul Stockman (Dr Blood’s Coffin 1961) and Geoffrey Cheshire (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service 1969), who arrest him on an unspecified charge and take him away for questioning in a police car. In fact, instead of being taken to a police station, Maitland ends up in a large terraced house in an anonymous part of London. There, he finds himself facing a silent judge (Devils of Darkness 1964) who coerces him into performing Russian roulette on himself. This sequence works for a number of reasons, one of the main ones being that Maitland and the audience cannot decide if what is happening is real or a dream. Also important are the editing by Amicus in-house editor Oswald Hafenrichter (Vengeance 1962), and the minimalist but very effective art direction, both of which underline the sense of isolation and confusion felt by Cushing.
Arguably though the most important contribution to this sequence is the presence of Peter Cushing himself. Here, he does an outstanding job of conveying all the emotions that a character would experience in such a bizarre situation. Francis was one of the few directors to make use of the actor’s quite extraordinary pale blue eyes, in this case extreme close-ups of them, adding real emotional impact to this sequence.
Another scene where Cushing excels is when, under the influence of a supernatural entity, Maitland breaks into Christopher Lee’s house to steal a statuette for use in an occult ritual. In this case, the fact that the character is merely a puppet is essayed by the actor’s body movements and in particular his strange breathing patterns. Also, from certain angles it appears as if his face has taken on a skull-like grimace.
The rest of the movie is very well served by its cast of British character actors. Those making the most impact include George Coulouris (No Blade of Grass 1970), as a solicitor in a lengthy flashback sequence who has silent conversations with the skull, resulting in him murdering a young woman (April Olrich), Patrick Wymark (Witchfinder General 1968) as Maitland and Phillips’ shady dealer, whose performance is an evocative exercise in seediness, and Peter Woodthorpe (Hysteria 1964) as Wymark’s repellent landlord. The Skull also features cameos from the likes of Nigel Green (The Face of Fu Manchu 1965), Michael Gough (What a Carve-Up! 1961) and Patrick Magee (The Masque of the Red Death 1964), all adding extra value to the venture. Christopher Lee is his usual authoritative self as Maitland’s friend and rival. Sadly, renowned theatrical actress Jill Bennett (The Nanny 1965) is largely wasted in the underwritten role of Cushing’s wife.
Milton Subotsky’s screenplay, which Francis and his crew greatly expanded upon, does contain some interesting features of its own. This includes the fact that while Maitland collects all manner of occult and esoteric material, he uses it for research whose purpose is to rationalise and therefore superstitions and beliefs associated with it. In that respect the script appears to have a connection with Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) in which that movie’s character, played by Dana Andrews, slowly has his scepticism eaten away until he comes into direct contact with a powerful supernatural force. The situation is much the same here with Cushing paying for his disbelief in the occult and faith in the rational world. It should be noted that a character called Maitland appears in several Amicus productions, on all occasions falling prey to a particularly unpleasant demise.
Subotsky has the threat posed in the movie not by the Marquis de Sade himself but a spirit or demon which first possessed the French nobleman and then took up residence within the vessel after his death. From there it can manipulate people and events for its own ends. In fact the de Sade mentioned in the script has only a passing resemblance to the real rabble-rousing French blueblood writer of the 18th and 19th centuries. Undoubtedly a debauched and decadent individual, like many of his social class from the time, the Marquis was not the devil-worshipping, mass killer described in the dialogue. Instead, the writer seems to be confusing him with an earlier compatriot of de Sade’s, Gilles de Rais who carried out his particular atrocities during the latter stages of the 15th century. De Sade was probably chosen as a character since in Britain and American his name, and the term sadism coined from it, was probably more familiar and had more salacious connotations.
While The Skull has much to commend it, it is not without its shortcomings.
Because Freddie Francis and his team had to improvise material for roughly half of the film’s running time, this has caused some problems in terms of narrative structure and pacing. This becomes evident when the pre-credit sequence, set in 19th century France, is repeated (with some additional footage) toward the end of the first act. In between the film’s half dozen or so highlights much padding is provided by Cushing working in his study or anxiously waiting for something to happen. Also after the first act there is no real plot structure as such, with each successive scene lumbering along until the bleak but rather predictable climax. Many modern viewers may find the pacing somewhat laboured for their tastes. Finally, the characters played by Nigel Green and Patrick Magee appear rather perfunctory, with the former’s purpose being mainly to provide a highly ironic final line of dialogue.
The presence of the skull itself in the movie, and in particular the way in which it moves about has attracted some adverse comments from reviewers. They are particularly concerned that the object is actually seen moving through the air when it really should really have inexplicably appeared and disappeared from locations to highlight its supernatural powers. This is probably true, but it’s also highly likely that viewers were expecting to see the thing actually levitate and go about its grisly business and so Amicus and Francis fulfilled these expectations. To the credit of Ted Samuels (The Tomb of Ligeia 1964) and his effects crew, the vision of the skull (manipulated largely by invisible wires, along with the occasional optical shot) in flight succeeds in not appearing ridiculous. Part of the reason for this must including Bill Constable and Scott Sliman’s openly non-naturalistic settings, through which the skull moves, are such that its presence merely adds another level of oddness to the overall appearance of the production. Indeed, in some shots, the sight of the object moving toward the camera takes on a distinctly surreal air.
To sum up, The Skull remains one of the most stylish and atmospheric horror movies of the 1960s, and certainly worth repeated viewings for those attuned to it in, order to take advantage of the amount of visual detail that director Freddie Francis and his staff have imbued with it.
The next collaboration between Francis and Amicus was The Psychopath (1966), the director’s third of seven films for the company. That was also the first of five screenplays penned by the author of this movie’s source material, Robert Bloch, to be produced by the company.
©Iain McLachlan 2005