The Skull (1965)
By: Mr Intolerance on August 27, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Legend Films (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0 mono. 83 minutes
The Movie
Director: Freddie Francis
Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, George Coulouris, Christopher Lee
Screenplay: Milton Subovsky
Country: UK
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A little known and only recently re-released Amicus shocker from the sixties, The Skull is based on Robert (Psycho) Bloch's eerie short story, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade". Like many films from the Amicus and Hammer stables, there are certainly some familiar faces cropping up on the screen – Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Michael Gough and guest star Christopher Lee all bring their customary class to their roles, and as with almost all of Amicus' output, instead of Hammer's Gothic period pieces, the action here (for the best part) takes place in contemporary England, something that in my opinion makes the Amicus films of the late sixties and the early seventies a little more effective than their Hammer counterparts; there's less of the melodramatic script and acting, to begin with.

We start back in 19th century France with de Sade's body being dug up, the head decapitated – we're not quite sure at this point whether the skull is merely being souvenired as a grisly curio, or whether it might be somehow being used for some equally grisly alchemical/magical purposes. Regardless, the head is stripped of flesh via acid (and yet our grave-robber-on-the-make doesn't mind holding aloft his bony new trophy – still glistening with flesh-stripping acid – with his bare hands, a moment that didn't exactly help with the willing suspension of my disbelief), and then something nasty happens to the exhumer…

Cue: a wildly histrionic score over the credits! Hooray! The soundtrack to these old Hammer, Amicus and Tigon films from the late 50s through to the mid-70s always tended to be one of the things that dated them somewhat, unfortunately – wildly over-the-top melodramatic strings abound.

Now look, quickly, before we get any further, a brief history of the Marquis de Sade. He was a very bad man. A diminutive, oversexed cavalry officer who enjoyed inflicting pain on people, usually coupled with a sexual bent, he eventually paid for his libertinage by being locked up in the Bastille (the crime that put him there included his having doped up a bunch of prostitutes with some primitive, and no doubt highly toxic, equivalent to Spanish Fly. While one of these young courtesans was passed out, he cut open her back and poured boiling wax in the wounds). Sade had already caused countless scandals, and most people (including his family) thought it was better off for all and sundry that he stayed there. Sade was also a prolific writer, and it is more from his books that his appalling reputation is born. While in the Bastille, he penned "The 120 Days of Sodom" (later filmed as Salo, by Pier Paolo Pasolini), a nightmarish account of the utter sexual degradation of a number of barely pubescent boys and girls, as well as the actual children of a gang of four colossal perverts and their goons. It is NOT an easy read. It is violent, sickening, intensely graphic and utterly unrelenting. Some of you might be thinking, "So what? It was written in 1789 – how bad can it be?" In terms of imaginative perversions and the graphic recount of both sex and violence, it makes the sexually violent excesses of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho look like a Mr Men book. De Sade was freed from the Bastille when the revolutionaries stormed it for weapons to fight the establishment, and more books followed: Justine – the Misfortunes of Virtue, Juliette – the Prosperity of Vice, Philosophy in the Boudoir, and a range of other works, plays, novellas and short stories (many of the above adapted for stage and screen – Jess Franco certainly had a bash at many of them). When a copy of Justine found its way into the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, de Sade suddenly found himself committed for life in the Charenton asylum, where he spent his last years writing plays for the inmates of the asylum to perform, and in the composition of his "master work", The Days at Florbelle, which, when discovered among his papers by his own son after De Sade's death, was burnt. No copy of this text remains, but some notes from it can be found in the Creation text The Ghosts of Sodom. De Sade's ideas are pretty straightforward – there is no god, the strong have every right to lord it over the weak and should do so at every opportunity in any way they like, the teachings of the Church go against human nature and should be ignored, if not actually actively flouted in the pursuit of pleasure. His reasoning kind of runs thusly: Nature is arbitrary, Nature doesn't have any sentimentality or mercy towards those it hurts or destroys, we are a part of Nature, therefore we should act in an according manner – the boundaries of Church, Family and State should never stop us in the acquisition of what we want, or in the pursuit of pleasure, sexual or otherwise. If you had any doubts as to the etymology of the word "Sadism", meaning taking sexual pleasure in the pain of others, it's taken from his name. A very bad man indeed.

And so we're at an auction in modern day London. The items up for grabs are for collectors of the occult and the bizarre. Two such collectors are Dr Christopher Maitland (Cushing), and Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee), trying to outbid each other on various different pieces of the strange and the spooky. Phillips seems to almost bid robotically on items not worth anywhere what he pays for them, to the concern of his friend Maitland.

Maitland is a scholar of demonology and witchcraft, and his "business associate", the rather shady Mr Marco (Wymark) brings him a book of de Sade's life, bound in human skin. Here's where the script takes some liberties with historical fact – Marco states that Sade was meant to have been a black magician – why would a man who loudly and proudly crowed about his atheism simply replace one set of rules for another? Ridiculous in the extreme, and also wrong, and obviously shoehorned into the script for purely exploitative reasons – black magic you can make a film about, aberrant sexual practices you cannot (look at the poor reception Peeping Tom received only a few years before). Poor research abounds when Marco goes on to mention Giles de Retz (a poor anglicising of the name of French child-killer Gilles de Rais, a nobleman and Marshall from the time of Jeanne d'Arc) as "Bluebeard", an infamous wife-killer (that was actually Henri Landru, who came from a time much closer our own) – I hate sloppy writing and research.

Marco returns the next night to Maitland's house, bringing with him the skull of the Marquis. Maitland is sceptical, as Marco recounts the tale of the opening scene of the film, although he does fill in the blanks as to why the skull was being exhumed – Pierre, the grave-robber, was also a phrenologist, and wanted to examine the skull for medical reasons to see if de Sade was actually evil or insane. And we also get the indication that the skull has some spooky supernatural powers, forcing the will of the dead de Sade on to others.

And so Maitland goes to Phillips' house the next evening and recounts the previous night's story, doubting the authenticity of the skull. Phillips verifies it – the skull had been his and had been stolen, and he definitely does NOT want it back, claiming it had eerie powers, and admonishes Maitland to stay away from it. This of course is red rag to a bull material for Maitland, who is curious beyond all reasonable measure.

This is where the film starts to get really interesting – and starts moving into a surreal Kafka-esque context, with some hefty does of The Prisoner thrown in for good measure. Maitland is taken away by some people we naturally assume are the police to a strange courthouse on no charge whatsoever, and locked away in a sequence that's as mystifying as it is highly entertaining. And of course, it's a moment of wonderful dramatic irony when the walls start literally closing in around Maitland – now who's in the compactor, Grand Moff Tarkin?!

What's real and what ain't? The film seems to side-step literal narrative here, and move into something more suggestive, more figurative, while still retaining all the things necessary to keep a mid-1960s audience engaged. Whether or not the sequence we just watched was real or not is really up-for-grabs. Some of it must have been, but surely not all of it could…

Maitland has to find out what's going on, but it's quite obvious that something very wrong is afoot, and his investigations are working their way towards something quite grim indeed. So much so that he starts to act out some very strange behaviours, totally unlike himself – the power of the skull isn't even necessary. We're bad enough naturally without having to resort, 16th century-like, to having to say, "the Devil made me do it!"

The synopsis ends there, so as to not spoil the film for you – there are a few surprises in store, I can assure you. You can expect a bunch of regular Amicus tropes – coloured filters over the lights, trying a few different things with the camera work (shooting from inside the skull, for a start), and a very British style of film all round in terms of the script and the acting especially.

Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with 16:9 enhancement, the picture quality is good, without being great. There was one part during the opening credit scene that over-abounded with crackle and grain. The picture isn't anywhere near as crisp as I'd like, but that's probably due to it being an NTSC rather than a PAL format. NTSC just doesn't cut it. However, given the age of the film as well, we have to make allowances for such things…
Given the fact that this is not an action-soundfest, the mono audio is adequate for what we need. You won't benefit from 5.1 while watching The Skull.
Extra Features
Not a bloody thing except the original trailer. This irritates, as many of the main players on the cast and crew are still up-right and taking in nourishment – would a ten minute interview or some archival footage (or even some other Amicus trailers) have really killed the distributor to include? Y'know, in this day and age where cult films are regularly given an embarrassment of riches in the extras department (look at any No Shame, Sazuma or Dark Sky release), this is shoddy in the extreme, and certainly doesn't inspire confidence in the company responsible.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
I'm a big fan of the Amicus horror films, but this one probably isn't too essential, except for the most comprehensive of collectors. Not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, but very long (at 83 minutes) for what the story had to offer. This would have been a better realisation of the source material as one of the stories from one of the number of Amicus anthology films from the early 70s like Asylum, or Vault of Horror. Nevertheless, worth a look for the performances, and for watching a film from the time when special effects and naked teenagers being killed for having sex didn't rule the horror roost.

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