The Skull (1965)
Based on Robert (Psycho) Bloch’s short story, “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade", director Freddie Francis employed every trick in the book in order to pad out the running time of Milton Subotsky’s minimalist screenplay. In doing so, Francis, together with his director of photography John Wilcox, fill up the voracious widescreen Techniscope canvas with a mise-en-scène treasure trove of occult knick-knacks and bric-a-brac. Their aim is clearly to distract the audience from noticing the absence of any real plot, and, using 1965 sleight of hand, to somehow convince that the skull of the infamous Marquis de Sade is floating across the room, carried by the hands of invisible supernatural forces, rather than clearly visible wires.
A suitably Poe-like gothic prologue offers up a creaking graveyard gate, an owl that does cat impressions, and a grave-robbing French phrenologist unceremoniously divorcing the Marquis de Sade’s head from the rest of his corpse with a spade. Having soaked the head in a nice relaxing acid bath (after firstly taking care to oust his mistress from the bathtub into the bedroom), the acidic fumes seep out from under the closed bathroom door, where upon the phrenologist’s companion discovers her lover floating stone cold dead in the bath with a nasty throat wound.
Zipping forward in time, we arrive at an auction of occult artefacts not usually seen in TV’s ‘Bargain Hunt’. Two collectors, Peter Cushing (Dr Christopher Maitland) and Christopher Lee (Sir Matthew Phillips) are engaged in a bidding war which Sir Matthew is winning – he has more money than sense it seems and appears to be bidding way over the odds as if he was somehow possessed (hmmm...) Advising Peter Cushing’s character against trying to outbid his rival is Patrick Wymark’s ‘Marco’, a shifty, snuff sniffing dealer who makes a living ‘acquiring’ unusual occult items for his client. Marco has a vested interest in making sure Dr Maitland still has some cash left over after the auction so that he’ll buy his Marquis de Sade book fashioned from human skin (not a common item on ‘Bargain Hunt’ either). And of course it doesn’t stop there. Ignoring the warnings from Sir Matthew that the skull of the Marquis de Sade is evil, Peter Cushing’s curiosity gets the better of him when Marco comes calling with the aforementioned skull (purloined from a somewhat relieved Sir Matthew himself). No good comes to those who own the skull, a fact that Dr Maitland is soon to discover for himself.
Cushing turns in a sterling performance (when didn’t he?), ably supported by his often screen partner Lee in a lesser role. There’s a snooker scene where it’s obvious from the way the scene is cut that neither can pot a ball to save their lives, yet they never waiver from their task at hand. Patrick Wymark’s dodgy dealing Marco almost steals the film from Cushing with his nervous ticks and constant snuff inhaling.
As mentioned before, there’s considerable padding in evidence in certain scenes, most notably one which consists entirely of Peter Cushing quietly reading de Sade’s book, yet the camera pries and pans in amongst the garishly lit occult treasures of Dr Maitland’s study to such an effect as to suggest a palpable and incremental build up of supernatural tension.
A dream sequence, hastily revised after the British censor took exception to the intended full-on debauched de Sade torture chamber vision, provides a standout moment of surreal invention which the film never really manages to recover from.
And then of course we have the skull itself, which, despite the best efforts of Francis and Co to infuse it with ominous connotations using tricky lighting techniques, remains just an unremarkable clichéd prop on barely hidden wires.
Given its modest origins, The Skull might have fitted more readily into a slot in one of Amicus’ portmanteau compilations. Having said that, the limitations of the story and screenplay are valiantly addressed through creative visuals and solid work from a stellar cast.