If you are a dedicated fan of the macabre on the screen or page, then the names Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Freddie Francis, and Robert Bloch should all command your attention. When associated with the same film, they should be enough to give you a coronary. Devotees of finely told and atmospheric horror films have waited an intolerably long time for The Skull to be given a proper DVD release. Legend Films, fresh from a deal with Paramount, gives this inspired nightmare of surrealistic imagery and supernaturalism a technologically solid transfer in widescreen.

Written by Robert Bloch, whose novel Psycho fame sadly overshadows his other fine (and numerous) contributions to the supernatural and psychological, The Skull was originally a small novella that combined obsessive collecting with sadism and the author's penchant for ghastly pulp. Maurice Good, a 19th century French phrenologist, acquires the skull of the Marquis de Sade, hoping that the secret to that man's legendary philosophical madness and cruelty might be discovered therein. When he is horrifically murdered, the skull changes hands, leaving a line of butchered bodies in its wake. In present day (well, back in 1965) England, Peter Cushing's Christopher Maitland purchases an autobiography of de Sade bound in human skin. Scoundrel Marco (Patrick Wymark), the dealer, returns the next day with de Sade's skull. Cushing purchases the evil object, despite the warnings of Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee), a friend and fellow collector. Maitland's obsession with the skull spirals out of control, and it becomes apparent that this earthly remain of de Sade hungers not only for his life but his very soul.

One of the chief accomplishments of this film is the story, and the strength of the adaptation by producer Milton Subotsky, which effectively translates the primal terror of both the skull and Cushing's obsession to the screen. Amicus is known primarily for their fun if uneven anthologies, contributing such classics as Vault of Horror and Asylum to the genre. Like The Skull, these too were penned or adapted from stories by Bloch, whose trademark marriage of macabre humor and horror sometimes drags the material down and other times reaches impressive pinnacles of terror. Here, thankfully, the feeling of a surrealistic nightmare is achieved, helped in no small part by Cushing's believable collector, and partner in crime Lee, who is as dignified as ever. Freddie Francis shines as a director, using his skill as a past director of photography to full advantage as he zooms through the skull's eyes and other cinematic acrobatics. Atmosphere is easily as much a character here as Cushing or Lee, taking on a presence of its own. You can feel the menace accumulate as shadows stalk and the brooding photography creates a haunting look emblematic of both the gothic past and urbanity.

A macabre myth-maker whose emotionally scathing tales of horror, supernatural menace, and science fiction where often as intelligent as they were thrilling, Robert Bloch sparked a fire in the dark pits of our perception at the same time that he unlocked heights of terror. A master surgeon of anxiety and funeral finery, Bloch knew what was best and worst in our species. His narrative attacks lived with a searing knowledge of the human psyche. In The Skull, he laid the template for horror history. Legend Films preserves this history by giving it a wonderful transfer. This is much better than Paramount's own earlier VHS release, and offers the picture in 2.35:1 ratio (anamorphic). Francis' compositions are inspiring, and there is little grain to complain of. Colors are vibrant, and capture the 'gothic' feeling of the subject matter. Audio is captured in an English Mono track that sounds evenly distributed and clear, with no outside interference. As an additional treat, an unmentioned Trailer is included. This is a fearsome feast for fans of fright!

Review by William Simmons

Released by Legend Films
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review