In an eerily music-free prologue, well-to-do phrenologist Pierre (Maurice Good) keeps lookout while two hired wags dig open a grave for him. They leave him to consult the coffin contained therein in private. Prising it open, he takes a shovel and hacks the corpse's skull from its torso.
Taking it home, Pierre shoos his mistress (April Olrich) out of the bathroom and settles the skull down so he can clean it up. Moments later, the mistress grows curious and takes a peek into the bathroom ... Her subsequent screams suggest whatever sight she witnesses is truly horrific.
Next we meet doctor Christopher (Peter Cushing). He's indulging in his favourite pastime: sitting in an auction hoping to add relics to his collection of historically deviant paraphernalia. Over the years, he has grown obsessed with researching the things that have terrified people throughout the ages. "The unknown's always intriguing", he reasons to his despairing wife Jane (Jill Bennett) at one point.
Christopher becomes excited when statues of four nefarious demons come up for grabs, but is outbid by wealthy dignitary Matthew (Christopher Lee). When Christopher asks Matthew why he felt compelled to bid far above what the statues are likely to be worth, he admits that he has no idea what came over him.
Later that evening, shady acquaintance Marco (Patrick Wymark) pays a visit to Christopher's house. The snivelling, snuff-snorting wrong 'un frequently visits Christopher, we learn - much to Jane's chagrin - with new items to add to the doctor's research.
On this occasion, he sells Christopher a flesh-bound book written by Donatien Alphonse Francois - the Marquis de Sade, to me and you. But there's more: he returns the following night with an even greater acquisition - the Marquis' skull. Said to be capable of turning whoever possesses it evil, the skull comes with a heft £1,000.00 price tag.
Inevitably, Christopher can't turn down the opportunity to add the ultimate prize to his collection. This horrifies old pal Matthew, who reveals more of the skull's diabolical history to Christopher and warns of the dangers it carries. Unperturbed, Christopher becomes increasingly intrigued by his latest buy. So much so, that he doesn't realise the insidious affect it's having on him...
Freddie Francis's controlled direction largely eschews excessive theatricality, eliciting fine performances from his stellar cast. Lee shines in a rare non-villain role; Cushing's subtle facial nuances are on top form throughout. Wymark is a marvellously creepy addition, while familiar faces like Michael Gough, George Coulouris and Frank Forsyth keep things surprising along the way.
The build-up is carefully measured, co-producer Milton Subotsky's screenplay striving to eke additional atmosphere out of Robert Bloch's source material, the short story "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade". Characterisation is succinctly achieved, and exposition is intelligently thrown into the script in an almost casual manner. The calibre of the cast ensure that even the relatively uneventful first half entertains; the latter half sees a far more intense Cushing as he starts to go bonkers, as well as a show-stopping nightmare sequence which still packs a punch to this day.
All in all, this 1965 Amicus production oozes a level of class that you simply don't see in horror films any more.
Like their recent release of THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, Eureka! are putting THE SKULL out as a dual format blu-ray and DVD combo pack. A screener disc of the blu-ray was provided to us for review purposes.
The film is presented uncut (83 minutes and 5 seconds, not including the 7-second Eureka! logo at the presentation's start), and in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The full 1080p HD resolution is given ample room to work wonders in a nicely sized MPEG4-AVC file.
Taken from a largely clean print - minor specks during early scenes are barely worth mentioning - THE SKULL looks pretty great here. Colours are strong and natural, flesh tones are true throughout, blacks are stable and solid. A light sheen of mild grain helps the transfer retain an authentic filmic look, while clarity - both in terms of detail and brightness - is a marked step up from previous domestic releases.
English audio is treated to a clean, clear lossless 2.0 mix. Optional English subtitles are available for the Hard-of-Hearing. These are well-written and easily readable at all times.
Eureka!'s blu-ray disc opens to a lively animated main menu page, complete with the film's melodramatic score as blaring accompaniment.
There is no scene selection menu but the film does boast 7 remote-controllable chapters.
Bonus features commence with an interesting, well-edited video piece from Hammer expert Jonathan Rigby. He speaks of the film's literary origins; its plight with the UK censors; Subotsky's influence; Francis' improvisations on the film's shoot, given that the script only equated to roughly 50 minutes of action, and so on. 24 minutes in length, this makes for an excellent companion piece to the main feature.
Kim Newman is also on hand to offer his own thoughts in a second featurette. Inevitably he covers some of the same ground, but strives to place more emphasis on the film within the context of its era, along with the influence rival studios Tigon and Amicus had on Hammer Films. This clocks in at a satisfying 27 minutes in length.
Both featurettes are presented in HD, in 16x9 widescreen.
The extras are rounded off by a superb 36-page booklet. It kicks off with a fine essay from Vic Pratt, who looks into the inspiration behind this "splendidly strange, triumphantly stylish film" as well as discussing its methods (light on dialogue, good use of music, the innovative camera shots taken from the skull's point of view, etc). In a nice touch, the film's original press book is reprinted here too, along with a colour gallery of poster artwork from around the globe and the usual viewing notes, DVD credits etc.
THE SKULL remains one of the best British horror films of the 1960s. It's amazing to consider that it's now 50 years old. It looks great here, the contextual extra features proffer a good watch, and the booklet makes for very tasty icing on top of a most delicious cake.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka!|
|see main review|