THE SKULL. (1965) AN AMICUS PRODUCTION. BASED ON THE SHORT STORY ‘THE SKULL OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE’ BY ROBERT BLOCH.
DIRECTED BY FREDDIE FRANCIS. PRODUCED BY MILTON SUBOTSKY AND MAX J. ROSENBERG.
STARRING PETER CUSHING, CHRISTOPHER LEE, PATRICK WYMARK, PATRICK MAGEE, NIGEL GREEN, MICHAEL GOUGH, PETER WOODBRIDGE, APRIL OLRICH, MAURICE GOOD, GEORGE COULOURIS AND JILL BENNETT.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
This is an utterly gorgeous film, one of my favourites of all the films in which horror icons Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee appeared together. THE SKULL isn’t exactly one of their double acts, however, as Peter Cushing is undoubtedly the star of the film and he appears in nearly every scene, unlike the handsome Mr. Lee who appears in just four scenes. I must stress that it’s not a competition, however, as there’s more sexiness and acting talent in Sir Chris’s four scenes than there would be in most actors’ entire Curriculum Vitae, lol.
Peter Cushing does a magnificent job here of playing Professor Christopher Maitland, a writer of books relating to the occult and an obsessive collector of all and any items relating to his passion. Books, skulls, masks, bric-a-brac, you name it and he’s probably got it, stashed away on his shelves or on display in a glass cabinet in his huge sprawling study.
His study is one of the finest Amicus sets I’ve ever seen. It’s been referred to as cluttered and practically ‘unlive-able in’ but I disagree. I could make myself perfectly comfortable in a gaff like that. I live surrounded by books anyway. I’m very much at home in that milieu, although I don’t go a bundle on the old bric-a-brac.
Someone who owns- or hoards!- as many books as I do can’t be seen to be collecting old bits of rubbish as well or else they’d look mad, lol. Like a crazy hoarder, the like of which you’d see on one of those TV shows, IRELAND’S BIGGEST HOARDER or something like that. Still, Peter Cushing’s study here is a marvel of set design, and kudos to the props person too. Wherever they sourced all their materials from, they’ve done an absolutely smashing job.
Professor Maitland is one day offered a book on the life of the Marquis de Sade, that jolly chappie from French history and literature who died in a lunatic asylum in 1814 and incidentally from whom we’ve derived the word ‘sadism.’ A sadist is a person who derives pleasure from giving others pain.
While, yes, the word can technically apply to employees of the Post Office who put up the sign ‘THIS WINDOW IS CLOSED’ just when you reach their counter after queuing for an hour, the word is more correctly applied to pervy types who like to whip or flagellate others during sex or cause pain by dripping hot candle wax onto the private parts of others, and so on.
That’s the pure meaning, I suppose you could say, of the word ‘sadist,’ although the word is frequently applied to people in all manner of other professions too: mean bosses, bitchy teachers who pile on the homework, auditors, employment officers who quiz you on your skill-set and then get you to apply for a job wholly unrelated to your field of expertise just because they can, etc.
Anyway, the book on the life of the Marquis de Sade is ever so beautifully bound… in human skin. It’s a mere snip at two hundred smackers. Maitland snaps it up, as Marco, his unsavoury and maybe even slightly dodgy ‘source’ for such rare materials, knows he will.
Marco, marvellously played by Patrick Wymark (an actor I’m always confusing with Patrick Magee, who’s also in the film, and Patrick McNee and Patrick McGoohan who are not), returns the next night with an item of even more interest to the nutty professor. This time it’s the actual skull of the aforementioned Marquis de Sade. One thousand pounds and it’s Maitland’s to keep. For ever and ever, Amen…
The skull comes with a back-story from Ye Olden Times which is told in a flash-back. The young woman who plays the phrenologist’s mistress, April Olrich, is stunning to look at and her dresses and hats are fabulous. Well, you know how chic the French broads are, lol. I love when she’s nervously clearing the bathroom of her bath oils and skin lotions, careful not to go too near the bath-tub where the phrenologist, her lover, met his lonely, eerie death.
That’s the thing about the Skull, you see. It has a strange effect on the people who possess it, making them suddenly want to destroy themselves and/or others. Christopher Lee’s Sir Matthew Philips, first seen purchasing four statues of occult figures for well over the odds without knowing why he’s doing it, knows full well how evil the Skull can be, and how strong a will you’d need to have to be able to withstand it.
Maitland ignores his old friend Sir Matthew’s advice and dire warnings, however, and decides to keep the Skull. Whatever happens from here on in is pretty much a case of ‘well, on his own head be it, then.’ Will he rue the day he acquired such an oddity for his prized and treasured collection? You might say so…
Michael Gough from the original Hammer DRACULA (1958) and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) has a cameo role here as the auctioneer who sells Christopher Lee’s Sir Matthew the occult figurines.
Peter Woodbridge- Zoltan the Hypnotist from Hammer’s THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN- does a brilliant job of playing the sly and sleazy Bert Travers, the landlord or caretaker of Marco’s apartment building. What a sneaky, nasty self-serving little individual Bert Travers is! Just like Zoltan, so.
Nigel Green (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, COUNTESS DRACULA, ZULU) plays Detective Inspector Moustache (my personal nickname for his splendidly moustached person), the copper who comes into the picture to investigate certain Skull-related shenanigans.
Patrick Magee, who stars in one of the vignettes in Amicus’s star vehicle and most famous anthology film, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, is here also as the police surgeon who wonders aloud about who- or what- could have severed this or that jugular.
It’s interesting that he’s here because he once created the role of the Marquis de Sade in the original stage and screen productions of MARAT SADE, otherwise known as: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. Yes, I know, try saying that little lot when you’ve had a skinful.
Jill Bennett (Hammer’s THE NANNY) does a good serviceable job as Maitland’s wife, who worries about her husband’s terrible obsession with the occult and all things supernatural. People do generally say that when you start messing about with all that weird stuff, you never know what bad mojo it’ll lead to. In the case of Professor Maitland, this sadly turns out to be more than apt…
There are some terrific Skull’s-eye-view shots that frame Peter Cushing neatly in the centre of the gaping nose socket, if you get me. Apparently, the director Freddie Francis shot these scenes through a giant replica of the Skull while whizzing about on roller-skates like a mad thing. How cool is that…?
The Skull itself is extremely proactive. It travels around the place with impunity, on strings that you can sometimes see but mostly you can’t. It likes to sit on a certain table marked with the sign of the pentagram and God help you if you’re in its place.
The power it has is quite similar to the eye-power the Creepy Kids have in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. They can ‘make people pitchfork each other and junk,’ according to one Milhouse Van Houten from THE SIMPSONS, and so can the Skull. And I daresay the Skull cost less to feed and house than those pesky child actors and actresses did, lol.
One scene I don’t get in the film is Maitland’s nightmare scene, although other critics enthuse over it. As De Sade was known for his sexual sadism as practised on women, I personally would have replaced Maitland’s sexless nightmare with a nice sexually-charged whipping scene.
A stripped-to-the-waist Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing take turns whipping a stunning topless Hammer Beauty… whoops, Amicus Beauty, I mean, whom they then take turns ravishing, although she’s perfectly willing and ready for their loving. I might even add in a little oral pleasure at this point. I don’t suppose that this scene would have ever gotten past the censors, though. Sigh. Still, I know what’ll be in my dreams tonight…!
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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