Kino Lorber has recently acquired a number of Paramount catalog titles to distribute on Blu-ray, including a handful of cultish genre titles. Freddie Francis’ surreal and highly stylized THE SKULL is a crown jewel for fans of classic horror (especially lovers of anything British and/or Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), and although the film was previously released on the Blu-ray format in the U.S., Kino’s latest presentation is certainly well worth the upgrade.
In 19th century France, a phrenologist (Maurice Good, THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE) acquires the skull of the Marquis De Sade, giving it a bath of acid to remove any skin or remains. Believing the skull might answer some questions about De Sade’s madness, the phrenologist is soon brutally murdered, with the same fate brought upon anyone who comes across the evil object. In present day (1965) England, researcher and collector Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing, LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF) is sold a human skin-bound autobiography of De Sade by a shady dealer named Marco (Patrick Wymark, THE PSYCHOPATH). When Marco returns the following day claiming that the skull he is trying to peddle is that of De Sade, Maitland is reluctant of its authenticity. Friend and fellow collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) assures him that it is the real deal, as it was actually stolen from him, and he warns Maitland not to make the purchase. Maitland becomes more and more obsessed with the skull, and it eventually comes into his possession, but the warnings of his friend reign true; it is pure evil, bringing on a nightmare world of violence and cruelty.
Although Amicus would be best known for their series of anthologies (this was the next production they made after DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS), THE SKULL remains one of their finest single story outings and an exemplary 1960s genre work. Co-producer/screenwriter Milton Subotsky adapted Robert Bloch’s eight-page story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” effectively, and although some feel the film drags in spots, the very capable direction of Freddie Francis shines through. Francis’ experience as a cinematographer allows his imagination to flow here, with perspective shots through the skull’s head (a technique he would use in THE CREEPING FLESH years later) and several surreal nightmarish sequences being a highlight. With the help of art director Bill Constable, THE SKULL embodies a chilling sense of darkness and solitude, and though the film’s lower costs meant for limited sets, this only amplifies the aura. Another memorable asset is the appearance of the skull as a willful floating demon, though the wires holding the thing in place are at times easily visible (Especially in HD. Ok, so they were easily visible in old pan and scan TV prints as well).
As the determined collector of the unique and unusual, Peter Cushing is great as Maitland, and the film is one of his best vehicles of the 1960s, as he really is the star of the show and the story evolves around his character. Receiving “guest star” billing, Cushing’s cinematic mate Christopher Lee has a much smaller role, but thankfully he shares most of his screen time with Peter. The chemistry is undeniable, and the duo have a nice bit where they are relaxing over a game of billiards, discussing the Marquis De Sade’s deadly cranium. As usual, Amicus was able to secure a supporting cast of some of the finest British thesps of the time, even if some of them are only seen briefly. Also in the film are Jill Bennett (THE NANNY) as Maitland’s neglected wife, Nigel Green (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS) as a rain-coated police inspector, Patrick Magee (DEMONS OF THE MIND) as a police surgeon, George Coulouris (BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB) as a 19th century skull victim, Michael Gough (KONGA) as an auctioneer, Peter Woodthorpe (THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) as a sleazy landlord and Anna Palk (THE FROZEN DEAD) as a pretty maid.
Before Legend Films’ DVD release, the only previous home video release of THE SKULL came in the 1990s when Paramount released it on VHS in a full screen edition in the EP mode. The Legend Films’ DVD finally presented the film in its original aspect ratio, and the same transfer source was used for their 2011 Blu-ray (which was paired with Hammer’s THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH). Kino utilizes the same transfer source for Eureka’s recent UK (Region B) Blu-ray, and there’s a noticeable improvement over the Legend disc. The 1080p HD transfer has the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, with the color palette and skin tones appearing more impressive (and totally accurate) than Legend’s comparatively muted exhibit. Sharpness and detail are above average for a film of this vintage, and the textures stand out nicely. Natural film grain is well preserved (yet very tight and never obtrusive) and the source element is also very clean, with only some printed-on dirt on scenes with opticals. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also impressive, with clear dialogue and music. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
Exclusive to this Blu-ray is a new audio commentary with Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas who commences by stating that THE SKULL is about “the importance of protecting what is good, even holy, in each of us”. Anyone who has heard Lucas’ commentaries in the past will come into this knowing it’s a worthwhile listen, and it certainly is. Lucas—who refers to THE SKULL as one of the most unusual horror movies of the 1960s, seeing it in the theater as a child—delves deeply into the characters and the actors who played them, the differences between the Robert Bloch short story and the Milton Subotsky screenplay (and what he added to stretch things to feature length), director Francis’ camera and editing techniques and chromatic schemes, the limited music score (and that Elisabeth Lutyens’ score only ran a total of 18 minutes) and much more. Also included are two featurettes with notable British film historians (both picked up from the Eureka UK Blu-ray). “Jonathan Rigby on THE SKULL” (24:14) has the author familiarizing us with Amicus and Subotsky’s love of horror and Bloch’s original short story. The shortness of the script (causing director Francis to improvise), how the British censors were appalled by some of script’s original content, and the significance (and overuse) of the name “Maitland” in Amicus productions are also addressed in this excellent overview (Rigby also clarifies that a short clip of an owl was taken directly from Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA). “Kim Newman on THE SKULL” (27:18) has the author singling out Amicus as “Number 2” to Hammer, leading into a how Amicus (starting with their first horror effort, CITY OF THE DEAD) and other British companies got in on the action in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Newman gives a good history of the early days of Amicus and how they got involved with Bloch, leading into criticism and analysis of THE SKULL and De Sade being a popular figure in films during the 1960s. Also included is a “Trailers From Hell” segment on THE SKULL with Joe Dante, who says he believes it’s Francis’ masterpiece, thinking it was very good at the time of seeing it, despite the skimpy premise. Rounding out the extras here are original trailers for Kino Blu-rays you should all have in your collection: TALES OF TERROR, THE OBLONG BOX, MADHOUSE, HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS and THE CRIMSON CULT. There is reversible cover art—depicting Cushing's character playing Russian Roulette—on the back side. (George R. Reis)
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