Freddie Francis, 1965
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Jill Bennett, Patrick Wymark, Patrick Magee, Nigel Green, Michael Gough
After a scientist robs the grave of the Marquis de Sade and steals the writer’s skull, he hurries home to clean it — all while a frilly violet nightgown-clad strumpet eats marshmallows in his bed — but meets a sudden, unexpected death. Years in the future, in present day London, an occult writer, Christopher Maitland, comes across the skull for sale from a disreputable dealer. It seems the skull was actually stolen from Maitland’s friend Sir Philips, another collector. To Maitland’s surprise, Phillips is eager to get rid of it because of its allegedly sinister powers. Ignoring his warning, Maitland cannot resist the temptation of having the skull in his possession.
I am either the best or worst person to review a film that has anything to do with the Marquis de Sade. I read The 120 Days of Sodom when I was around 13 — so yes, while going through puberty — and I have a pretty extensive collection of books by or about him at eye-level with my bed. I also have his family crest tattooed on my leg. (Gentlemen, you’ve been warned.) But The Skull has a tenuous connection to the Marquis’s life or writings outside of the fact that the central object — something of a MacGuffin — is his skull. It actually bears a fair amount in common with a story from Sade’s almost-contemporary and another writer I really enjoy, Maupassant, and his story “Le Horla,” about a supernatural entity that drives a man insane.
Amicus abandoned the anthology format of Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors for their second film, The Skull (1965), which is based on Robert Bloch’s short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Though like “La Horla,” events are far more supernatural than in Bloch’s telling. With a script written by Amicus co-head Milton Subotsky himself, it’s based on the factual story of how the Marquis’s skull actually went missing not long after his burial; the film actually name drops Havelock Ellis (“Love and Pain,” which they quote, is a real chapter from his book Analysis of the Sexual Impulse), one of my favorite writers on sex and psychology, to tell this story. In other words, The Skull seems tailor made for me, so if you're looked for something approximating an unbiased review, this is not the place to find it.
After Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Amicus was luckily enough to get Hammer stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to return for this film — along with greats like Patrick Magee (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne), Patrick Wymark (Repulsion), Nigel Green (The Masque of the Red Death), and Michael Gough — and it’s definitely strengthened by some great performances. If you want to see a youngish Peter Cushing go totally mad, then the film’s last 20 or so minutes is for you. And Lee and Cushing’s chemistry is so great — in everything, not just here, but it’s nice to see them outside the roles Hammer typecast them in — that for some reason I could watch the early scene of Lee outbidding Cushing at an occult auction all day, or a later scene of them playing billiards together.
The film’s somewhat flimsy premise is that the Marquis de Sade was “possessed by an evil spirit,” one that still lingers around his skull. On certain nights of the moon, it is used BY EVIL SPIRITS to inspire men to violence. I wish I was making this up. Admittedly, the script feels a little padded at times, though apparently it was neutered by the censors and was intended to be a bit explicit, both in terms of sex and gore. There are some lovely scenes, such as a moment about halfway through where, while reading about de Sade, Maitland falls asleep and is swept into a chilling, Kafkaesque dream sequence with some of the film’s best visuals, where men charge into his amazing looking study (that I want to live in) and take him to an undisclosed location on mysterious charges. Here he is forced to take part in a game of Russian roulette.
Though Freddie Francis excelled as a cinematographer in his own right (The Elephant Man is proof enough of this), this is some of his best work as a director. Along with the help of cinematographer John Wilcox (The Evil of Frankenstein, The Psychopath), The Skull is full of delightfully odd angles and an almost Bava-like lushness to the color scheme. The score — from one of genre cinema’s few female composers, Elisabeth Lutyens — might be my favorite from any Amicus film, though she was also responsible for Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Psychopath, and the great Hammer suspense film, Paranoiac.
The Skull comes very highly recommended and I would honestly say that this should be your first Amicus film if you’re new to the studio. This would make a great double feature with the Vincent Price film Diary of a Madman, which is actually based on “La Horla” and has a similarly vivid color palette and concluding sequence where the protagonist goes stark raving mad. You can pick it up on DVD in the US or on Blu-ray in the UK from Eureka. And if anyone knows where to get copies of the wonderful statues of Lucifer and his minions from the beginning of the film that occasionally reappear, I want — nay, need — them.