Blu-ray review: The Skull

Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Christopher Lee
Director: Freddie Francis

Well, it’s one way to get ahead in the world of antiques. Peter Cushing stars in this vintage Amicus spooker as Christopher Maitland, a connoisseur of occult paraphernalia who is offered the opportunity to add the skull of the Marquis de Sade to his collection.

Unfortunately, the skull is infused with the Marquis’ spirit. And not with his fun, party animal side either. No, it seems intent exclusively on murder and satanic ritual, and Maitland soon finds himself cracking up as the skull sockets – sorry, socks it – to him with its lethal mind-controlling powers.

Christopher Lee pops up briefly in the role of warner-offer, one of the skull’s previous owners who is glad to be rid of it, but for much of the time Cushing has the screen almost to himself (sharing it with the skull, of course), and as you’d expect he delivers a commendably cool, measured, watchable performance. The person who really grabs the attention, though, is Patrick Wymark (Witchfinder General) as the shady runner who starts all the trouble by offering Maitland the skull in the first place. Sweaty, snuff-taking, endlessly seedy and shifty, it’s a remarkable piece of acting. Squint and you’d think it was Anthony Hopkins doing one his rivettingly monstrous turns.

Adapted from a short story by Robert Bloch, The Skull could probably have done with an extra subplot or two, because there’s a mounting sense of strain as the material is stretched to feature film length. However, Freddie Francis makes up the shortfall with some inventive camerawork and eerie touches – blinking lights, eddying curtains, simple but effective practical FX; prowling tracking shots that make great play with the rich, Bava-esque set-dressing of Maitland’s study; not to mention an extra-creepy skull POV shot. The build-up’s better than the payoff, but considered as a mood piece and an exercise in slow-burning unease The Skull is certainly the genuine article. 7/10

The widescreen Techniscope stock looks a little coarse-grained at times, but generally this is a very good transfer, with muted tones befitting the sober Amicus aesthetic. There’s a visceral sense of depth and movement in the big set-piece camera set-ups, and all of the occult clutter in Maitland’s study comes up in sharp detail. 7/10

27-min piece by Kim Newman, in which the critic discusses the place of Amicus in the pecking order of British horror and offers a brief survey of cinematic portraits of the notorious Marquis. ~ 24-min interview with Hammer expert Jonathan Rigby, who discusses the film’s development and issues with the brevity of the script, exacerbated by the fact that the censors asked for a juicy-sounding BDSM-style dream sequence with whips and chains to be excised. 8/10


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