The initial scenes of the film THE SKULL are deceptive. Set in an early-19th century graveyard complete with grave robbers, hooting owls, and what is all too obviously a doctor about to delve into “things man was not meant to know;” one might be forgiven for expecting that this picture is going to walk-on the well-trodden path of Hammer Films. But such is not the case. Producers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, and screenwriter Robert Bloch have a surprise in store for the audience. What will follow this, by now, formulaic opening, will not be a Hammer ‘ripoff.’ Rather, the viewer will be treated to a unique psychological thriller with supernatural underpinnings. A film that will explore nightmare states and dreamscapes with a strong Kafkaesque flavor and a modernist sensibility.
Adapted from his own short story, “The Skull of the Marquis De Sade,” Robert Bloch’s script parallels his own career as an author. Starting off as a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft in the 1930s, and publishing a number of well-received tales in the Cthulhu Mythos canon; Bloch later developed into a premier advocate of the modern, psychological horror story. Indeed, he is best known to laymen as the author of perhaps the most famous psychological horror novel of all time, “Psycho.” Interestingly, the story arc of THE SKULL follows Bloch’s literary trajectory in that it begins in the tradition of romantic gothicism but ends in the darkly absurdist realms of Kafka, Orwell, Dali, and Max Ernst.
The basic plot of THE SKULL details the various unpleasant fates that befall subsequent owners of the skull of the infamous Napoleonic-era pornographer, the Marquis De Sade. Bloch’s fictional construct is that Sade’s historical excesses can be explained by the ‘fact’ that he was possessed by a demon. A demon who still dwells in the eponymous skull and who still retains a taste for dark ceremonies and murder.
Peter Cushing plays Dr. Christopher Maitland, an occult researcher and collector who comes into possession of the skull through the offices of one Marco (Patrick Wymark), a shady ‘dealer’ in obscure objects d’art. Christopher Lee portrays Sir Matthew Phillips, friend of Maitland, and former owner of the skull, who warns its new possessor of the item’s destructive powers. THE SKULL really is Cushing’s movie. Mr. Cushing’s performance carries the last 2/3 of the film and is of grueling intensity. Mr. Lee’s role as the doomed Phillips, who meets a violent end at the hands of the friend he tries to help, is crucial to the overall structure of the plot and flawlessly performed.
The highlight of the film is a nightmare sequence that could have been taken straight out of Kafka’s “The Trial.” Here Mr. Cushing gives a world class performance that echoes his earlier triumph as Winston Smith in the BBC television production of Orwell’s “1984.” This segment is gripping in the extreme and still carries a tremendous emotional wallop nearly 40 years later.
With stellar performances by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee; standout supporting and cameo roles by Jill Bennet, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Greene, Peter Woodthorpe, and Patrick Magee; a thoughtful and literate script by Bloch and Subotsky; and measured, restrained direction by Freddie Francis, THE SKULL is an outstanding example of contemporary, modernist horror. This movie is not only a must-see for any Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing fan, but a lesson in intelligent, stylish film making.