No duo has starred together in as many horror films as the legendary duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The pair starred in dozens of films from the 1950’s into the 1970’s. They played friends, rivals, vampire and vampire hunter, even monster and creator. No matter the quality of the material they always managed to bring it to a higher level, and had great chemistry whenever they were on screen together. Freddie Francis’ The Skull is no exception.
Based on a story by Robert Bloch, The Skull opens with a grave being robbed for the skull of the departed. The thief takes the skull home to clean it while his mistress waits impatiently on the bed. She sees smoke coming from under the bathroom door she bursts into the bathroom to see her lover dead and a gleaming skull on the counter. We cut to the modern day of mid 60’s London where friendly rival occultists Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) and Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) are bidding on occult items for their collections. Maitland notices Phillips odd behavior as Phillips wildly overbids for a set of statues. When pressed for the reason Phillips has no idea why he even wanted the statues.
Some time later, Maitland is offered the chance to purchase the skull of the Marquis De Sade. Maitland is urged by Phillips to not buy the skull as it hold a malevolent power over whoever possesses it. When pressed Phillips reveals that he once owned the skull and it was stolen from him. He admits that the skull’s power was responsible for his actions at the earlier auction. Even before he acquires the skull, Maitland begins having vivid dreams that may or may not have been just dreams, and once he has the skull he begins to be compelled to aid the skull in dark rituals and even kills to protect it. When the skull wants Maitland to kill his wife Maitland resists, but forfeits his own life
There is so much to like about The Skull, it is a shame that some of the hokier elements including the skull floating around mid air and POV shots of the skull are allowed to mar what could have been a fine occult thriller in the Dennis Wheatley (Devil Rides Out) vein. It just all get to be a bit silly, bordering on William Castle type gimmicks. Still there are nice performances especially by Cushing. (If you’ve even wanted to see the usually stoic actor lose it on screen this is your chance.) There is some great widescreen camera work, which is remarkable as the whole film is basically shot in interior sets and at times feels a bit claustrophobic. There is also a human death by falling through multistory stained glass that was undoubtedly an inspiration for Dario Argento when he made Suspiria.
The Skull is now available on DVD from Legend Films featuring a gorgeous 2:35 widescreen transfer. It’s the first time I’ve even seen The Skull not pan and scanned and I barely recognized it. The cropped version of the film is just close ups on faces and skulls and is maddening to watch. I was impressed by the visual feast on display in the proper aspect ratio. You can also really see Peter Cushing work on screen. There are so many long passages without dialogue where Cushing and his famed business on screen can truly be seen and appreciated.