1965 / Freddie Francis
The pinnacle of 1960s British horror cinema was pioneered by the likes of Hammer Horror, with their visually stunning gothic tales fashioning morbid ghouls against the backdrop of lush manors, mostly set in a bygone time. In a bid to shake the market, Amicus Productions, another horror-focused production company, made The Skull (UK, 1965), a Freddie Francis-directed feature.
The film is based upon the short story ‘The Skull of the Marquis de Sade’ written by Robert Bloch, a tale that thrives on the speculation surrounding French philosopher Marquis de Sade’s ‘missing’ skull. Despite the film undergoing many rewrites, the essence of Bloch’s story remains the same. The Skull alludes to the urban legends surrounding Sadean mythology, with the film following avid collector Dr. Christopher Maitland’s descent into madness (Peter Cushing) as his new antique, a possessed skull, takes over his mind and drives him to insanity.
The Skull bears all the trademarks of sixties cinema. It features performances from Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Patrick Wymark, who were all quintessential icons within genre cinema. Accompanying this was a slew of experimental cinematography that rocks and rivets its audience. Essentially, The Skull is a crucial piece of horror history whose merit has continued to grow since its release fifty-eight years ago.
Francis’ captivating use of mysticality is a continuous factor that treads throughout the entire film, with each scene basking in a dreamlike, hazy atmosphere that gives credence to the fantastical plot. This hypnotic whimsy is particularly potent in the opening scene, which paves the ground for the film’s expressive storytelling methods. The scene is set by howling winds, a tiny meow from a stray cat, and a creaking gate that bellows over the scene of a misty, greyed cemetery, lit only by a pale moonlight hidden by overhead stormy clouds. As the camera passes through the squeaky gate shown swinging on its own accord, the frame introduces a graverobber who has made a ‘grave’ discovery. Captivated and excited, he heads back to his grandiose house, accessorised with skeletal remains, where it is revealed that this thief is a seedy phrenologist who has just obtained his most desired artefact, the skull of Sade. In an endeavour to study the skull and determine whether Sade was innately ‘evil’, he takes the freshly decapitated head to his lair to macerate the flesh; however, he is soon found with his throat slashed.
This scene sets up the entire film’s substance. Indeed, an intriguing narrative leaps and flows, chronicling Dr. Maitland’s discoveries and his interactions with the skull auctioneer, Marco (Wymark), and fellow antique collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee). Yet, the true star of the show, the main attraction, is the visual aesthetics that are definitive of the creative filmmaking that soared across 1960s horror. For example, in moments of heightened horror, the frame is often bathed in chiaroscuro lighting, forming an ominous glow in the centre of the screen contrasting against the shadowed edge. It is a symbolic gesture towards The Skull’s overarching portrayal of darkness continuously lying in the peripherals of one’s psyche, waiting to close in on normalcy and take over.
This characteristic of every scene embodying an aesthetic motif to relay this aspect of cursed souls is at its most stringent during a moment between Maitland and the possessed skull as it spiritually guides him to its evil presence. Shortly before he is discovered lifeless in a pool of his blood, he is unwillingly drawn towards a table decorated with a pentagram, with the unearthly skull persuading him to commit the darkest of deeds. In most of this sequence, the camera yields many point-of-view shots that then cut to the inside of the cranium with the lens peering out from the sockets, overtly symbolising the entrancing and omnipresent power of the Sadean skull. It is within this ghostly gaze where The Skull yields its powerful presence decades later.
The film warrants its reputation as a quintessential piece of cinema due to its colourful and alluring aura that transcends what could be a monotonous script into a haunting story that is reminiscent of classic ghost stories told about lingering spirits and cursed objects. As The Skull nears its sixtieth anniversary, it’s wise to recount its ties to Amicus and how the film helped shape the emerging independence of horror filmmaking. As stated, Hammer wore the crown of mainstream horror, thriller, and psychological epics for years, leading to a dominant position in the market. Whilst Hammer is certainly an incredible gift to cinema, what Amicus did, partially using The Skull as a vessel, was bring portmanteau films to the forefront, greatly assorting the genre.
These portmanteau films thrived in their anthological methods to create a diverse product that emulsified a variety of themes and concepts to create a film that delivered quick thrills multiple times over due to its several differentiating segments. The most well-received anthologies that Amicus produced included Torture Garden (UK, Freddie Francis, 1967), The House That Dripped Blood (UK, Peter Duffell, 1971), Tales from the Crypt (UK, Freddie Francis, 1972) and The Vault of Horror (UK, Roy Ward Baker, 1973). The Skull marked Amicus with the credentials it needed to break through and introduce a new spectrum of films, in turn broadening the genre and hallmarking itself to be a crucial part of cinematic history.