A collector of esoterica, Dr. Maitland (Peter Cushing), buys an unusual skull from his ordinary source of artifacts. The skull is what remains of marquis De Sade. Much too soon he discovers how the skull affects him: by turning him into a frenzied killer...
Take a look at the onslaught of horror I have done for this site and you will see that horror is one of my favorite genres. Yet, I have only given one of those films a positive review, and that is because most modern-day horror films seem very rote, unimaginative, and extremely similar to the next. But back in the day, even a middle of the road horror film like ‘The Skull’ can feel fresh and unique. Why is that? It isn't the story or plotting. I can honestly say there is little to no plot after the first half hour of the film. It is the cinematography and mood, which are unlike anything we see in today's modern day horror flicks, and gripped me from the beginning of this film and never let go.
Like I said earlier, the story here isn't the best; in fact, it is the film’s worst quality. Peter Cushing (or should I say Grand Moff Tarkin) plays Christopher Maitland. Christopher is a wealthy man who is part of a community of rare antique collectors. He comes into possession of a book (made of human skin) about the Marquis De Sade, and eventually the actual skull of the Marquis De Sade, although he is warned by his collector friend Matthew Phillips (played by the always great Christopher Lee) that it will posses and ultimately take control of him. From the first time Christopher is alone with the skull, it does exactly that and from that point on the film is solely his descent into madness.
Immediately the score and the mood of 'The Skull' completely hypnotized me and reminded me why I love other horror films like 'Black Sunday,’ 'The Haunting,’ or even lesser known faves of mine like 'The Devil Rides Out' that also stars the great Christopher Lee. There is something so minimal but effective about most of the horror scores of the 1960s that grip me so much more than today's bombastic scores do. But the real enjoyment here is, without a doubt, when the skull takes over Christopher. This is one trippy movie that has such striking imagery; again, because of its simplicity. When he is looking at the skull, it appears to him as existing in a black void that seems endless and ominous. It is as this point that the skull watches him as well, only we see this through the skull’s own eyes; a brilliant way to convey the foreboding quality of this film through its cinematography. As time goes on, the line between reality and fantasy gets blurred; this is mostly conveyed not in lines of dialogue, but by body language and that same excellent cinematography. Scenes start are shot tighter, more claustrophobic, like the walls are literally coming in on Christopher, and in return, on us as the audience. Cushing conveys everything not through dialogue, but through body language, which is more expressive than any horror flick today that uses dialogue-heavy exposition to explain something they could have conveyed in a look, expression, or well photographed shot.
'The Skull' isn't one of the best horror films of the 1960s. It has weak plotting and doesn’t let us get to know its characters one bit. After all, I couldn’t tell you what Christopher did to earn his fortune because frankly, I don’t know. The film didn’t tell me. But I think this speaks more for the fact about how good horror in the 1960s,70s, and even 80s were compared to today. This film’s acting, cinematography, and score drew me in from the first scene and never let me go despite its weaknesses. Today I was taken back to a better time in cinema. A time where films felt different from each other and more unique, not in big ways, but in small ways that mean the world to the mood of the film, giving it an identity, and allows it to stand out amongst the pack. Even though 'The Skull' isn’t a total home run, I can't deny that as Christopher falls deeper into his trance, I fell deeper with him, for a completely recommendable experience.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino brings ‘The Skull’ to Blu-ray without a slipcover and only hardcover casing like most Kino releases have. The cover of this case features some of the coolest cover art for a film I have ever seen, and I now want a poster of it. And if that wasn’t enough, you can also flip that cover art around for a second option. Modern day films don't have posters and cover art like this, and I miss the days where we got crazy posters like this. Inside is a typical BD-25 Blu-ray with no Digital Download. We are brought straight to the main menu once the play button is hit without any trailers, and we are able to navigate from there.
‘The Skull’ casts an ominous spell on you with a 1080P MPEG-4 AVC encode that fares reasonably well for its age, despite a few minor flaws that come with the film’s age. Presented at a 2:35.1 aspect ratio, this isn't the sharpest picture in the world. In fact, it is quite soft. Detail work is better than any other version you can find for this film, but it does still leave quite a bit to be desired. However, for a movie that is over fifty years old, that is understandable and more or less what I expected. But none of this takes away from the great camera work and cinematography here. When we see the victims of the skull through its own eyes, it is a beautiful shot that is well represented here.
Another small gripe is there are some film artifacts and banding that do come through on the transfer, although they are not a hindrance. Coming in, one thing that I was concerned about was the black levels of such a dark film in its flashback scenes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a non-issue. Black levels are fine here and accurately represented. All of my gripes here are gripes that are perfectly understandable for the age of the print of the movie, and none of them took away from my experience. Anyone interested in owning 'The Skull' will be pleased to know it is done justice here.
Kino trots 'The Skull' out on Blu-ray with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track that is more or less what you would expect. Unfortunately, this wasn’t an all-around remaster of the audio, but that is what I have come to expect from the releases that Kino has pulled from the archives lately. I would prefer a 5.1 mix here but with that being said, I feel this is about par with the rest.
Speaker separation and clarity are the biggest elements in a track like this and both fare pretty well. When the trippier elements come into play, we are met with unnerving noises that come across crystal clear and separated masterfully through the front speakers. 'The Skull' doesn’t have a lot to offer with this release, but what it does offer is an accurate representation of the film itself.
Audio Commentary with Film Historian Tim Lucas – A very off putting commentary that does focus on the cinematography, but also has a key flaw. Unfortunately, the entire commentary was written ahead of time and was unconvincingly recorded by Lucas, with little to no inflection or emotion in his voice. This made the commentary feel phony to me and disingenuous.
Johnathan Risby on 'The Skull' (HD 24:14) - A rather dry featurette that focuses solely on Risby’s knowledge of 'The Skull.' He is very informative on the subject, but tends to veer off onto many tangents and doesn’t stay on task, and as a result, it feels like a scattered conversation.
Kim Newman on 'The Skull' (HD 27:18) - Newman tends to focus on the history of the Amicus Productions production company that produced 'The Skull.' Producer Milton Subotsky was a huge horror fan, and found great inspiration from horror short stories from the 1940s, and that is where the idea for 'The Skull' came from. Newman goes into this and much more, and even though it is informative, it is also a bit dry to watch.
"Trailers from Hell" with Joe Dante (HD 2:36) - A narration of the theatrical trailer done by Joe Dante.
Trailers – A collection of Amicus trailers that would be great for a Haloween party.
Most modern-day films take the control away from the directors and writers, and instead, decisions are all made by committee. As a result, those movies feel forced and having so many people involved in the decision-making process causes whole story lines to not come together and seem muddled, without getting their point across. In the 60s, the control was still very much in the hands of filmmakers, and that shows a great deal in 'The Skull.' Here is a film that is small on plotting, but feels simple, clean, and by design. Instead they chose to spend their eighty-three-minute runtime setting up a mood with cinematography, shot composition, and a score that gripped me from the first scene. This film takes its small scope and uses it as an asset to craft a hypnotizing experience. Anyone who loves old school horror flicks might want to check this one out.