“What connection could there be? Witchcraft?” - Doctor
“Hardly. Not in this day and age... not in this day and age.” Inspector Wilson
I was about thirteen years old when I started really watching horror movies on TV. For some reason, turning into a teenager meant being allowed to watch them on school nights as they were shown in a late night slot after the 10:00pm news in those far off pre home video days of the early to mid seventies.
Our local ITV channel, HTV, used to show seasons of horror movies on a Monday night. That was when I first got acquainted with Messrs Karloff and Lugosi – and in a later season some months, I guess further on down the line, Messrs Cushing and Lee.
Some films just kept recurring every couple of years, it seemed and one of those that I remember first seeing when I was about fourteen was The Skull. I must’ve seen this thing four or five times in the seventies and then it just disappeared without a trace. I bought my first VHS recorder in the late summer of 1982, but as far as I know, this old faithful favourite was never shown again, because it’s one that I was certainly looking out for, to commit to tape.
Moving on, I also kept looking for it on VHS on sale, and later of course on DVD – but I never saw it.
Back in the sixties and seventies, there were Hammer and Amicus. A lot of people to this day still confuse who produced what, and arguments still go on as to who made the better horror films. Back then, I guess I would’ve said Hammer was in the lead with Amicus constantly snapping at their heels – but having spent the last summer seeking out some of the Amicus favourites that I hadn’t seen for years – and in some cases, decades – I have to revise that opinion. Amicus productions have endured and retained their horror value far better than the Hammer films which are actually pretty cosy and quaint by comparison when viewed now.
Case in point is this one.
It’s based on a story titled The Skull of the Marquis De Sade by Psycho author Robert Bloch (and by that, I mean he wrote the book Psycho on which the Hitchcock movie was based – NOT that Bloch was himself a psycho in any way – just so we’re clear and I don’t get sued by his estate.)
Actually, speaking of being sued by estates – funny story. The heirs of the Marquis de Sade went to court to prevent any use of the late Marquis’s name in any of the film’s promotional material. Subsequently all the posters etc had to be changed. Seems odd that the family of the cruellest, most depraved man in history would suddenly be concerned about his reputation. The descendants of the man who gave us the word “sadist”.
It is indeed a strange world. Even odder is the fact that the skull of the Marquis really IS missing. It was exhumed for analysis and examination from the graveyard at the asylum where de Sade was held until he died, but went missing and its current whereabouts are unknown. How freaky is THAT?
So, back to the film – Peter Cushing is Dr Christopher Maitland - an authority in the occult and a collector of all manner of artefacts associated with the black arts. He is offered the skull of the Marquis de Sade, which went missing, having been severed from the body and stolen from the grave and is, reputedly sought after by coven all over the place because of its demonic powers. It is the opinion of Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) that de Sade wasn’t just evil – he was possessed. And the evil spirit is still in the skull.
If fact, the shady dealer in artefacts, Marko (Patrick Wyman) has stolen it from Sir Matthew, and Sir Matthew is in no rush to get it back because during the two nights of the new moon when the occult rituals take place – it would be locked in its cabinet, Sir Matthew would refuse to go into his library where the thing was stored, but by the morning – it would be outside the cabinet. Moved presumably by the members of whichever covens wanted to channel its unearthly powers.
Oh, if only it were that simple.
The skull is already exerting its will on Maitland, who, out of character, steals the object from the apartment of the now dead Marko, pushes a nosey landlord on the cusp of blackmail, over a bannister to his death, in a surprising turn murders Sir Matthew and engages in a battle of wills whether he is going to sacrifice his wife in a murderous ritual, while she sleeps. All this happens in the film’s final third and it all happens with barely any dialogue, relying on Cushing to carry the scenes by facial expressions and physical mannerisms alone as he descends into madness.
This film unnerved me when I was 14, and my biggest fear in buying it was that having not seen it in something like thirty two years or more, it would be hokey and ridiculous with a floating skull menacing people. (I mean, what’s it going to do – head butt them?) But the film still packs a punch and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t feel a few twinges of unease here and there. Such is the power of the quality of film making as it existed in Amicus.
Next film – it’s the number one in the countdown and you’ll find out what is tomorrow – Halloween. Until then, my fiends, enjoy Devil’s Night.
Copyright © 2010 - 2014 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.