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The Skull - horror DVD review
THE SKULL Unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America curledupdvd.com rating: 3 1/2 stars
Actors: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Christopher Lee, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee
Director: Freddie Francis   Distributor: Legend Films
DVD release: 03 June 2008   Runtime: 83 minutes (1 disc)
Format: Anamorphic, Color, DVD-Video, NTSC, Widescreen
DVD features: Audio tracks (English)

Back in the 1960s, a smaller British studio named Amicus Films specializing in gothic horror was consistently overshadowed by the more glamorous, established Hammer Studios. To be honest, I had never heard of the studio myself, or The Skull, until recently, and my expectations weren't too high. Elements of the film are undeniably dated (and the plot is a bit silly). However, thanks to solid direction by the esteemed Freddie Francis and the work of a truly great cast, the film uses its flimsy plot to create an ever-increasing sense of dread and a truly chilling atmosphere. I was very pleasantly surprised and impressed by how effective and spooky this film is, especially for the last 20 minutes.

The story opens in the early 1800s. A doctor hires two grave robbers to unearth the casket of the infamous Marquis de Sade - which unexpectedly seals the fate of the doctor. The film then moves to modern day, where two collectors of occult artifacts, Dr. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) and Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee), are friendly, yet competitive rivals. After Phillips rather embarrassingly outbids Maitland for a collection of demon statues, the doctor is enticed with the opportunity to "one-up" Phillips by purchasing a truly unique item: the skull of de Sade. He soon finds out, though, that the skull was stolen directly from the home of Phillips - and that Phillips is quite grateful to be rid of it.

The film is a bit "talky" and slow at first, taking the time to set up the story and establish the characters. Without spoiling the surprises, dialogue becomes less and less frequent as the film moves to its climactic showdown. Indeed, the final 20 minutes are almost like a silent horror film.

The middle section contains an intense, surreal sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Soon after being offered the skull, Maitland relaxes in his library. From out of nowhere, two detectives show up at his home and drag Maitland away. He suddenly finds himself trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare where he is forced to gamble for his life before a fearsome, mute magistrate, then thrown into a room that first fills with smoke then shrinks, with the walls closing in. Maitland wakes up, disoriented and in an apartment miles from his home.

At this point, Maitland realizes that the skull possesses supernatural powers and the ability to control the will of those who desire it. He eventually finds himself trapped in his home, trying desperately to resist the occult powers of the skull. Again, minimal dialogue is spoken, yet a spooky tone is set through the music, direction and brilliant acting by Cushing. He goes from refusing to believe what is happening to being hypnotized by a supernatural force to, finally, fearing for his life. These last few minutes truly capture a common nightmare, where an object that can't possibly be in two places at once and can't possibly move - does. (Note: A POV shot from inside the skull is strongly reminiscent of the famous shot through the eyeholes of a mask at the beginning of the original Halloween by John Carpenter.)

The Skull is not a great horror film, but it is a good one. If some special effects come across as cheesy (and some do), keep in mind we're talking about a rather low-budget horror film made in 1965. As a film buff, I enjoyed seeing the two greatest names in British horror, Cushing and Lee, share screen time together (as well as to see Lee in a rare good-guy role). Furthermore, the supporting cast is a wonderful collection of "I've seen him before but don't know his name" character actors, such as Patrick Wymark, George Couloris, Michael Gough and Patrick Magee. This film might be too dated for the Saw crowd, but if you have a soft spot for old-school British horror, I recommend it. Watch it late at night with a big bag of popcorn.
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reviewed by Trent Daniel
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