The Skull (Freddie Francis, 1965)

Freddie Francis’s 1965 Amicus Productions film The Skull was recently restored and released by Eureka Entertainment in the UK. It’s perhaps not the most gripping of horror films ever made, but with the classic pairing of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the leads roles it offers a lot to fans of Amicus and Hammer.

The film follows Christopher Maitland (Cushing), an antiques dealer with a penchant for the obscure and curious, particularly pertaining to the occult. He acquires the valuable skull of Marquis de Sade, a man we learn about in the opening prelude set over 100 years previous. The skull has been stolen from Sir Matthew Philips (Lee), a fellow antiques dealer. Valuable though the skull is, Philips has no interest in reclaiming it, for reasons that are initially unapparent.

When watched alongside modern horror films, The Skull may be hard to appreciate. This is to do with pacing. Watching a horror film celebrating its 50th anniversary needs to be watched with a mindfulness of the context. The cheap shots and by-the-numbers techniques used today are nowhere to be seen. The horror in a film like this is drawn from the suspense built up by every element of the film working together and a quality acting performance of the lead character. You simply can’t view any film like this out of the context of the landscape of cinema at the time of original release.

Lee is atypically subdued in his performance as Sir Matthew Philips. It is a supporting role but it’s really worth checking out to see him portraying someone likeable for a change.

The plaudits should go to Cushing though. He carries it towards a tremendous climax in a film that actually has almost no dialogue for the final act. He may have more popular roles – or indeed more mainstream roles – but this is an off-the-radar performance that warrants at least one viewing to underline his acting credentials.

Enhancing Cushing’s performance is some excellent camerawork and framing from director Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox. It’s all about intelligence in angles and getting close enough to feel the sheer panic on Maitland’s face as the cursed skull becomes increasingly threatening. They do such a great job that the skull becomes a character itself, especially when we’re seeing the world through its empty eye sockets.

A thoroughly enjoyable horror film for anyone looking for an unusual and obscure Cushing-Lee release.

The Skull is available to purchase on Eureka Blu-ray now.

Note: The poster I used for the featured image of this article was by the excellent Andy Potts. His website is full of fantastic posters he’s done for various reasons. Check it out.

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