Wednesday, 18 July 2012

THE SKULL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - An enjoyable Amicus Horror film with Peter Cushing and directed by the legendary cinematographer of "Glory", "The Elephant Man" and "The Straight Story". Available on Blu-Ray as a double-feature with "The Man Who Could Cheat Death".

The Skull (1965) dir. Freddie Francis
Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, Nigel Green and George Coulouris


Review By Greg Klymkiw

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you one of the most perverse antagonists in horror movie history: the skull (yes, I'm not kidding, the skull) of one Donatien Alphonse François, The Marquis de Sade.

Yup, you got it - everyone's favourite pornographer, that happy-go-lucky libertine who, until his death in 1914, spent 30-or-so of his 78 years on this good, green Earth, incarcerated in prisons and asylums as a reaction to both his writings (including Justine and The 120 Days of Sodom) and (to say the least) his unconventionally cruel sexual practices.

During the 70s, Hammer, the reigning champ of British horror films, was given a considerable run for its money by Amicus, an upstart UK purveyor of all things ghoulish. Known primarily for its E.C. Comics omnibus pictures, the near-perfect Asylum and Tales From The Crypt as well as the solid Vault of Horror and Tales That Witness Madness, Amicus also delivered a clutch of non-portmanteau efforts. Based on Robert (Psycho) Bloch’s screen treatment and directed by the visually gifted cinematographer Freddie (Glory, The Elephant Man, The Straight Story, etc.) Francis, The Skull was the best of that single-story lot.

Getting off to a rip-snorting start, the picture opens with a fabulous grave robbing scene that involves the decapitation of de Sade’s rotting head. Followed closely by the pre-phrenologically-inspired prep that involves the removal of flesh, hair and other viscera by burning and boiled it all off, the result is a pristine and gleaming skull. The Marquis de Sade was never cleaner. Alas, cleanliness is only skin-deep (as it were). Do what you will to his skull, the good Marquis' thoughts are as dirty and nasty as one would ultimately hope in a movie designed to administer a few good jolts of horror.

As a Director of Photography who always delivered the goods, the work of Freddie Francis as a director could often feel phoned-in. The notable exceptions are this delectable de-Sade-o-rama and a handful of others in a directing career that spanned approximately 30 features. One can only assume Francis excelled in the task at hand ONLY when he was faced with material that truly tickled his fancy and that the rest was so much gun-for-hire fodder.

Though The Skull feels about ten minutes too long (and it’s already short), the movie still packs a decent wallop. Feeling more like a solid horror second feature from the 40s made smack in the middle of the swinging British New Wave period, it's a picture that ultimately does what it's supposed to do.

Peter Cushing plays an academic specializing in occult research who collects strange oddities from all over the world in order to study them. His wife begins objecting to the house corpulently overflowing with paraphernalia representing evil. Though one suspects she’s a typical harridan coming down on her collecting-obsessed hubby, she perhaps has a point when Cushing starts to slowly go psycho after he acquires the skull of the notorious de Sade.

The story is told with numerous visual flourishes – lots of cool dollies and pans, sumptuous lighting and endless Skull-Cam shots so we can get a glimpse of what the evil spirit of the Marquis de Sade gets to see. After the spirited opening, the movie does slow down a bit, but once it picks up steam, it seldom lets up and builds to a genuinely creepy and (at least for this fella) scary climax.

A superb supporting cast includes an extended cameo from the always-delicious Christopher Lee as a collector who realizes and tries to warn Cushing about the dangers of hoarding occult items and we’re blessed with a truly slimy turn from Patrick Wymark as an underground occult dealer and an even sleazier one from Peter Woodthhorpe as the dealer’s foul landlord.

If you’re a fan of British horror films, this won’t be the best you’ve seen, but you’ll still be glad you did – if, indeed, you do – and, of course, you should.

"The Skull" is one of several British genre pictures distributed in North America by Legend Films. It's currently available as a double-disc Blu-Ray with the added Hammer Horror attraction, "The Man Who Could Cheat Death".

This is a must-have Blur-Ray disc for vintage horror fans and the price is certainly right. The movies are also available as single-disc DVDs. If you plan to buy, please consider supporting the maintenance of this site by ordering it via the links below:

The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959) dir. Terence Fisher
Starring: Anton Diffring, Hazel Court and Christopher Lee


Review By Greg Klymkiw

Even if The Man Who Could Cheat Death were an awful movie (and it is far from that), it would have one big thing going for it. Well, actually two big things – those soft, milky protuberances heaving ever so-delicately beneath the low-cut velvet dress of Heaven itself; namely, the breasts of that utterly flawless example of womanhood, Hazel Court. These bounteous pillows of perfection are, however, not all that mesmerize Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) the title character of this delicious Hammer Horror picture from master Terence Fisher. When his (and our) eyes gaze above her cleavage, then glide upwards along her perfect breastplate and delicate neck, they run smack into a delectable puss replete with full lips, exquisite cheek bones and eyes you want to dive into. There’s also that pile of soft scarlet atop her crown, tied and trussed in a manner that hints, ever so invitingly, at the cascading waterfall that awaits when the pins are removed and the locks tumble down. And beneath it all – beneath her upper bounties – is a svelte torso, supple, childbearing hips and, no doubt, other hidden fruits best left to our imaginations.

The estimable Miss Court as the comely model Janine Dubois makes her first appearance in the picture on the arm of the dashing Dr. Pierre Girard (Christopher Lee) during a private gathering in Bonnet’s home where the mad-scientist/artist is about to unveil his latest sculpture to a small, but admiring public of society people. It is obvious to all, including Girard, that she and Bonnet are former lovers and it is here we discover that Bonnet’s artistic output has been reserved to sculptures only of the upper portions of the most beautiful women imaginable. Once the party disbands, we are treated to the revelation that the 30-something Bonnet is, in fact, over 100 years old and that he’s found the secret to eternal youth through the occasional implantation of a fresh gland in addition to a lime-green potion. His goal is to steal, Janine from Pierre, implant a new gland – making her “immortal” – and to spend the rest of eternity in bliss.

And who wouldn’t want to spend an eternity with Hazel Court? Only a madman, right?

Well, there’s the rub. Implantation of the gland and adherence to steady doses of the lime-green bubbling Kool-Aid renders all those under its influence to go stark raving, psychotically bonkers. This, of course, will not do and it’s up to Girard (one of Christopher Lee’s few heroic roles) to save the day.

With a Jimmy Sangster screenplay adaptation of a creaky, but oddly literate play by Barre Lyndon (“The Man of Half Moon Street”, already made as a film in the 40s) is one part “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, with dashes of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Dracula”. It’s perfect material for Terence Fisher who delivered some of the finest and most stylish British horror films of all time. Though much of the action is constricted to a few rooms, it’s an always engaging thriller thanks, in part to Fisher’s splendid direction and, most of all, because of the superb cast. Peter Cushing look-alike Anton Diffring (star of the luridly magnificent “Circus of Horrors”) is the perfect tragic villain with his aquiline features and sorrowful eyes, Lee handles himself expertly as the hero and Miss Court is breathtakingly engaging in her role.

“The Man Who Could Cheat Death” is a welcome addition to Fisher’s fine work from the 50s (including “Curse of Frankenstein” and “Horror of Dracula”). In fact, it’s kind of cool seeing Fisher work his magic in a genre film that is bereft of an already identifiable monster (he also helmed versions of “The Mummy”, “The Werewolf” and “Phantom of the Opera”) and if the picture seems a trifle dated and a smidgen derivative, these are but minor flaws in an otherwise delightful chiller.

Besides, it stars Hazel Court and that is, of course, reason enough to see pretty much anything.

“The Man Who Could Cheat Death” is available on DVD from Legend Films.