I have no idea why this masterpiece has not been acclaimed. For virtually half the picture, there is no dialogue, the entire focus on camerawork and reaction. Even Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980) gave in to grand guignol and The Exorcist (1973) was filled with over-the-top scenes but here the psychological impact of possession remains confined.
Initially, it appears we are in familiar Hammer territory, a grave-robber detaching a skull from a corpse only to meet an untimely end. There is another flashback to the gothic where the presence of the skull drives an ordinary man to murder. But this is an Amicus production and set in contemporary times with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing once again in opposition, but this time only in an auction house bidding for demonic artefacts. Exposition is straightforward. A dealer (Patrick Wymark) sells Cushing a book about De Sade bound in human skin. Wymark may be a con man. He claims to possess the skull of the Marquis de Sade but his attitude towards it, kissing its head, plucking its nose socket, and the fact that he willing to halve his asking price, suggest otherwise. Lee, who once owned the skull, warns Cushing against it.
The rest of the film covers Cushing’s possession of the skull and the skull’s possession of him. There is a notable Kafkaesque sequence where Cushing is arrested, taken before a judge and forced three times to play Russian roulette before ending up in the house of the dealer where he steals the skull. What is less often commented upon is that this nigh-on 15-minute sequence including a 90-second taxi ride conducted in virtual silence, the camera mostly on Cushing’s face, that silence only broken by the feeding of bullets into the barrel of the gun and the barrel being rolled round. It is not long before Cushing commits his first murder.
There is a famous scene in the Last Tycoon (1976) in which Robert De Niro explains to a truculent word-obsessed British writer why dialogue is redundant in the movies. All you need is camera and reaction. That sets up The Skull’s greatest scene, a 17-minute dialogue-free climax, where Cushing is effectively preyed upon and consumed. The skull itself appears to have a point-of-view, various shots of Cushing through the skull’s eyes. The actual special effects are limited to what is imminently achievable, the skulls glows, it moves through the air. The impact of its presence is shown on Cushing’s face and by his action. It is just hypnotic.
Various directors have been anointed for the way they move their camera – Antonioni’s 360-degree turn in The Passenger (1975) comes to mind, large chunks of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the long wait for sunrise in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the lengthy shots of James Stewart driving a car in Vertigo (1958). But I have never seen anything as innovative as the silent sequences in The Skull which would be a waste of innovation were the sequences not so effective, especially on the small screen. Freddie Francis directed from a story by Robert Bloch. Equally innovative is the jarring music by avant-garde composer Elizabeth Lutyens.
Many of the films from the 1960s are to be found free of charge on TCM and Sony Movies and the British Talking Pictures as well as mainstream television channels. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.