The Skull (1965) *****

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.

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1961) ***

The last swashbuckler to cut a genuine dash was The Crimson Pirate (1952) with an athletic Burt Lancaster romancing Virginia Mayo in a big-budget Hollywood spectacular. The chance of Hollywood ponying up for further offerings of this caliber was remote once television began to cut the swashbuckler genre down to small-screen size. Britain’s ITV network churned out series based on Sir Lancelot, William Tell and The Count of Monte Cristo and 30-minute episodes (143 in all) of The Adventures of Robin Hood. So when Hammer decided to rework the series as a movie, their first port-of-call was series star Richard Greene.

And to encourage television viewers to follow the adventures of their hero on the big screen, Hammer sensibly dumped the small screen’s black-and-white photography in favour of widescreen color and then lit up the canvas at the outset with aerial tracking shots of the glorious bucolic greenery of the English countryside (actually Ireland). Further temptation for staid television viewers came in the form of Maid Marian (Sarah Branch) bathing naked in a lake. Robin Hood is soon hooked.  

Sarah Branch was given the cover girl treatment in British fan magazine “Picture Show and TV Mirror” but this preceded “Sword of Sherwood Forest” and instead was for “Sands of the Desert” (1960), a Charlie Drake comedy in which she plays a travel agent kidnapped by a sheik. Branch only made four pictures, with Maid Marian her final film role.

Two main plots run side-by-side. The first is obvious. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing) is quietly defrauding people through legal means. The second takes a while to come to fruition. Robin Hood is hired by for his archery skills by the Earl of Newark (Richard Pasco) – he shoots a pumpkin through a spinning wheel, a moving bell and a bullseye through a slit – before it becomes apparent he is being recruited as an assassin. Oliver Reed and Derren Nesbitt put in uncredited appearances and the usual suspects are played by Niall MacGinnis (as Friar Tuck) and Nigel Green (as Little John).

There is sufficient swordfighting to satisfy. Director Terence Fisher, more at home with the Hammer horror portfolio, demonstrates a facility with action. Richard Greene makes a breezy hero and the picture is ideal matinee entertainment.

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. Films tend to be licensed to any of the above for a specific period of time so you might find access has disappeared. But if this film is not available through these routes, then here is the link to the DVD and/or streaming service.

The Gorgon (1964) ****

This impressive Hammer conspiracy-of-silence slow-burner, more thriller than horror, features the triumvirate of Christopher Lee (The Devil Ship Pirates, 1964), Peter Cushing (The Sword of Sherwood Forest, 1960) and Barbara Steele (Black Sunday, 1960) in untypical roles. Lee and Cushing, of course, had locked horns before, namely in Hammer’s reimagining of the classic Dracula, with the former the charismatic fiend and the latter his nemesis.

Here Cushing is a  doctor in a an unnamed European turn-of-the-twentieth-century police state who knows more than he is letting on about seven inexplicable deaths in five years and the possibility of a 2,000-year-old myth coming to life and taking on a human form. And with quite a human side, jealous when his assistant Steele falls for a younger man. Lee is a professor coming late in the day to investigate. Steele, a gentle beauty, initially introduced as merely the love interest, becomes central to the story but without sucking up all the available horror oxygen by over-acting.   

Director Terence Fisher, who had shepherded the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and Dr Jekyll franchises through the starting gate, builds up the atmosphere with full moons, haunting voices, fog, sudden sounds, drifting leaves and an abandoned castle forever in shadow. The camera is often a weapon of stealth. Shock is kept to a minimum, fleeting ghostly apparitions and a finger falling off a corpse. Given the limitations of special effects in this era, that was a smart move. Far better to concentrate on fear of impending doom, a man knowing he is turning to stone, a woman living in terror of being taken over by the phantom. The title gives away the story somewhat – even if you didn’t know the Gorgon was a mythical monster with a headful of snakes and the ability to turn people to stone, that is soon explained. 

Death remains the trigger for action, the suicide of an artist after he has apparently murdered his pregnant girlfriend bringing his father onto the scene and then his brother accompanied by Lee. But all investigation hits a wall of silence after police chief (Patrick Troughton) refuses to instigate detection. At the heart of all the relationships is betrayal. The artist leading his girlfriend on, Cushing willing to endanger Steele, whom he professes to love, rather than revealing the truth. Even Steele spies on the brother, with whom she is falling in love, in order to gather information for Cushing. 

Forgive the pun, but Steele steals the picture. An amnesiac, a victim and finally the lure, she remains enigmatic, a whisper of a woman. It is a haunting portrayal far removed from Hammer’s traditional cleavage queens. This is a very human character who nonetheless must stand guard over herself. Cushing embroiders his character with little touches, smoking a cigarette in a holder, for example, but Steele’s character, her distrust of herself, shows in every move she makes.

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.

Marketing: Black Stamps

You might be tempted to fork out for the range of James Bond Commemorative Stamps being brought out to celebrate No Time to Die when it eventually sees the light of day on movie screens.

But stamps either as collector’s items or for trading purposes have been around since the silent era.  A line of movie commemorative stamps issued in America in 1944 sold 1.1 million first day covers, the second highest-ever at the time, and in the late 1950s Movie Stamps Inc set up a business that worked in the same way as the Green Stamps given away in supermarkets and gas stations. In this system, if you collected enough you won a gift, usually, in regards to the movie business, a couple of free tickets.

So Columbia Pictures looking for a way to sell its Hammer double bill The Gorgon (1964) with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) starring the lesser-known Terence Morgan revived the idea.

Horror specialist Hammer was one of the British film studios going through a production boom – over 100 movies were being made in that country in that year – with The Secret of Blood Island (1965) in the works for Universal and She for MGM. But horror was still a difficult sell and Hammer had ignored the advice of Variety that The Gorgon would work best if teamed with “a lively comedy.”

American International had expanded the horror market away from the Frankenstein/Dracula axis by exploiting the Edgar Allan Poe back catalog and William Castle had achieved some success in modern tales of terror such as Dementia 13 (1963) and The Night Stalker (1964). But Castle could call upon the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, players with substantial marquee status despite their lately diminished careers, for radio and television interviews.

For Hammer the obvious exploitation options were limited to a spread in the quarterly Castle of Frankenstein magazine which could be purchased for 35 cents at newsstands.

So the marketing honchos dusted off the old movie stamps idea. In some advertisements, the studio offered free stamps to the first 10,000 ticket-buyers but in the advertisement shown above they appeared to be given away free to everyone. The faces of the various monsters and characters featured in both films were imprinted on the stamps. However, on the debit side, there was no sign of any redemption for the collected cards. You couldn’t, should you be so inclined, collect ten and get a guest ticket in return. You could probably trade them and build up a collection. I’m not sure they did much for the movie judging by the box office accounts that exist but if anyone remembers seeing them or collecting them let me know.

Sources: “Film Industry New 3c Stamps Sets Record,” Variety, Nov 15, 1944, 1; “Tease-In Kids with Movie Star Stamps,” Variety, Aug 21, 1957, 20; “Premium Stamp Set Up,” Variety, Aug 20, 1958, 7; Review of The Gorgon, Variety, Aug 26, 1964, 6;  advert, Box Office, Nov 16, 1964, 2; “Film Plugs and Pluggers,” Variety, December 30, 1964, 21; Mark Thomas McGee, Beyond Ballyhoo: Motion Picture Promotion and Gimmicks, p125-131.

Pressbook: Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960)

Studios did not always trust movie theater managers to glance at the Pressbooks posted out to them, one of the initial functions of such marketing manuals being to tempt said managers into booking the film in the first place. So studios occasionally chose a more direct route of getting in a manager’s face and would lump the whole Pressbook into an American trade magazine. Sword of Sherwood Forest took this route.

The film was a very speedy attempt by British studio Hammer to cash in on the popularity of The Adventures of Robin Hood television series, especially by hiring its star Richard Greene. It was a bit of an uphill struggle, movie swashbucklers long out of fashion. In fact, it was only the British television industry that kept the genre alive, in the second half of the 1950s pumping out such series as The Buccaneeers, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, Sword of Freedom and The Adventures of William Tell. The 30-minute Robin Hood series ran in Britain on ITV in 1955-1959 and was picked up by CBS in 1958

This Presbook was a fold-out, the initial A4 sheets pulling out to form a giant A2 sheet. Hammer was relying on the fact that by the time the movie appeared in America, the series was being shown on various television stations. Some of the marketing ideas were straightforward enough such as utilizing toy stores that would likely have swords and archery sets among its inventory and it would be easy enough to sent a promotional girl or man down a main street decked out in tights and leather jerkin.

But it was a bit of a long shot to expect a theater manager in a small town to host a fencing tournament. The stars were little help – Richard Greene had virtually no marquee value not having made a picture in five years until  his television success prompted Cold War thriller Beyond the Curtain (1960) but that was British-made with little American penetration. The public might be more familiar with bad guy Peter Cushing after his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and horror pictures The Brides of Dracula (1960) and The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958).

There might have been some mileage out of newcomer Sarah Branch as Maid Marian but she did not feature at all in the Pressbook. The marketeers appeared to be relying solely on the popularity of the Robin Hood legend and perhaps audience familiarity with old Errol Flynn pictures that popped up with regularity on television channels because, unusually for a piece of material that was meant to sell a picture to theater managers, this made remarkably little impact as a marketing tool beyond the fact that it was unavoidable in the middle of a weekly trade magazine.