Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and a Skull. The appropriately named The Skull might be a little baggy at each end but there’s a stretch in the middle where it’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen. Apparently the delirious atmosphere is partly accidental – the script was only 40 pages and required heavy visual padding. This explains the poor pacing at times, but it’s ultimately what makes the film great. Long, wordless passages and diversions into dream logic makes it genuinely unsettling, but also gleefully camp.
To begin with it’s British horror as usual, aristocrats and books, the pleasant but foreboding atmosphere of M.R. James. In this case, the object that the characters all want to simultaneously get hold of and get rid of is the possessed Skull of the Marquis De Sade. Yes, that’s actually the plot. The Skull exerts a great power, leaving a shell-shocked Christopher Lee shouting unheeded warnings at the all too curious Cushing over billiards. A sharp change in tone turns the film into a breathtaking Kafkaesque nightmare – a term that’s frequently misused but trust me, there really is no better word for what we see. Director Freddie Francis surely took heavy influence from Welles’ The Trial just a few years earlier, and added colour.
It’s not just a theatrical use of colour (and everything else) that foreshadows the Italian Giallo genre. The Skull is full of Dario Argento’s fetishises in particular. There’s a fall from the top floor of an apartment building into a geographically confusing stained-glass ceiling that couldn’t be more Argento if it tried, a full decade before he was making films.
The artificiality, the wild tonal shifts, the awkward repetition to fill time, all just add to the nightmarish tone. That’s not to say it’s a particularly scary film. The horror aspects are quite ridiculous, relying mainly on drawn out shots of a skull sitting on a table or floating through the air. But that’s what makes it so much fun. For me, it perfectly captures the spirit of Halloween: Having fun with things that otherwise frighten us.