Prior to The Deadly Bees, ex-cinematographer-turned director Freddie Francis helmed a great pair of thrillers for Amicus in 1965 – the horror anthology Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, and the goofy The Skull, based on a story by Robert Bloch.
The basic tale of the Marquis De Sade's skull capable of possessing vulnerable spirits and forcing them into committing acts of murder as well as self-harm is fairly silly, given De Sade was a basically bored rich pervert with a literary flair and penchant for shocking the bored bourgeoisie, and spent a good chunk of his final years writing warped, epic, and very dull narratives to ease the sexual tension as he grew fat and old in jail.
Milton Subotsky's adaptation is simple, and tosses in an obvious dream sequence in the midsection to pad the film a bit more, since all the evil skull shenanigans pretty much lead to a doom and gloom finale. The opening third is the best, mostly because it nicely layers the strange friendship and quiet respect between two occult collectors (Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), and the De Sade relics that slowly seep into Cushing's mind and gradually convince him that friends, colleagues, associates, and his wife (Jill Bennett, from The Criminal, and For Your Eyes Only ) are worthy sacrifices for the might skull.
The film's best moments involve bits of murder, mayhem, and weirdness, and director Francis has fun playing with wild lighting schemes anchored around primary colours; the film's visual flair, lensed in gorgeous 2.35:1 by John Wilcox (Au Pair Girls, Shatter), isn't Bava-like, but there's some interesting similarities where Francis uses red and green lighting in dim sets, as well as a set of stained glass ceilings through which a greedy landlord enjoys a spectacular tumble.
Also of note is the skull-cam through which the skull's POV (never mind it's an empty cranium) is presented though ragged, bony eye sockets; one has to presume Cushing is unaware of the skull's ability to pivot, but the increasing mobility of the bony thing sets up the eventual ‘flying skull' that chases Cushing through the house (just ignore the four strings that keep it buoyant). It's actually a shame The Skull wasn't intended for 3-D, because there's some wonderful shots that would've been on par with the shocks in Andre De Toth's House of Wax (1953).
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Hammer/Amicus/Tigon films is the incredible cast nestled into this humble film. Besides Cushing and Lee playing well-defined roles that have nothing to do with fangs, brain transplants, or linen funeral wrappings, there's Patrick Magee (from Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death) as a weak-minded detective, powerful Nigel Green (Peter Medak's The Ruling Class) as Magee's superior, and gravel-voiced Patrick Wymark (Journey to the Far Side of the Sun) as the slimy relic peddler who offers Cushing De Sade's snappy skull.
Legend's DVD comes with a trailer that spoils every major shock sequence, so be sure to avoid seeing it until afterwards. The film transfer is fairly clean, and sports a decent mono mix through which Elisabeth Lutyens' score provides the right creepy ambiance.
An elegant B-movie with some deliciously bizarre imagery.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan