Join us every Monday, as we look at a cult movie. Our film of the week this time pits Peter Cushing against the skull of the Marquis de Sade!

Poster for The Skull

Director: Freddie Francis

Available on region one DVD
Watch the trailer here

“STAY AWAY FROM THE SKULL OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE!” As rules to live by go, it’s a good one, up there with “don’t mix beer and wine” and “never wear purple”. Unwisely, Peter Cushing pays no mind when Christopher Lee declaims this ominous warning. This come as no great surprise. Cushing’s sceptic, Christopher Maitland, is a collector of occult curiosities. Advising him not to buy the braincase of history’s most infamous sadist is like asking a millionaire fanboy not to buy a boxed vinyl-cape Jawa…

The Skull will make you chuckle. Some of the exposition is shamelessly unsubtle, for one thing. Early on, Maitland’s sleazeball supplier of half-inched antiquities brings him The Big Skinbound Book Of The Marquis de Sade; we’re treated to a potted biography as he flicks through the illustrations, which look like they were knocked up by the prop man in his lunch hour. And though we’re told the skull can kill (“The man’s jugular vein was bitten clean through!”), we don’t actually see it do anything more hair-raising than teleporting onto the mantelpiece, or setting the curtains a-billowing.

Made by Amicus (best known for portmanteau chillers like Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors), and based on a slender tale by Robert “Psycho” Bloch, The Skull succeeds against the odds. It really shouldn’t work. The scenario plays itself out in an entirely predictable manner, as Maitland falls under the malefic influence of the skull and is driven to kill – though not to partake of anything pervy. This is surprising given De Sade’s proclivities, but something of a relief, given the cast. Let’s be frank: no-one wants to see Peter Cushing’s orgasm face.

If Milton Subotsky (screenwriter, and Amicus co-owner) had got his way, there would have been a hint of kink, with Cushing flogged by two torturers in a dream sequence. But at this time scripts had to be submitted to the British Board of Film Censors. Predictably, these tut-tutting guardians of public decency disapproved, and Cushing was spared the lash. Though toned down, the dream sequence remains, and provides the highlight of the film, as Maitland is arrested, taken before a finger-wagging judge, and forced to play Russian roulette. It ends with our hero trapped in a bright red chamber, as mysterious gas hisses out of vents, and the walls close in on him…

That sequence is just one of many that plays out without dialogue. This was less a matter of strategy and more to do with the fact that when it came to screenplays, Subotsky was of the, ahem, minimalist school. One has to feel for director Freddie Francis, presented with a slender 53 pages, and to admire for him turning a pig’s ear into, well… maybe not a silk purse, but at the very least a serviceable wallet. Francis, an Oscar-winning cinematographer who, as a director, rather became pigeonholed in horror, enlivens a rote script with his visual flair. When the skull’s stolen from de Sade’s grave, we’re treated to an impossible point-of-view shot from through the coffin lid, as the dirt is scraped away. And when the skull starts hovering about Maitland’s study, we’re treated to shots from its perspective, with Cushing framed in the eye sockets. Admittedly, it looks rather like they’ve cut a couple of holes in an egg box and glued it to the lens, but still: top marks for effort.

But the film’s real secret weapon is Peter Cushing. Most of the last fifteen minutes consists of Cushing wordlessly facing off against a prop. The dramatic peak comes as Maitland struggles not to plunge a sacrificial dagger (which resembles something an indolent sheikh would use to spear a chunk of Turkish Delight) into the snoozing form of his improbably young wife. Fortunately, she’s wearing a glinting crucifix. What follows is a kind of supernatural variant on rock paper scissors, which climaxes in crucifix blocking skull. It’s a moment of utter nonsense, but Cushing’s mounting panic and fear totally sell it. The man was incapable of a poor performance, and this one proves that he doesn’t require so much as a single line to command your rapt attention.

Ian Berriman, reviews editor of SFX and cult movie nut, has watched Jess Franco’s Female Vampire four or five times, but never seen Casablanca. The nutter.

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