PETER CUSHING - Christopher Maitland, Christopher Lee - Sir Matthew Phillips, Jill Bennett - Jane Maitland, Patrick Wymark - Anthony Marco, George Coulouris - Dr. Londe, Nigel Green - Police Inspector Wilson, Peter Woodthorpe - Mr. Travers, Michael Gough - Auctioneer, April Olrich - French Girl, Maurice Good - Phrenologist, Frank Forsyth - Judge, Patrick Magee - Police Surgeon, Paul Stockman - First Guard, Geoffrey Cheshire - Second Guard, Jack Silk - Driver, George Hilsdon - Policeman
Director - Freddie Francis, Producers - Milton Subotsky & Max J. Rosenberg, Screenplay - Milton Subotsky, Based on The Skull of the Marquis de Sade by Robert Bloch, Director of Photography - John Wilcox, Editor - O. Hofferstein, Production design - Bill Constable & Scott Sliman, Music - Elizabeth Lutyens, Special effects - Ted Samuels
An AMICUS Film
Between Professor Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), and his lifelong friend, Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee), there has always existed the kind of rivalry which can only be found among collectors. Sharing a common interest in witchcraft and black magic, they often find themselves in competition for collectors' pieces.
Maitland, however, is puzzled when, in an attempt to purchase some satanic figures at an auction, his friend bids an excessive amount. Phillips explains that something seemed to have taken possesion of him and forced him to make the bid.
Later that evening, Maitland has a caller - Marco (Patrick Wymark), a shifty character who is obviously resented by both the maid (Anna Palk) and Mrs. Maitland (Jill Bennett). Marco, however, insists that he has something that Maitland would like to see.
Marco informs Maitland that he considers him his favorite client. He produces a volume, apparently bound in vellum. Maitland jibs at the price, until Marco tells him that the binding is not vellum - it is human skin - a woman's skin. Maitland is intrigued and purchases the book.
The following evening Maitland settles down to read the volume. He is interrupted once again by Marco, who announces that he has a unique collector's piece to offer. It is a skull. The price is a thousand pounds. Maitland retorts that no skull is worth that amount, but Marco tells him that this is no ordinary skull, it is that of the Marquis de Sade, stolen from his grave in France in 1814 by a phrenologist who, wishing to study it to decide if the Marquis was really insane, was himself found dead the next morning.
The skull was brought to England in 1850. When he refuses to pay the money, Maitland is surprised to find that Marco seems anxious to dispose of the skull for half the price. He still refuses and Marco angrily leaves.
Alone, Maitland is absorbed in the life story of de Sade. He is hypnotized by what he reads, and appears to have a series of terrifying nightmares, from which he emerges to find himself in the dingy apartment of Marco. He returns home, unable to remember how he got to Marco's.
But the possession of the skull is uppermost in his mind, and during a game of billards with Sir Matthew Phillips he confides to his friend. "That skull was stolen from me," Phillips confesses, but says he is glad. It radiated evil, and he advises Maitland to have nothing to do with it.
Ignoring his friend's advice, Maitland goes once again to Marco's home. He finds Marco dead. The skull lies leering at him from a corner of the room. The temptation is too great - he must have the skull. But the minute he has it in his possession, he faces disaster. Against his will, he becomes the victim of evil and is engulfed in a morass of crime, proving that the vileness of the man whose name to this day remains a symbol of all that is worse in human nature, still reaches out from beyond the grave.
Well known character actor Patrick Magee, who as a police doctor in "The Skull" was in fact currently appearing in London's West End playing the notorious Marquis himself in the Marat-Sade Play at the Aldwych Theatre. This Peter Brook stage production created a storm of controversy when it opened in London and was bitterly attacked as a "sordid and dirty" play by many critics who included the famous impressario Emile Littler. Despite this, it continued to attract large audiences and is expected to open in New York very shortly.
A DASH OF BEAUTY
April Olrich, cabaret star and actress, provides the glamour in the macabre setting of "The Skull". Her career began in the United States when, at the age of 11, she became 'baby' ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera House ballet. As the only female in the cast of "The Battle of the River Plate," she did a publicity tour of the United States, traveling from coast to coast, covering a distance of 22,301 miles. "The one mile," explains April, "was the only distance I walked - from the hotel to the waiting car."
EXPERT MAKES NO BONES ABOUT "THE SKULL"
Much is written about the beauty of female film stars, handsome leading men, excellent performances given by talented actors and actresses, but where would they be without the 'backroom boys'? - the technicians, artists and designers who provide the background to the romantic story or the chilling plot?
The skull had to dominate every scene, gliding from place to place and creating an atmosphere of menace and foreboding. This situation presented some difficulties for art director Bill Constable and his staff when the Paramount film "The Skull" was due to be shot at Shepperton Studios.
"I knew that the skull had to move about, that it was white or light ivory, and I had therefore to keep the walls dark. I had black painted woodwork everywhere and dark blue wall paper so that we could see it at any time. Practically the whole picture was shot on one composite set - five rooms and a corridor. There also had to be recesses in rooms where lamps could be hidden without being noticeable. In one scene, Peter Cushing was trapped in a small room with the walls closing in on him. The walls had to be built on tracks and pushed in. My biggest worry was that the crew pushing them in would stop in time!"
How does an art director start to design the background for a story? "I read the script," says Bill Constable, "and then make rough sketches of how I see the set. Then I consult with the director who might suggest modifications to meet the movements he has in mind for the actors to make, usually he accepts the mood of the thing."
A skull that floats seems to present no particular problem for Bill and the special effects men. In "Dr. Terror's House of Horrors" they had to provide a "creeping vine" - a plant which actually grew before your very eyes...a "crawling hand." "Horror films particularly" says Australian-born Bill Constable, "call for a good deal of ingenuity and thought."
HORROR IN A MODERN SETTING
Usually horror films are set in the era of gaslight, hansom cabs, and eerie mansions of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the star of the film is arrayed in costume of the day. In the Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg production of "The Skull", the setting is present day and for the first time in a horror film, Peter Cushing wears contemporary cloths and is clean shaven. "I wonder if the audience will recognize me?" he asks.
PRODUCER MILTON SUBOTSKY BELIEVES PEOPLE ENJOY BEING SCARED
Fast-talking, quick thinking Milton Subotsky does not fit the general conception of an American film producer. A non-smoker, non-drinker, his appearance does not in any way betray his profession. New York born, but a Londoner by adoption, he was trained as a chemical engineer but his mecca was always the world of entertainment. Had he not become a film producer he would have made an ideal teacher. His patience with children is inexhaustible although he is, surprisingly enough, a bachelor. His ideas on education are revolutionary and unconventional and his greatest ambition is to make children's films. "Unfortunately there is little enthusiasm and a lack of financial backing for this project" says Milton - "except for Disney films."
Milton has definite ideas about horror films. "I like to make them" he says, "because in a horror film it is possible to tell the story in pictures rather than words. Also I like films of the imagination rather than of reality. Horror stories, children's stories, all lend themselves to being made into films of the imagination."
Top quality acting combines with skillful special effects to make this Techniscope-Technicolor production a horrific experience which audiences will long remember. "Dripping blood, pulsing hearts, men with their tongues ripped out - these sort of things do not constitute a horror film" says Milton. "They are merely nauseating and gruesome. A true horror film is the story of man versus the unknown. Sometimes the unknown wins, sometimes the man. It frightens people; and they like to be frightened, especially when sitting in the comfort and safety of their cinema seats. This I regard as real entertainment."
"Other things I have learnt how to do in the line of duty include snooker for The Skull, my Steve Davis contestant being Christopher Lee, who came to a sticky end on the green baize amongst an assortment of colored balls. I'd turned rather beastly and hit him over the head with something hard. The reason for this caddish trick eludes me, but I don't think it was because I was losing the frame" - PETER CUSHING
"The Skull" is definitely one of the more interesting horror films of the 1960s. It is a welcomed change of pace from the regular cast of movie monsters making the rounds. The Marquis de Sade, of course, was a real person which makes the film all the more creepy. Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate" was similar in plot to "The Skull" - collectors of the occult trying to obtain the ultimate collectible and the ultimate price that they pay to acquire it. Although "The Skull" features a much better cast (Cushing, Lee, Gough) and is more enjoyable.
The sets are great looking - very detailed and creepy when need be. A good Amicus film could easily rival one of Hammer's films. "The Skull" features a slower paced, more talkative film but is just as terrifying as the victims never realize in time the mortal danger that they are the subject of in the presence of Marquis de Sade's skull. The Cushing and Lee interaction is excellent. Rarely do the two actors get the chance to have their characters speak at length with each other - usually they are at odds with each other in a battle to the death.
Watch the 'Maitland' connection. Cushing's character is named Christopher Maitland - the name is a death sentence in an Amicus film. The use of the name was the product of Milton Subotsky's mind but no one knows if there was ever a real Maitland to inspire such a curse on a name. I had the opportunity to chat with Subotsky's son, Dimitri, and even he did not know the true reason.
The special effects in the film are well done. The bizarre nightmare sequence in which Cushing is forced to play Russian roulette and then thrown into a room with walls closing in and poison gas seeping through the vents is particularly frightening. One of the highlights of the film is the 'skull view' in which the moviegoer gets to 'see' through the eyes of the skull. This is an effective effect in that it gives a 'life' to the skull. The method would also be used by director Freddie Francis in Tigon's "The Creeping Flesh" (1972).
For fans of Peter Cushing this is a must see film. He has a lot of screen time as the film is almost a character study of his descent into the evil of the Marquis de Sade. Keep in mind that it is also not your usual happy ending - I won't give it away but the evil of the Marquis de Sade lives to see another day...
(Click on the pictures below to view fully)
"The Skull" Paramount pressbook
Peter Cushing: An Autobiography & Past Forgetting (1986/1988)