05 July, 2008




I put on an interesting double bill recently: the new DVD of Freddie Francis' THE SKULL (1965) and the Image DVD of Jess Franco's THE NIGHT OF THE SKULLS [LA NOCHE DE LOS ASESINOS] (1973, the 1976 date on the box is incorrect). I guess I was in the mood for skulls that evening. More to the point, it's interesting how the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe hangs over both films, but in quite different ways.

THE SKULL was based on a Robert Bloch's story "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade", but plays like a Poe adaptation (I haven't read the story which may indeed have been heavily influenced by Poe) while Franco's elegant knock-off (made during a year in which he directed twelve features!) is actually credited as an adaptation of "EL GATO Y EL CANARIO" by Edgar Allan Poe! Of course, that story was written by John Willard, who isn't credited at all onscreen.

THE SKULL concerns the struggles of occult collector Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) to gain possession of the titular object which he learns from a sleazy antiques dealer (Patrick Wymark) is the skull of Sade. This is confirmed by his fellow collector Sir Matthew (Christopher Lee), from whom the dealer has stolen the item. Sir Matthew feels well rid of it and warns Maitland to discard it as soon as possible.

This is a tightly plotted (Amicus executive Milton Subotsky's script is a model of economy) Gothic tale which shears off into surrealism as in runs its course. Francis shows, rather than telegraphs, the ominous effect of the skull through a judicious use of voyeuristic set-ups from the first image of the 18th Century grave robbing seen through the bars of a cemetery gate to the last shots showing the police officials investigating Maitland's fate seen through the eye holes of the haunted skull.

Objects gradually take control of the characters in Francis' subverting mise en scene. Consciousness is a prize for a structuring absence of unseen cults operating through the inanimate. Finally being able to see this in 2.35:1 Techniscope reveals a parallel universe which is constantly visually oppressed by antique daggers, candelabra, sculpture, books, fussily arranged displays over which the skull, now able to move on its own, gradually asserts dominion. Francis (a two time Oscar winning DP) and his lighting cameraman John Wilcox really master their scope format arranging eerie compositions with the use of just a colored gel here and a modest special effect there. It's the kind of professional craftsmanship within limited resources which seems rather effortless. The results are equal to the best work that Mario Bava was doing at the same time in Italy.

Francis isn't as well regarded as a director as he was as the cinematographer of THE INNOCENTS and THE ELEPHANT MAN, but his best work, including 1965's HYSTERIA, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS and THE CREEPING FLESH (both 1973), and this film, suggest that he was a carefully guarded surrealist who knew how to make nightmares look and feel alarmingly real. Two sequences, Maitland's ad-hoc "trial" and his long, final psychic duel with the skull, play almost dialogue free and are all the more effective as pure cinema.

Cushing is in top form, carefully charting the spiritual deterioration of his character, commanding our focus amidst the impressive supporting cast including Lee, Patrick Wymark (REPULSION), Nigel Green (COUNTESS DRACULA), Patrick Magee (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE).

"Earth to bury us...
Wind to scourge us...
Water to drown us...
Fire to burn us..."

Commencing with a reading of the above quote from The Book of the Apocalypse, LA NOCHE DE LOS ASESINO allows Jess Franco the chance to actually stage those Biblical phrases. His camera watches from a distance as a man is buried alive, a woman is tied to a rock on the ocean's shore, another woman is drowned while bathing, yet another is tied up and burned alive. It's all very atmospherically rendered in gas lit period locations.

THE NIGHT OF THE SKULLS is, like THE SKULL, a Gothic thriller, but that's where the similarities end. If THE SKULL captures Poe's feverish subjectivity, Franco's film in unusually dispassionate and impersonal, except for his trademark cameo. It's of one of the director's least delirious films and shows him working in a totally different style than the much more famous films he made in the same year, LA COMTESSE NOIRE and LA COMTESSE PERVERSE. There are few zoom shots and Javier Perez Zofio's camerawork is always in sharp focus, at least for a Jess Franco film. Willard's inheritance thriller provides him a chance to step back and frame his ensemble, including William Berger, Lina Romay, Antonio Mayans, Dan Van Husen, Luis Barboo and the always compelling Alberto Dalbes as they play cat and mouse with each other on a dark and stormy night inside the manse of the late Lord Marian.

The 19th Century settings, carefully composed in Techniscope, demonstrate that the director could make a well dressed commercial product when the need arose. Carlo Savina's score is lifted intact from Antonio Margheriti's superior CONTRONATURA (1969), a film in dire need of a proper DVD presentation.

The IMAGE DVD presentation of THE NIGHT OF THE SKULLS looks fine but I wish they had used the vintage Jano artwork for the cover.

(C) Robert Monell, 2008


Mich Ing said...

Thanks for your thoughtful review of this film which I liked on TV in old pan-and-scan and am eager to see in its 'Scope ratio.

I'm a bit puzzled by one of your sentences here - I've read it back and forth several times and can't make head or tail of it - I wonder if you would mind explaining?

"Consciousness is a prize for a structuring absence of unseen cults operating through the inanimate."


Robert Monell said...

Thanks, Mitch. And welcome to the blog. I was suggesting the cults who are mentioned in the dialogue who use the skull and such objects as a way to evil and how the skull enslaves the minds of those who possess it.

Anonymous said...

I've always loved Freddie Francis' The Skull and must watch it again. This and The Creeping Flesh really show that he could direct an excellent film. My favourite Amicus films tended to be the atypical ones like The Skull and Scream and Scream Again.

Robert Monell said...

Yes, he had a very eclectic directorial carrer, raning from the dire (TROG) to the very interesting THE SKULL; TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS.