Directors: Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis
Legend Films

Based on the Barre Lyndon play “The Man in Half Moon Street” which had been made into a movie in 1945, Hammer added to their increasing roster of monster tales with 1959’s THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. The winning team of director Terence Fisher, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and cinematographer Jack Asher are once again united for another Technicolor Hammer horror that would bring the decade to a close, and although it’s a minor effort compared to some of its predecessors, it still has its merits. A much wanted crown jewel for horror fans (especially lovers of anything British and/or Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), the Amicus production of THE SKULL has previously been viewed in mostly panned and scanned transfers which totally detract from the filmmakers’ intentions. It was finally released on DVD in a widescreen format several years ago, as was THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH. Now both Paramount titles are being made available as double-disc Blu-ray package from Legend Films.

In Paris 1890, Dr. Georges Bonnet (Anton Diffring) is out murdering women when he isn’t wrapped up in his hobby of sculpting. Bonnet is actually 104 years old but keeps the youthful image and healthy body of a man in his 30s by cutting out the parathyroid glands of said women and utilizing them for his secret elixir. When Bonnet’s 89-year-old colleague Prof. Ludwig Weiss (Arnold Marlé) shows up and sees his much older friend appear much younger, he refuses to perform a vital operation on him, and that spells trouble. Another sensible and ethical doctor, Pierre Gerard (Christopher Lee) is blackmailed into performing the surgery after Bonnet endangers the life of the beautiful Janine Dubois (Hazel Court), a young woman who they are both vying for the attentions of, with Bonnet naturally in the lead, being the evil and deceitful one.

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH is another colorful and handsome Hammer production made at their tiny Bray Studios, but it's a dialog-driven affair with most of the proceedings taking place on several sound stages. Bernard Robinson’s sets are lavish, but too recognizably redressed from previous Hammer efforts (CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, etc.). The Dorian Gray-like horror antics are kept to a minimum but are highlighted by Jack Asher’s effective lighting on Bonnet when he’s on the brink of turning monstrous, or when the camera probes from the inside of his secret elixir cabinet, which glows outwardly in a florescent green. Providing the film’s score in a position often reserved for James Bernard is Richard Rodney Bennett, whose successful career would lead to three Oscar nominations and eventual Knighthood. Roy Ashton’s excellent decaying make-up is generously displayed during the film’s fiery climax.

As Bonnet, Anton Diffring is perfectly cast in the villainous role, and gothic horror suits him well. He would top himself the following year in the memorable CIRCUS OF HORRORS, but his subsequent genre roles were usually of the supporting kind, and he didn’t return to Hammer until 1973 (he had a small role in SHATTER). Many forget that Diffring essayed the role of Baron Frankenstein for Hammer in their black & white 1958 TV pilot, “Tales of Frankenstein,” but Diffring will probably remain known for appearing as various German soldiers rather than as a horror icon. Christopher Lee is very good here as Pierre Gerard, proving early on in the horror cycle that he offered more than lumbering monsters or speech-deprived vampires. A bonafide “scream queen” of the highest degree, the late Hazel Court is given less to do here than in some of her other genre efforts, and she reportedly was filmed topless (during a nude modeling sequence) for a “continental” version which is yet to resurface. A number of other familiar Hammer character actors are present here, including Francis De Wolff and Charles Lloyd Pack.

THE SKULL: In 19th century France, a phrenologist (Maurice Good) acquires the skull of the Marquis de Sade, giving it a bath of acid to remove any skin or remains. Believing the skull might answer some questions about de Sade’s madness, the phrenologist is soon brutally murdered, with the same fate brought upon anyone who comes across the evil object. In present day (1965) England, researcher and collector Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) is sold a human skin-bound autobiography of de Sade by a shady dealer Marco (Patrick Wymark). When Marco returns the following day claiming that the skull he is trying to peddle is that of de Sade, Maitland is reluctant of its authenticity. Friend and fellow collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) assures him that it is the real deal, as it was actually stolen from him, and he warns Maitland not to make the purchase. Maitland becomes more and more obsessed with the skull, and it eventually comes into his possession, but the warnings of his friend reign true; it is pure evil, bringing on a nightmare world of violence and cruelty.

Although Amicus would be best known for their series of anthologies (this was the next production they made after DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS), THE SKULL remains one of their finest single story outings and an exemplary 1960s genre work. Co-producer/screenwriter Milton Subotsky adapted Robert Bloch’s eight-page story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade” effectively, and although some feel the film drags in spots, the very capable direction of Freddie Francis shines through. Francis’ experience as a cinematographer allows his imagination to flow here, with perspective shots through the skull’s head (a technique he would use in THE CREEPING FLESH years later) and several surreal nightmarish sequences being a highlight. With the help of art director Bill Constable, THE SKULL embodies a chilling sense of darkness and solitude, and though the film’s lower costs meant for limited sets, this only amplifies the aura. Another memorable asset is the appearance of the skull as a willful floating demon, though the strings holding the thing in place are at times easily visible.

As the determined collector of the unique and unusual, Peter Cushing is great as Maitland, and the film is one of his best vehicles of the 1960s, as he really is the star of the show and the story evolves around his character. Receiving “guest star” billing, Cushing’s cinematic mate Christopher Lee has a much smaller role, but thankfully he shares most of his screen time with Peter. The chemistry is undeniable, and the duo have a nice bit where they are relaxing over a game of billiards, discussing the Marquis de Sade’s deadly cranium. As usual, Amicus was able to secure a supporting cast of some of the finest British thesps of the time, even if some of them are only seen briefly. Also in the film are Jill Bennett as Maitland’s neglected wife, Nigel Green as a raincoated police inspector, Patrick Magee as a police surgeon, George Coulouris as a 19th century skull victim, Michael Gough as an auctioneer, Peter Woodthorpe as a sleazy landlord and Anna Palk (THE FROZEN DEAD) as a pretty maid.

Legend Films’ 2008 DVD release of THE SKULL looks terrific, and this Blu-ray is even better. The 1080p HD transfer presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s a pleasure to witness the compositions the way they were meant to be seen, and the palette is true to the original Technicolor, with fleshtones especially life-like (the pores and sweat on the close-ups of Cushing’s face), and detail is excellent. The scatterings of specs on the print source will not detract from one’s enjoyment of the fine presentation. The mono English audio is very clear as well. THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH carries its 1.66:1 aspect ratio with a 1080p HD transfer. After a rather dark credit sequence (which has Bonner roaming the foggy Paris streets in search of glands), the transfer has good detail, with colors looking much more distinct and less muted than in the DVD presentation. Grain appears more evident in the Blu-ray though, and there is some film dirt and debris on display. The mono English audio track is in decent shape, and aside from several crackles and pops, sounds nice and clear throughout. One sour note about THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH; at least on two different copies of the Blu-ray we viewed, there’s a bit of sporadic freezing during the opening sequence. Either we got a hold of bum discs or there’s a defect in the pressing. Also, the DVD of THE SKULL featured an anamorphic trailer, while nothing of the sort is present here. There are no subtitle options, and the discs are not close captioned. (George R. Reis)