Distributed by American International Pictures (AIP), the kings of the drive-in picture THE SCREAMING SKULL is an independent no-budget effort that—like William Castle’s MACABRE released the same year—offered a free burial to anyone who died of fright (though in actuality, no insurance company was contacted). The gimmick here was not only hyped in the advertising campaign but also in the film’s pre-credit opening with its close-up on a open coffin with a pillow resting a note reading “Reserved For You” as a narrator warns that the film’s “impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect” and so on. The fun, old fashioned fright tactics of this cinematic slice of hokum now arrives on Blu-ray with unexpected bells and whistles, courtesy of Shout! Factory’s ever-productive Scream Factory arm.
Some two years after his wife Marianne’s death, Eric Whitlock (John Hudson, THE RACERS) arrives with his new bride Jenni (Peggy Webber, THE SPACE CHILDREN) to the empty estate he once shared with his dear departed. Jenni’s troubled history involves witnessing the drowning deaths of both parents as well as spending time in a sanatorium, and now she learns the tragedy of Marianne (she drowned in the garden lily pond after smashing her skull against cement) from the friendly visiting reverend Edward Snow (Russ Conway, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?). The childlike weirdo gardener Mickey (the film’s director Alex Nicol, THE NIGHT GOD SCREAMED) still speaks to dead Marianne (they were very close) by asking her self portrait to tell all the houseguests to leave and he also chit-chats with a skull he keeps buried under some pots in the greenhouse. Jenni tries to get friendly with Mickey by bringing flowers with him to Marianne’s gravestone (which features a life mask sculpture) but that doesn’t seem to do any good, and her nights are filled with fright. Banging doors, strange wailing (blamed on two lingering peacocks), and the appearance in a barren wardrobe (and later at the front door) of a skull all terrify poor Jenni. Since Marianne’s portrait remind Jenni of her own late mother (yes, this woman’s got issues), Eric decides to burn it in the backyard, and the skull once again appears under the ashes. Eric doesn’t see the skull, but Jenni sure does and she faints. Is someone trying to scare her out of her wits? You betcha, because she’s loaded with mula!
A gaslight thriller delivered as a gimmicky horror film with plenty of cornball scare tactics, THE SCREAMING SKULL is an undemanding, entertaining 68-minute time waster and was perfect fodder for the drive-ins (it played on a double bill with TERROR FROM THE YEAR 5000, as well as EARTH VS. THE SPIDER). Produced and written by playwright John Kneubuhl, this was the first directorial assignment for busy actor Nicol, and the extreme budget restraints has him as one of a total of five cast members (the fifth one being Tony Johnson as Mr. Snow’s wife). Further proof of this being a minimalist production is that it was shot without the use of a studio but rather on location in and around the unfurnished Huntington Harvard Estate (with the convenient plot reason for it being empty is that Marianne died before they could bring in new furniture). But the fact that the place is empty and without electricity (bring on the candlelight) actually makes for ample atmosphere, and some fine black & white cinematography by Floyd Crosby (who would later work on some of Roger Corman’s most lush Edgar Allan Poe adaptations). Even though Crosby trashed the film, his camera work (some of it gleefully meandering) compliments things with point-of-view nighttime panning shots of the huge, spooky house as well as such trick shots as the skull being superimposed over the tombstone’s life mask as well as over the self portrait. The skull itself is a cheap, easy prop that’s tossed around like a Nerf ball, seen bouncing down the staircase (like a slinky toy) and even biting a victim on the neck during the climax (the term “vampire woman” is actually used in the film’s trailer).
Although the film’s scares seem silly now, especially to younger viewers, you have to realize that for kids who saw this on TV in the 1960s and 1970s, this was the stuff of nightmares, especially the frantic climax and all its ghostly imagery. Of course, the images of curvy Peggy Webber roaming around in near-see-through lingerie or posing at one point in a white brassiere gave many an adolescent boy another kind of stimulation. If leading man John Hudson looks overly familiar, that’s because he’s the twin brother of William Hudson, star of THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN. Ernest Gold composes a typically spirited 1950s monster movie score (somewhat in the style of Gerald Fried, or at least the type of horror scores he was doing during this period) and he would later win an Oscar for the soundtrack to EXODUS (1960). Fans of an older age might be familiar with THE SCREAMING SKULL not just from TV broadcasts but also from the 10-minute Super 8 home movie edition from Ken Films (which was sold in both silent/subtitled and sound variants) featuring a great box which replicated the fetching poster art (the original of which is a masterpiece by Albert Kallis and thankfully on the cover of this Blu-ray).
THE SCREAMING SKULL is another one of those titles that has fallen into the public domain with countless (and I mean countless) budget companies releasing it on DVD in varying quality. Shout! Factory officially licensed the film from MGM several years ago, relegating it to a “Movies For You” (four movies on one disc) DVD collection released through Timeless Media. But now fans are finally given the real deal with this Scream Factory branded Blu-ray which looks fabulous. The film has been mastered in 1080p HD from a fine grain print in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The near-flawless presentation has the elements beautifully restored, with nary a blemish to be found. Grain is tight, well-rendered and completely natural looking. Contrast is exceptional, supported by a nicely modulated gray scale, while the image remains sharp throughout the presentation. Black levels are perfectly deep and white levels are stable and consistent. The audio is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, and it has adequately balanced dialogue, music and background effects. English SDH subtitles are also included.
Fans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” will be delighted to have the 1998 episode featuring THE SCREAMING SKULL here (1:31:17, standard definition) which is padded out with a 1957 episode of “The Gumby Show” entitled “Robot Rumpus”. The MST3000 ribbing comments and antics are painfully unfunny, but it give us a glance of how good the feature looks on Blu-ray when compared to this beat-up broadcast version. “This Film May Kill You! Making The Screaming Skull” (12:33) is an awesome new featurette made by Daniel Griffith and Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. Author/film historian Tom Weaver narrates the piece with background information (firmly championing the film) which features interviews with modern horror host Mr. Lobo, Larry Blamire (director of THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA) and fan/historian Mark Martucci. Best of all, actress Peggy Webber (now in her early 90s) is interviewed, as she recalls getting the script and being told it was a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA, that it became a horror picture during the production (and they didn’t know what the title would be until much later), and being three-months pregnant during the shoot, something which prevented her from doing a scene where she’s supposed to fall down the stairs. A nice still gallery (2:32) and cluster of trailers and TV spots for the film (3:07, of varying quality but we’re still glad they’re included) round out the supplements of this finely produced Blu-ray of a film you never thought would get this kind of grand treatment on the format. (George R. Reis)
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