Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

The Screaming Skull

The Screaming SkullCinema Monolith: 2/10
IMDb: 3.2/10
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide: *½ out of 4
The Motion Pictures: 2.5/5

Released in January, 1958
Not rated
68 minutes

Directed by Alex Nicol

Written by John Neubuhl

Cast: John Hudson, Peggy Webber, Russ Conway, Tony Johnson, Alex Nicol, a frog, two peacocks, and…the screaming skull!

Take two newlyweds with questionable backgrounds, add one brain-damaged gardener, a dash of deceased ex-wife, a reverend played by an actor who was also a reverend in The War of the Worlds, mix with a generous helping of ominous pond water, and what do you have? As you’ve no doubt already guessed, it’s The Screaming Skull, the subject of yet another cheesy horror movie mini-blogathon presented by Cinema Monolith and my friend Lindsey from the classic film blog site, The Motion Pictures.

This black-and-white suspense thriller, filmed on the ultra-cheap by actor-turned-director Alex Nicol, played out more like a psychological drama than a paranormal chiller, and at times reminded me of two superior ‘let’s drive a sane woman crazy’ films of the mid-1940s: Gaslight and My Name is Julia Ross. Here, a new bride dealing with some deep-rooted psychological issues suddenly must contend with what seems to be the ghost—or at least the bothersome grinning skull—of her husband’s ex-wife, who was tragically killed on the grounds of the mansion where she and hubby now reside. Welcome to your new home, darling!

And so the question thus becomes, will she survive the screaming skull, or will she be driven mad by these mysterious, heart-stopping hallucinations? Well, if you can stay awake to find out, the answer presents itself in the final fifteen minutes, which were by far the most exciting and compelling minutes of the film. Unfortunately, you have to sit through fifty-three other minutes to get there, a slow and eye-drooping process that had me antsy with impatience, hoping for something—anything—that would pick up the pace a bit.

And that’s what hurt this movie the most: a definitive lack of pulse, which was especially damaging to what’s supposed to be a fun- and scare-filled time at the movies. If you’re a first-time director, and you’re short on production value, and your actors aren’t quite household names, and your only location is a millionaire’s estate in a jungle-like setting, then you’d better be prepared to grab your thrill-seeking audience with a decent story, some snappy visuals, and a pace that never lets up. Sadly, that wasn’t the case, and there wasn’t much of a gratifying cheese factor to involve you, either.

With that in mind, I’ll admit The Screaming Skull still had a few things going for it, which might be enough to recommend a one-time viewing for you schlockmeisters out there. One was its heavy dose of darkened interiors and moody atmosphere, which transformed a nondescript Spanish plantation house into a Gothic mansion ripe for ghostly happenings. The other was an unexpected revelation, a twist in those final fifteen minutes that honestly took me by surprise, and had me sitting up from a near-slumber and thinking, Hey, what’s this all about? If the filmmakers had applied these brief sparks of imagination throughout, we might’ve had ourselves a watchable hour and eight minutes here.

One other notable aspect of the film, and probably the most well-known to 1950s horror fans, was the minute-long disclaimer which preceded the opening credits. Similar to the gimmick used for producer William Castle’s horror film Macabre, where theater patrons were given a $1,000 life insurance policy against death from shock, the producers of The Screaming Skull offered their viewers free burial services if anyone happened to die of fright while watching the movie! An interesting concept, but I wonder if the offer is still valid today, and what the producers meant exactly by ‘free burial services’…a shallow grave in a vacant lot near the railroad tracks?

I wish I could say I liked this more than I did, and though the preview trailer showed promise, hinting to ghosts and vampires and the living dead, the movie contained none of these things (unless you count that floating skeletal phantom wearing a dress), and overall there wasn’t much going on to keep me interested. And if you’re wondering, like I was, if that skull ever screams, well, you can put your mind at rest, because the skull does indeed eventually scream. However, I’d say the lead actress, Peggy Webber, did a hell of a lot more screaming than any haunted skull, and with a healthy set of lungs at her disposal, too. And yes, I am referencing both meanings of the term.  (2/10)

The Screaming Skull

24 comments on “The Screaming Skull

  1. That sounds like a pretty bad movie. Reminds me a bit of what it felt like to sit through Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and its even worse re-edit Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, except this one might have something that makes it worth sitting through.

    You know, if it’s any interest I did manage to start am Halloween-themed mini-blogathon of my own. I’ve only had two other people besides myself get involved and there’s only one day left before it ends, but perhaps you’d like to try and join in if you have some time. It’s pretty straight forward in theory and it does cover a different type of horror from what other people might often associate with the genre:

    • Todd Benefiel

      Believe it or not, I’ve seen Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, and I will agree that it’s boring as hell, and that The Screaming Skull is by far a more entertaining watch. I haven’t seen Prehistoric Women, though, so I’ll put any comparisons on hold until I do. I did find out that MST3K did their thing with The Screaming Skull, so I’ll be checking that out at some point as well.

      And thanks for the invite to your blogathon, but I’m already in a panic trying to write another review for another site by Friday. I wish I had more time for yours, because it sounds fun, but how about a nutshell, not-quite-horror version instead: I’d go after Ghatanothoa, the one whose image can cause instant death, and my team would be made up of Ben Affleck from Daredevil, Denzel Washington from The Book of Eli, Darryl Hannah (after trailer fight) from Kill Bill Volume 2, and finally, Donald Pleasance from The Great Escape. Thanks, John!

      • I guess I can understand that. To be honest the whole thing was a bit of a last-minute decision that with hindsight I wish I’d thought of sooner. However, if you like perhaps you’d like to check out my new, arguably far more ambitious and experimental blogathon. It’s a very challenging activity in which you’ll get to organize your own interstellar voyage, and with the extended deadline you won’t have to worry about being rushed:

      • Todd Benefiel

        Cool John, I’ll check it out! Thanks!

  2. Stu

    I love the idea that free burial services were offered for anyone dying of fright! That’s excellent. I wonder if that offer still holds today? (That said I don’t think I’ll check this out, though, even if it is only 68 minutes long.) Nice poster for this one!

    • Todd Benefiel

      I’d like to find out which distribution company holds the rights to the film, if anyone does, and tell them that someone I was watching this with passed away during the film’s frightening wrap-up, and we’d like our free burial, please. I wonder what kind of letter I’d get back! Lindsey liked this one more than I did, so maybe don’t discount it completely; your daily train ride is about an hour long, right? Hmmmm…

      • Stu

        I’m afraid those hours are reserved for high quality works of art like Eegah!

      • Todd Benefiel

        Then hop to it, man…you’re falling too far behind in the ‘reviewing schlock cinema’ race! Wait, on second thought, don’t hop to it…I need to catch up in the ‘reading Stu’s reviews’ race!

      • Stu

        I’m beginning to have nightmares at night about Netflix queues and Amazon Instant Video watchlists as it is!

      • Todd Benefiel

        You think you’ve got troubles? I have notes for over 90 movies I’ve watched waiting for me to put into review form, dating back to early 2013. I don’t watch movies anymore, since my digital recorder won’t hold over 99 audio files. I wish I had your nightmares!

      • Stu

        I think you might have to cancel Christmas! If you think you’ve got it bad, if I go back as far as 1980 I’ve got approximately 3,200 unwritten reviews to get through, and that includes five separate reviews of Krull alone, which I was obsessed with at the age of 7.

      • Todd Benefiel

        I’ve got that beat (I said, as I show everyone the scar on my arm at the galley table of the Orca): I’ve wanted to see Krull for a long time, yet even after I had Netflix for a couple of years, and just spent five months in San Diego having access to dozens of cable movie channels, I still didn’t take the time to watch it! I may have to buy the damn thing from Amazon. That and The Ice Pirates.

      • Stu

        We’re gonna need bigger blogs.

      • Todd Benefiel

        Damn, you’re good.

  3. Pingback: Horror Half-Week: The Screaming Skull (1958) | the motion pictures

  4. Lindsey

    We’ve lost our mojo, Todd! Once again, we diverge! I enjoyed this one a bit more than you did. The Castle-ish gimmick, the “spooky” music and the nightmare sequence won me over (not fully — this one won’t be entering the CotC hall of fame/shame — but I did like it).

    • Todd Benefiel

      I’m sure we’ll get on track again soon, Lindsey! Excluding those final fifteen minutes, I just couldn’t get past how slow it seemed to be moving, and even with a low budget, how it could’ve been improved upon in places. Still, I’m glad I watched it, free burial or no free burial!

      • Lindsey

        I actually restarted it after I figured the sound out (which took about 15 minutes). I definitely think it worked in my benefit to spend that time messing with the settings! It was really hard to pay attention to with all of that distortion.

      • Todd Benefiel

        I watched the YouTube version, so I don’t know if I had any audio options, but it seemed that every chat I found on the movie discussed its poor print and sound quality; a lot of DVD versions exist, but apparently none have good copies. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the Criterion edition!

      • Lindsey

        I’m sure it’s high priority for Criterion!

      • Todd Benefiel

        It’ll probably come out after the release of their 2-disc remastered edition of Trog.

  5. Julie Dunning

    Well I’m glad the skull finally screamed and you got your fill of “healthy lungs”! Sounds like you really schlocked yourself with this one! Think I’ll have to pass, but this was really fun reading!

    • Todd Benefiel

      You still have Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory to check out, so yeah, I’d say definitely watch that one over this one! And trust me, I’ll never get my fill of ‘healthy lungs’! Thanks again, Julie, for taking time out for a visit!

  6. Pingback: Reading List 31.10.2014 – Hyperfilm

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Review Totals

Movies Reviewed: 222

From the Monolith: 123

Movies by Decade

1920s – 0
1930s – 6
1940s – 19
1950s – 35
1960s – 34
1970s – 35
1980s – 33
1990s – 6
2000s – 13
2010s – 41

Movies by Genre

Action/Adventure – 40
Comedy – 35
Crime – 21
Documentary – 5
Drama – 24
Horror – 38
Musical – 1
Mystery/Thriller – 19
Romance – 3
Sci-Fi/Fantasy – 27
Western – 8

Movies by CM Rating

10 star – 10
9 star – 28
8 star – 35
7 star – 31
6 star – 22
5 star – 22
4 star – 23
3 star – 18
2 star – 18
1 star – 12
0 star – 3

Movies by MPAA Rating

Pre-1968 – 89
G – 1
PG – 32
PG-13 – 34
R – 58
NC-17 – 0
TV and Unrated – 8

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