Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released in January, 1958
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)