Re-teaming the Hammer dream duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee for a second time after Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors from the same year, you get the sense that the two horror stalwarts are on autopilot by this point – although this doesn’t make The Skull any less terrifying or terrific.
It helps that the pair are working with Dr Terror director Freddie Francis, Psycho author Robert Bloch and Amicus heads Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg. Although the acting is hammy as always, the script draws more on the Lovecraftian: after coming into possession of a human skull formerly owned by the Marquis de Sade that seems to attract dire consequences for whoever owns it, Dr Christopher Maitland (Cushing) proceeds to gradually lose his mind, all the while dogged by rival collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee).
The ‘less is more’ approach pays dividends; we’re never given a full explanation of the skull’s power, expected instead to be satisfied with the fact that it is just evil. And this is just fine, considering the nameless, wordless dread that it inspires. We don’t know it’s power; all we know is that it’s utterly deadly, and Cushing’s performance perfectly sells this to us.
It’s a role he has performed many a time, going from wry cynic to man out of his depth, but it still stands out as an example of why he was horror’s go-to straight man.
The only real criticism is that the middle part is slightly dull. Bookended by an excellent opening and a chilling, Hitchcock-esque climax, things tend to plod by, especially when Cushing isn’t there to make sure that everything’s ticking along.
It’s all in the cause of ratcheting up the tension, sure, but the impatient horror hound in us is barking at the screen, waiting impatiently until the next big scare.
In fairness, however, The Skull definitely delivers in this regard. Amicus never quite managed to match up to Hammer, but on this evidence it certainly gave it a good go.