Dr. Maitland is collecting esoterica, and one day the guy who is his regular source of such items offers him a skull that is supposedly the remains of Marquis de Sade. He soon discovers that the skull is possessed by an evil spirit who turns people into crazed killers.
The Marquis de Sade was a French nobleman born in 1740, and even those who don’t know about him will most likely know the words derived from his name: sadism and sadist. He wrote several novels, plays, and short stories, and is most known for his erotic works depicting sexual fantasies with a strong focus on violence. The Marquis became infamous due to his sexual crimes and abuse against young men, women, and even children. He was arrested and imprisoned multiple times, including in the Château de Vincennes, where he successfully appealed his death sentence. There, he remained imprisoned (despite an escape attempt). During the rest of his life he resumed to his writing, and during the last four years of his life (until his death in 1814) he began a sexual relationship with 14 year old Madeleine LeClerc, daughter of an employee at Charenton. After his burial, his skull was removed from his grave for phrenological examination. No one knows what happened to the skull after that, so there’s a little bit of historical info serving as the basis of the inspiration for this film.
The movie starts off with a gravedigger opening Marquis de Sade’s grave, chops off the corpse’s head with the spade and takes it home with him. After using chemicals to remove all the flesh and skin, he soon becomes the skull’s first victim. Of course, the skull comes into the hands of Marco, who is providing Dr. Maitland (Peter Cushing) with the esoterica he’s eager to buy for this collection. Sir Matthew Phillips (Christoper Lee) tries to warn him about the skull’s evil abilities, but of course, his warnings go unheeded.
The Skull serves as a good example of 60’s horror, and with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in the major roles it’s a little surprising that it hasn’t attracted more attention. The possessed skull and its levitation and movements with occasionally visible strings can probably be seen as a tad bit cheesy by today’s standards, but that’s just part of the old-fashioned charm of horror films like this. The effects of the Skull itself is a big part of the entertainment of this film, and during Dr. Maitland’s descent into madness due to the skull’s influence on him, there are some pretty tripping scenes.
Now, with the Marquis de Sade as the main focus of the film, you might expect more references to the erotic aspects (of which there aren’t any) but remember that this movie came out during a time where the censoring was pretty strict, so that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Overall, it’s well worth a watch, especially if you want to see the combined talents of Lee and Cushing. And, of course, if you want to watch a floating skull with visible strings attached to it!
Director: Freddie Francis
Country & year: UK, 1965
Actors: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, Peter Woodthorpe, Michael Gough, George Coulouris, April Olrich, Maurice Good, Anna Palk, Frank Forsyth, Paul Stockman, Geoffrey Cheshire, George Hilsdon