Friday, June 18, 2010

The Screaming Skull (1958)

Recent DVD and theatrical releases of movies by Dario Argento have started me thinking about that oddball breed of cinema we know as "cult movies," or "guilty pleasures." I'm one of those people who don't usually use the latter term because if I enjoy a movie I don't see any reason I should feel guilty about it. Hell, if I felt the need to apologize every time I enjoyed The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or a Wheeler and Woolsey comedy, I'd be more weighed down by guilt than Judas Iscariot wearing an SS uniform while clubbing baby seals with a burning cross.

Actually, not all guilty pleasures are cult movies. To be a cult movie, a picture has to be appreciated by a number of people and is generally thought to be "so bad it's good," making cult movies at least a subset of camp. Guilty pleasures—or as I like to call them, "what I watch on Friday nights"—may be totally unrecognized by others and don't have to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever beyond the perhaps perverse pleasure they provide for me personally.

I've thought many times that I'd like to write a series of pieces—part reviews, part criticisms, part appreciations, part apologetics—on these movies from closer to the bottom of the cinematic barrel in hopes of scamming, uh, encouraging you to cultivate your inner movie slob. No, seeing every new Adam Sandler movie on its first weekend of release doesn't count. That's just conformist bad taste and I know you can do better than that.

Let's begin 50 years ago, at childhood, that time in life when a person's tastes—good and bad—are formed. The theater is The State, on the square of the small Texas town in which I grew up. The State played "B" movies and, on Saturday mornings, pictures in Spanish for the farm workers who came into the city for a few hours. But what I loved there best were horror movies like …

The Screaming Skull (1958)

You can tell which schlockfest "B" horror movies manipulate the basic accoutrements of the genre best by the degree to which they scare the bejeezus out of small children, and one of the things that has great power to create a seat-wetting problem is the human skull. You don't even have to give the ridges over the eyes that Harryhausen touch to make them look more sinister, but it can't hurt.

I had just turned nine when I saw The Screaming Skull for the first time, and it scared the breath out of me. Fifty years later I can still remember being so frightened I couldn't yell. Ah, those were great times … Macabre came along later that same year, with House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both 1959) soon to follow. We adolescent horror hounds, readers of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" all, were convinced that William Castle was the greatest filmmaker of all time. Even Psycho (1960) couldn't pull us away as it was a little too adult—but we still read everything by Robert Bloch we could get our sweaty little hands on.

I don't know if journeyman actor Alex Nicol, who directed The Screaming Skull in an effort to expand his career possibilities, could have beaten Castle into our hearts had he continued to make shockers. (Can you imagine a grown man still considering such a question? Neither can I.)

I've re-visited TSS several times over the decades. It used to show up on late night TV with some regularity, until even the tube outgrew such hack work, and more than one DVD distributor carries it in the catalogue. No, the original fear is long gone—I wish I knew a nine-year old I could convince to watch it in a dark room just to check out the reaction—but the memory is intact.

In the film, a newly wed couple come to the house the groom lived in with his former wife, the haunting Marion, who died in a sudden thunderstorm when she slipped on a wet leaf and stumbled by the lily pond, cracking her head open on a stone wall and then drowning. I'd think that this plot construct was an accidental reference to Ibsen's Rosmersholm except for the fact that composer Ernest Gold—yes, the same man who would win an Oscar for scoring Exodus in 1960—borrows the same brooding Sabbat theme from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique Stanley Kubrick used in The Shining (1980).

Maybe this movie is smarter than it has any right to be. John Kneubuhl, who would later write the "Pigeons From Hell" episode of Boris Karloff's TV program Thriller, wrote the script based on the legend of the screaming skull of Bettiscomb Manor, in England.

But setting references to classier stuff aside, Eric and Jenni Whitlock attempt to settle into the house. As he introduces her to the grounds, Jenni spots a small outbuilding and asks what it is.

"That's where Mickey keeps his gardening things," Eric replies.

"Who's Mickey?"

"The gardener."

Or maybe the movie isn't any smarter than it has to be. But you know that feeling you sometimes get, the feeling that the filmmakers are playing around a little because they know the kids that make up their audience aren't going to get it, anyway? TSS engenders that feeling often.

Soon, Marion's great friends, Reverend and Mrs. Snow, drop by for dinner and via some pretty unsubtle dialogue we learn that a) Mickey is still devoted to Marion and thinks her ghost haunts the house and grounds, b) Jenni had a nervous breakdown and was committed to a sanitarium when her parents were killed in an automobile accident, c) she is wealthy, and d) John Hudson, as Eric, is either the most ham-handed actor of the 1950s or he has been directed to make it clear to even the most naïve members of the audience that he wants to gain control of his new wife's fortune.

Later that night, Jenni awakens to discover that Eric is missing, a window is banging in the wind, and Marion 's self-portrait looks creepy in the moonlight. The next night, this scenario is replayed, only this time Jenni finds a skull in a cabinet. She tosses it out the window, but on her way back to bed she hears a knocking on the door and, yes, it turns out to be the skull.

It's not much of a spoiler to admit that Eric is behind all the, uh, skullduggery, but whether or not there is a real ghost on his trail I will leave to you to discover for yourself. If you've ever read a pulp magazine weird menace story, or watched an episode of "Scooby-Doo," you'll have no trouble figuring out the late night mumbo-jumbo.

Hudson, who was Capt. Hobart in G.I. Blues (1960) and Virgil Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) was certainly a better actor than this script calls for, and I suspect he was playing the evil genius with deadpan irony. Peggy Webber, as Jenni, looks a bit too robust to make a convincing Mrs. de Winter clone. Like almost every other actor in the film, she found her greatest success on TV. Leading roles in movies were out of the question—bless her, she looks like Nicholas Cage in drag, but with heftier boobs.

Russ Conway, who had unremarkable roles in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967) gives Rev. Snow a quiet, patient demeanor even though he looks fit enough to beat the crap out of Eric. Tony Johnson, as his wife, has no other credits on IMDB.

Director Alex Nicol, who plays Mickey, will be better remembered from his small roles in movies, including The Man from Laramie (1955). He later went to Europe to take part in the spaghetti western boom, coming home for a turn as George Barker in Roger Corman's Bloody Mama in 1970.

In TSS he shows a nice camera eye for the clichés of the genre. His camera roams the empty halls of the house, creeping up on certain doors and importing to them a sense of dread that makes us both want to enter and run screaming away. I suspect that the movie would still work its dark magic on young kids, but many of them would be repelled by the questionable acting and black and white photography.

The film exists as a link between gothic chapbooks, dime novels, spooky radio shows, the pulp horror magazines and EC comics, and TV horror shows like Thriller and The Twilight Zone. Moments in it seem to have influenced Freddie Francis' The Skull (1965), which, since it was based on a story by Robert Bloch, takes us back to where we started.

The Screaming Skull can't possibly scare adults, and unless you saw it when you were young it won't have any nostalgia appeal. But honestly, I've known several grown-ups who did see it back in the day, and they all remember it fondly as one of the scariest movies they've ever seen. Maybe we should let it go at that.