The Movie Night Diaries — The Screaming Skull
1958’s The Screaming Skull is a tasty morsel of gothic psychological horror. I say morsel, because — at 68 minutes — it is definitely a shorty. That 68 minutes includes the groan-inducing (but in a good way) two-minute introduction informing the audience that anybody who dies of fright during the film will have their funeral expenses taken care of by the film’s producers. After this introduction, the remaining sixty-odd minutes is a fun and scary film that will please fans of films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962).
John Hudson plays wealthy widower Eric Whitlock. Recently re-married to the comely Jenni (Peggy Webber) the two return to the estate that was formerly the home of Eric and the deceased Marian Whitlock. The director Alex Nicol plays Mickey, the dim and disturbed gardener who’s been tending the grounds since Eric left the home two years ago following the death of Marian. As soon as the couple has moved in, Jenni begins seeing skulls throughout the grounds that seem to have been placed there in order to frighten the couple away. But is it Mickey who’s determined to drive them away, or is the home really haunted by the ghost Marian? Or, perhaps, there is another person who has even more sinister motives that is terrorizing Jenni. The film’s brevity demands a quick resolution, but the film still manages a gothic atmosphere and a few good scares before the end credits roll.
I have probably gotten into this before, but I am a sucker for the gothic horror genre. I am always eager to see ways in which filmmakers or writers draw from gothic horror elements to craft a work of contemporary horror. Of course, a film from 1958 can hardly be called contemporary nowadays; however, Skull works on a number of levels that will reserve it a place alongside other canonical works of gothic horror film. The sprawling Whitlock estate might easily be mistaken for a 18th-century mansion, and Peggy Webber performs beautifully as our beleaguered heroine. The characterization of Nicol’s oddball gardener Mickey is a bit thin, but he serves the plot well. The premise is what grabbed me and led me to grab this one off the shelf: a mentally unstable new bride believes her new home to haunted by the widow of her new husband when mysterious skulls begin appearing on the grounds. It is really a neat idea and — barring a few budgetary shortcomings — the concept works well and the filmmakers manage an accomplished work of gothic horror.
Three out of five stars means: no gripe.
Directed by Alex Nicol
Written by John Kneubuhl
This film was given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment a number of years back, but you can check out the film and decide for yourself scot-free and legal via its page at the Internet Archive.