(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
Alex Nicol tries his hand at directing The Screaming Skull, a 1958 horror cheapie based on a screenplay by John Kneubuhl. Shot over the course of six weeks on a shoestring budget at the Huntington Hartford Estate, this movie certainly doesn’t have the greatest critical standing. It was even featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, which provides a pretty good indication as to its worth.
But The Screaming Skull isn’t terrible. Honest. It’s mostly a mood piece, with Floyd Crosby’s surprisingly interesting cinematography dragging up all sorts of unsettling sights and Ernest Gold’s rattling score trouncing away with plonks of piano and jarring cymbals. It can be quite cacophonous at times, especially when the windows and doors start knocking on their own.
Newlyweds Eric (John Hudson) and Jenni (Peggy Webber) are moving into their new place, which just so happens to be the lavish country digs Eric lived at with his now-deceased first wife Marion. She croaked after hitting her dome on the edge of a pond on the estate grounds, but Eric’s just fine moving in all over again. Jenni has spent some time in a sanitarium, by the way, and she’s rich.
The gardener Mickey (Nicol) stalks around the property like he’s maintaining a shrine for Marion. After a series of inexplicable events, Jenni starts to believe that the ghost of Eric’s ex-wife is haunting her. Eric tells her that Mickey might be responsible because he’s touched in the bean, but Jenni believes that her own insanity is coming back to roost. All hell breaks loose when skulls start to turn up everywhere.
Nicol concerns himself with what goes bump in the night, at least initially. He has Webber’s Jenni traipse around the house in her negligée in search of that darn bumping sound. This presents an opportunity to both scare the bejesus out of the viewer and illustrate the otherworldly qualities of Webber in her underthings. That’s not a bad thing.
The various sounds and sights proceed to haunt Jenni throughout her first few days and nights at Eric’s pad and she becomes more than a little flustered. She does seek out the counsel of Mickey, who knows something. Something is funny about a portrait in the home, too, and Eric seems all but his doting best as he tries to take care of his new bride.
There is a considerable twist toward the end of The Screaming Skull that threatens to veer this runaway train into the path of a psychological thriller, but there’s also a ghost story that involves several skulls tossed in several different directions. One of them shows up on Eric’s car seat, while another swipes at him and pulls him into the lethal millpond.
Very little about The Screaming Skull qualifies as “good” horror, but the film does pack entertainment value in its structure and the qualified madness of its final act. It’s a blast watching different superimposed noggins chase Eric around, especially because he crawls back and forth on his supposedly enormous property and can’t come up with so much as a peacock to help him out.
But perhaps the best part of The Screaming Skull comes at the very beginning, with a William Castle-like proclamation that the producers of the movie would cheerfully provide a free burial to anyone who died of fright while watching. If that’s not a bang-up bargain, nothing is.