The Skull is a 1965 British horror film directed by Freddie Francis for Amicus Productions, and starring the frequently paired horror actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, alongside Patrick Wymark, Jill Bennett, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee and Peter Woodthorpe.
It was one of a number of British horror films of the sixties to be scored by avant-garde composer Elisabeth Lutyens, including several others for Amicus. The script was written by Milton Subotsky, from a short story by Robert Bloch, “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade”.
In the 1800s, Pierre (Maurice Good), a phrenologist, robs the grave of the recently buried Marquis de Sade. He takes the Marquis’s severed head and sets about boiling it to remove its flesh, leaving the skull. Before the task is done, Pierre meets an unseen and horrific death.
In modern-day London, Christopher Maitland (Cushing), a collector and writer on the occult, is offered the skull by Marco (Wymark), an unscrupulous dealer in antiques and curiosities. Maitland learns that the skull has been stolen from Sir Matthew Phillips (Lee), a friend and fellow collector. Sir Matthew, however, does not want to recover it, having escaped its evil influence. He warns Maitland of its powers. At his sleazy lodgings, Marco dies in mysterious circumstances. Maitland finds his body and takes possession of the skull. He in turns falls victim as the skull drives him to hallucinations, madness and death.
- Peter Cushing as Dr. Christopher Maitland
- Patrick Wymark as Anthony Marco
- Christopher Lee as Sir Matthew Phillips
- Jill Bennett as Jane Maitland
- Nigel Green as Inspector Wilson
- Patrick Magee as Police Surgeon
- Peter Woodthorpe as Bert Travers, Marco’s Landlord
- Michael Gough as Auctioneer
- George Coulouris as Dr. Londe
- April Olrich as French Girl
- Maurice Good as Pierre, Phrenologist
The film was an attempt by Amicus to challenge Hammer Film Productions by making a full length colour movie. Once filming started, Freddie Francis rewrote much of Subotsky’s script.
Christopher Lee is billed as “guest star” in the film’s credits; he plays a supporting role, and, unusually, is not a villain.
The film’s final twenty-five minutes contain almost no dialogue.
When it was released in France, promotional materials had to be changed at the last minute by pasting a new title, Le crâne maléfique (“The Evil Skull”), over the original French title Les Forfaits du Marquis de Sade (“Infamies of the Marquis de Sade”) on posters and lobby cards, after legal action by the present-day Sade family.
In real life the Marquis de Sade’s body was exhumed from its grave in the grounds of the lunatic asylum at Charenton, where he died in 1814, and his skull was removed for phrenological analysis. It was subsequently lost, and its fate remains unknown.