The Screaming Skull (1958) — Terror in prop form

“Dead people don’t cry.”

Shalen’s rating: Zero out of one skulls that do not appear to actually be smashed in any way.

Shalen’s review: Ha ha ha haaaaaa. This film is bad, bad, badbadbad. Bad.

Back in 1958, the filmmakers attempted to imitate the success of the old Hammer horror flicks by drastically overpromoting a very low budget movie, but given that this film is generally forgotten, I am going to hazard a guess that they did not succeed. And unlike both the Hammer horror and Roger Corman’s Poe movies, this film does not start with a low budget and work around it with good acting and clever prop strategies.

No, they just took someone’s house, a plaster tombstone, and one plastic skull, and that was more or less it. I’m fairly sure none of the characters even wears more than one outfit (other than the female lead’s obligatory uncomfortable but cleavage-revealing nightgown), despite the film occurring over two days. I enjoyed the rich and velvety texture of the black and white, but that is available in many films which are far, far better than this one.

It has exactly the right amount of awkward pauses where you can insert your own dialogue, music, instructions to the cast, et cetera, and in fact I did this myself throughout the whole film. Yes, admittedly I do this throughout most films, but in this case even if there had been someone else present, they would not have been trying to shush me. They would probably have left during the disclaimer anyway.

Ah. The disclaimer. Yes. This film opens with a speech. During the solemn warning, the screen shows an ornate casket between two tall candlesticks. Then it slowly opens to reveal the neat cursive writing that says, “Reserved for you.” If this doesn’t tell you what kind of movie you are in for, you deserve what you get.

But if that wasn’t enough, we start with a frog sitting on a lily pad. Then bubbles rise all around it. It hops quickly away, and a skull bobs to the top of the pond. Cue titles, and cue hysterical laughter from yours truly as the malevolence of the unquiet dead is fully indicated by its ability to frighten hapless amphibians.

Then we move on to ridiculously saccharine newlyweds Eric and Jenny, walking around in front of their lovely house. Where, incidentally, Eric used to live with his previous wife, Marian. Oh, and newlywed Jenny is rich. And she has mental issues, because she used to have an Electra complex and then both of her parents drowned. At sea. In front of her.

And, as Jenny is quickly informed by the ever-helpful Reverend White, Marian did not die of natural causes, either. She bashed her skull open on the cement wall around the ornamental pond. Eric found her dead in the water, so to speak. But he’s over her now, and ready to move on to his new life with a slightly neurotic heiress.

Then, of course, Jenny starts hearing inexplicable shrieks while Eric is gone on “business,” and not all of them can be explained by the presence of peacocks. (Though I can say from personal experience that these birds do let forth a fairly horrible sound.) Then she finds the titular skull in a cupboard, on the lawn, et cetera, and we’re off to the races. Of course no one else ever sees it, so she begins to question her sanity, and Eric makes excuses not to move away, and so on.

You see where this is going, yes? It’s not so very difficult to guess the ending. Let me just say that a man pretending to be attacked by nothing but a skull is a very amusing sight indeed. “Aaagh! It’s biting my throat! Watch me hold tightly to it without actually managing to pull it away!”

You would think a film with a plot this lame would not merit a remake, but its basic plot has in fact been stolen and made into the film What Lies Beneath (with the update of exchanging “dead mistress” with “dead wife”). That is a far superior film to this one, and it’s been essentially forgotten already.

So unless, like me, you’re really into bad movies, take the hint.

Didja notice?

  • Jenny’s got… Sort of a squint… Sexy. But they still manage to get her out of her shirt at least once. Man, their bras were pointy back then.
  • Limping is a good indication of mental abnormality.
  • The best way to help someone get over an unhappy event is to talk about it all the time.
  • Vicars are excellent vehicles for exposition. Subtle, too.
  • Paint by number pictures are terrifying. Who knew.
  • Newlyweds sleep in separate rooms.
  • Marian’s pyramidal floating head tombstone? Freaky. One of the only things in this film that was, really.
  • Eric just walks back and forth all over Marian’s grave. I’d guess he’s over her, wouldn’t you? Oh, and why did they bury her in the backyard? Anyone?
  • Vengeful ghosts are susceptible to having things thrown at them.

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