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Bonus Reviews: "Island of Terror" and "The Skull"
Horror Bulletin Bonus for Week 198
For this week’s bonus films, we’ve got a couple of old Peter Cushing films for your enjoyment. We'll first look at "The Skull" from 1965 and then take a stay on the "Island of Terror" from 1966. Good stuff!
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The Skull (1965)
Directed by Freddie Francis
Written by Robert Bloch, Milton Subotsky
Stars Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Christopher Lee, Jill Bennett
Run Time: 1 Hour, 23 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
The set pieces and interesting POV shots elevate what would be a mediocre tale to something pretty good. As always, it’s fun to see Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee working together. As you might guess from the title, a skull plays a central part, and it’s a little far-fetched and weak in the story.
We begin in a cemetery in the 1800s. The men there are digging up a grave. One man opens the coffin and cuts off the head of the man inside. He then leaves, carrying a small package…
Pierre, the phrenologist, returns home to find a woman in his bathtub, but he quickly throws her out. There’s work to do. He pours acid on the head, and soon there’s nothing left but… a skull! Credits roll.
In the modern day, we open at an auction. Christopher Maitland and Sir Matthew Phillips are competing for items at an auction. There are four demonic statues for sale, and Phillips has deeper pockets– he gets the figures by making a big jump in his bid. Afterward, Maitland asks why he paid so much more than they’re worth, and Phillips can’t even explain why he wanted them - something came over him.
Later, Mr. Marco comes to see Maitland. Maitland’s wife doesn’t like Marco, but business is business. He’s brought an old book, about the life of the Marquis de Sade. It was rumored that the Marquis was into the occult and died with a hatred of all mankind. The book is bound with human skin. Maitland writes books on the occult himself and he’s a collector of the macabre, so he’s very interested. Marco mentions that he may have another item tomorrow night. Marco goes home, we see that he has the skull in his closet.
The next night, Marco returns, and this time, he brings the skull along with him. He wants a thousand pounds for it. It’s not just any man’s skull; this is the skull of the Marquis de Sade. We get a flashback to Pierre and his fate. As the executor of Pierre’s estate does an inventory, he throws the skull into a pile, but it soon moves to a better place. The skull takes over the man, and he kills Pierre’s mistress. Maitland thinks it’s too expensive, and Marco cuts the price in half.
Maitland says he’ll think about it. Maitland plays pool later with Matthew Phillips. He tells him about the skull, but he can’t verify that it’s genuine. Phillip says it’s genuine, as it was stolen from him. Phillips says he’s glad it was stolen, and advises Maitland to stay away from that dangerous skull. He believes that the Marquis was possessed by an evil that still possesses that skull. He thinks that the skull wanted him to buy those figurines at the auction.
Two men come to arrest Maitland. They don’t take him to the police station, but instead to some weird kind of courtroom. They make him play Russian roulette with a loaded gun–three times. Maitland is locked in a room and gassed. He gets a vision of the skull– and suddenly, he’s in an apartment building. It turns out to be Marco’s apartment.
Maitland gets the money and goes back to Marco’s place for the skull. He finds a mummy– could that be Marco? He takes the skull with him. Marco’s dead body falls on Maitland as he leaves. He hides the skull and goes home.
Inspector Wilson interrogates Maitland about why he was there and so forth. Phillips warns Maitland that last night is just the first of several nights of rituals, and if he has the skull, he needs to get rid of it. He offers Maitland a protective amulet to ward off the evil of the skull. When Maitland goes back for the skull, Marco’s landlord is killed.
Maitland goes home, and late that night, he watches as the skull lets itself out of the display case and takes center stage on a table. The book from earlier floats over and sets down next to it. Maitland is in a trance and goes outside. Over at Phillips’s place, Maitland breaks in and steals one of the demonic figurines, killing Phillips in the process. He places the statue next to the skull and the book. He takes a knife and goes into his wife’s bedroom; when he sees her cross, he is able to resist.
Even later that night, the skull gets out of the display case again and wakes Maitland up. He once again picks up the dagger and plunges it into the skull. The skull turns over an hourglass and the knife appears elsewhere. Maitland screams for Jane to help him, but he’s trapped in a room. The skull flies from room to room and finally closes in on him…
In the morning, Jane wakes up and finds her husband stabbed to death in his bed. The inspector comes around and notices the similarities to the Marco case. They don’t pay any attention to the old skull on the table.
The sets, with all the antiquities and strange artworks, are really cool here. Pierre’s house, Maitland’s study, and even Marco’s apartment are filled to the brim with all kinds of weird things. We get a number of shots from the skull’s point of view, which is both interesting and a little silly. The flying skull doesn’t look too bad, but I doubt too many people would believe that it was real.
It’s got a really small role for Patrick Magee. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are the big draws here, although Lee doesn’t have a lot to do. Cushing does a lot with only a little material. The build up in the first hour with Marco and Phillips was good, but his solitary “battle” with the skull was pretty boring.
It was a weak premise with good performances.
Island of Terror (1966)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Edward Mann, Al Ramsen
Stars Peter Cushing, Edward Judd, Carole Gray, Eddie Byrne
Run Time: 1 Hour, 29 Minutes
Spoiler-Free Judgment Zone
The effects are pretty cool, the acting is good, and the story is pretty great. This one should be better known than it is. The Horror Guys both give this one a strong thumbs up. Horror Guy Kevin remembers being freaked out by it when he was a wee lad, and it’s still pretty creepy.
Two men load a chemical shipment for Dr. Phillips onto their truck. It’s an isolated island, and they don’t even have phones there yet. One man complains about how lonely the island gets. In the lab, the doctors talk about irradiating nuclei. If they are successful, they may have the cure for cancer. One scientist suggests waiting for the other international labs, but another is eager to get started. What could go wrong? Credits roll.
Ian Bellows is walking alone at night; he hears something strange in a cave. He goes in and screams. The man’s wife goes to the police and reports that he’s three hours late. The sole policeman, Constable Harris, goes out looking and finds Ian’s seemingly empty clothes in the cave. No, the body is in there but what’s left of it is… strange.
The policeman goes to see Dr. Landers first and relays what he saw. Ian had turned to mushy jelly. Landers looks at the body and says all the bones are gone. He thinks it might be a contagious disease.
Dr. Brian Stanley is the most eminent virologist in London, and soon Dr. Landers pays him a visit. He’s never heard of a disease that makes bones dissolve. Dr. Stanley brings in Dr. West, a bone specialist. Toni Merrill is there with West, and she flirts with all three of them. All of them, Toni included, take a helicopter back to the island to look at the body.
The three doctors go to the lab and start an autopsy. They find microscopic punctures all over the body. Some kind of enzyme could have been introduced that way. They need better facilities, so they all head to Dr. Phillips’ place. There’s no answer at the door, but they sneak in through a window. Dr. Stanley almost trips over a body– a squishy body. The lights keep flickering, and Landers mentions the island has been having trouble with the big generator. They find the lab, and there are dead men everywhere. Whatever it is, it must have started here.
Meanwhile, a farmer notices that his horse has melted. He goes to Constable Harris about it, and he, in turn, goes to find the scientists. He goes into the room marked “test animals” and a tentacle grabs him from behind. Meanwhile, Dr. Landers goes to the police station, but the constable is gone. Landers runs into the farmer, and he learns about the dead horse.
This all soon comes to the attention of Mr. Campbell, the head of the island. West tells Toni about what happened at the lab; she doesn’t want to be left alone. Toni sees the creature crawling on the car where she’s waiting. They return to Phillips’ lab and find both Harris and the tentacle creature– no, several tentacle creatures!
Landers tries to kill one with an ax, but it feeds on him instead. Their hides are too tough. The creatures divide simultaneously, and they also go inert for a while which gives them a brief moment to escape. Stanley, West, and Toni run outside. They barely get away as more creatures approach the car. Toni is upset and has to be sedated.
Mr. Campbell tracks down West and Stanley, and they fill him in on what’s been going on. Campbell agrees to gather the islanders together in the town hall in an hour. Stanley tells the assembled group about the bone-eating creatures. At the speed they keep dividing, there will be hundreds of them by tomorrow, soon thousands.
They shoot a creature with shotguns, but that has no effect. They fire-bomb and dynamite them next, but that doesn’t do much either. They do, however, learn that the creatures can climb trees.
A villager comes up saying they found a creature dead out by the beach next to Phillip’s half-eaten dog. The dog had been irradiated in an experiment, and Stanley thinks the radiation may have poisoned the creature. There's plenty of strontium-90 at Phillips’ place, so they have to go get some. They arrive at the lab, put on radiation suits, and go into the safe room to get some strontium-90, which they load into an injector gun.
Outside, one of the creatures grabs Stanley’s arm, and West has to cut off the arm with an ax to save him. They drive back to town and inject all the cows with radiation. West and Tony have time for a kiss before the creatures arrive in town.
The creatures arrive and eat the cows; then they start dividing again. The silicates keep on coming, and they swarm over the outside of the building. Then the lights go out. The creatures break in through the windows, and the villagers panic. They barricade themselves in the doctor’s office, and West gets an injection ready for Toni; he’ll kill her himself before the creatures get her.
Suddenly, the creatures go limp and die; the strontium-90 did poison them; it just took time. In the morning, Toni’s helicopter returns and takes her, West, and Stanley back to the mainland. All the silicate creatures have been verified dead.
Meanwhile, in Japan, one of the international labs that Phillips mentioned before the credits, they have developed the same problem. Japan is an island too, right?
Other than a little panicking toward the end, Campbell and the villagers were surprisingly cooperative. I doubt that they’d go along so willingly in a modern version of the film. Though being British probably helped too.
Cushing gets a few funny lines, but it’s mostly played as a serious scientific investigation story. The creatures here are actually really well done and very alien. The acting is fine; the music is suspenseful, and the pacing is excellent. I’m really surprised this film isn’t better known– we both liked it a lot.
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