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Sade in cinema Part #2: "The Skull" (Francis, 1965)

Glenn Kenny
I suppose that nobody was reading Sade anymore in 1965 Britain either (see Part One of "Sade in Cinema," below), because in Freddie Francis' The Skull of that year, a rather shady antique merchant has to explain to lead character, occult-objects collector Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing), just who the guy was. "The Marquis de Sade…a man whose name has become the symbol of cruelty and savagery that is in all of us…sadism." Okay, then.
The antiques dealer, Marco (a really wonderful turn by the estimable character actor Patrick Wymark, who played the landlord in Polanski's Repulsion the same year) needs some quick cash, and he knows Maitland's weak spot—Maitland keeps getting bested at auction by the more moneyed collector Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee). It's a friendly competition—the two play billiards and smoke cigars together, just like proper British gentlemen—but frustrating for Maitland, a scholar who secretly considers Phillips a bit of a dilettante.
So Marco comes round, twice, to Maitland's, proffering two very special items—a book...bound in human skin...recounting the Marquis' exploits, and later the skull of the Marquis himself. We already know this skull is bad news, as the film opens with its long-ago procurement from the grave of the man himself, and the almost immediate awful fate of its procurer. As Marco tells more of the skull's story, Francis throws in some quite nifty POV shots from behind the skull's eyes. Maitland agrees to buy it, out of one upsmanship as much as anything else; he has an unpleasant surprise when he tells Phillips of his coup: Phillips informs Maitland the skull was his, Marco stole it from him, he's glad to be rid of it, and that Maitland should get as far away from it as possible. "De Sade said he wasn’t mad—and I believe him," Phillips intones. "He was far worse than mad—he was possessed. Possessed by an evil spirit that still inhabits his skull!" Maitlands covetousness renders him reluctant to do the right thing. The set pieces that follow—some of dreams, some of Maitland's increasingly horrific reality—are among the most visually dynamic '60s horror has to offer, rendered very beautifully on a recent DVD release from Legend.
The ever-astute Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog notes that the film examines "what draws people to dark subjects and images, questioning whether such things are truly corrupting...or a necessary means of mastering the base inclinations" and nails the picture's specific appeal: "For the average viewer, The Skull is effective enough, but for horror devotees and collectors, it touches an uncomfortably specific nerve."
Which is true up to a point. The point gets blunted if you come to the film (which was adapted from a Robert Bloch short story) with even the most cursory awareness of Sade's life, work, politics, and so on. The use of Sade as some kind of totem of evil; the idea that his spirit, from inside his skull, would instruct those under its spell to kill...kill...kill is a trifle risible. I mean, this was the Marquis de Sade we're talking about here. Sure, his name did inspire the word "sadism," but I'd bet that if his spirit could control other people would likely have them engage in some orgies, lashings, and heavy bondage before getting to homicide. So this film, a largely excellent genre piece from Amicus, the horror merchants that gave Hammer a run for its money in the '60s and early '70s, serves as an example of Sadean cinema only inasmuch as it demonstrates the evolving and distorting reification of Sade.
Of course, that doesn't mean you won't lap it up if you're a horror fan.
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