A few years back, I had the pleasure of reviewing B-movies on a page hosted by Nathan Shumate’s Cold Fusion Video Reviews. Yes, I was part of his cabal of Cold Fusioneers — not to be confused with early scientific researchers into the elusive possibilities of cold fusion. Until a “catastrophic server failure” wiped out the main site and all the ancillary sites it hosted, Cold Fusion had been one of the longest-running review sites on the Internet.
Nathan decided to retire Cold Fusion and pursue other popular web projects he has launched, but I still have my reviews safely stored on a hard drive, the only place they currently exist…until now! As part of my October “five weeks of frights,” I’ve dug up my review of The Screaming Skull (1958), a fun film to watch this time of year. Some Black Gate readers will also take note that this film allegedly was inspired by a short story of the same name by classic weird-story author F. Marion Crawford.
[And if you wonder “What’s up with this David guy?” with whom I co-hosted the review, stick around to see my explanation at the end of the post.]
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DAVID: This is a Manning’s Manly Movies review that reaches its climax in shocking horror. Its impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may KILL you! Therefore the reviewers feel it necessary to provide free flowers to anyone who dies of fright while reading THIS REVIEW!
OZ: What are you doing?
DAVID: A-ha! About time you pulled your head up out of your books long enough to review another movie with me, professor!
OZ: What were you doing?
DAVID: I’m borrowing an idea from the producers of this week’s movie. When The Screaming Skull was screened in theaters back in the fifties, the movie opened with a voice-over narrator as a casket lid slowly opened, revealing a burial contract inside…
“THE SCREAMING SKULL is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror. Its impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may kill you! Therefore the producers feel it necessary to provide free burial services to anyone who dies of fright while seeing THE SCREAMING SKULL!”
DAVID: On our salaries, we couldn’t afford to pay for even one burial service, so I thought free flowers would be safer.
OZ: Aaah, the good old days of B-movie gimmicks. It’s right out of the William Castle playbook: Castle was a producer who did stunts like installing a shocker into select seats of the movie theater, and having a “nurse” on hand in case an audience member fainted of fright.
DAVID: I can imagine a poor — but savvy — family with an ailing relative hearing about this film’s guarantee. “Grandma’s only got a few hours to live? Quick, load her in the car and get her to the theater! We won’t have to pay for her funeral!”
OZ: It worries me sometimes what you can imagine.
DAVID: Does the offer still apply if you die while watching it on DVD? Nah, I’m sure the offer has long since…expired.
OZ: Okay, let’s get to the movie, so I can get back to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
DAVID: That was a pretty good flick.
OZ: I’m rereading the book.
DAVID: They made it into a book?
OZ: (wearily shakes his head)
DAVID: Hey, I’m just joshin’ you. Ken Kesey, right? See, I’m with it, Mr. Literature. So now, The Screaming Skull… YeeeeaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAah!
OZ: Ouch. …Why?
DAVID: That was the screaming skull. The eponymous skull of the picture. You like that fancy word I threw in there? Hey, we should put a sound file in here, record that for people who open this webpage.
OZ: No no no no no. They’ve shown enough patience with us by reading this far. Let’s not torture their eyes and ears.
DAVID: Okay, so, in The Screaming Skull we meet a couple of newlyweds, Eric and Jenni Whitlock, who are moving into their super creepy manor house. No furniture, no electricity, welcome to your dream home, you poor duped woman! Try living like the Amish for your honeymoon!
OZ: Upping the creep factor is the fact that this is the house of Eric’s former wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. John Hudson as Mr. Whitlock is pretty good — for this kind of film — though when I watched this with my wife, she thought he was giving off a suspicious vibe from the outset.
DAVID: You got your wife to watch this with you?
OZ: My wife endures a lot of these films with me. Oh, she loves you.
DAVID: Really? I’m flattered.
OZ: I was being sarcastic, my friend. Actually, this one wasn’t too bad. Or, as she said, “We’ve seen a lot worse.”
DAVID: It’s a cast of five, and we’re soon introduced to Eric Whitlock’s friends the Reverend and Mrs. Snow, who drop in and offer to cook dinner. Hey, on my first night home with a new bride, I don’t want the reverend and his wife crashing the party! But they’re nice folk, and I like ‘em. We also meet the estate’s gardener Mickey, a stunted, shambling man with the mind of a child —
OZ: — Played by Alex Nicol, who also directs the film, so they only had to pay four actors.
DAVID: They were obviously saving up the budget for the FX in the climactic sequence.
OZ: Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic.
OZ: …Do you have that out of your system?
DAVID: Almost immediately, the new Mrs. Whitlock begins experiencing strange ghostly phenomena in the house while her husband is away.
OZ: Eerie creaks and bangs, a suspiciously lurking Mickey, a disturbingly amateur self-portrait painted by the former Mrs. Whitlock — the usual haunted-house trappings, sometimes pulled off almost well enough to raise a hair or two. If I’d seen this as a kid, I probably would have been scared witless.
DAVID: Then things get really intense. Jenni wanders about the mansion to investigate bangings in the middle of the night, dressed in nothing but her nightie. Alas, this being 1958, her nightie is a full-length gown.
OZ: While you were taking note of her undergarments, I noted that Jenni is a literate woman — she’s reading “The Beast in the Jungle” by Henry James, giving us a reminder of that author’s other work, The Turn of the Screw (could the screenwriter possibly have intended this?). And the story is also an interesting choice because of its themes of loneliness and lost love.
DAVID: Okay, we’re reviewing a B-movie called The Screaming Skull for gosh-sake. Don’t turn it into a book lecture. Yeeeaaaa —
OZ: DON’T do it.
DAVID: Sorry. I was almost possessed by the screaming skull. So she enters the room where the former wife’s portrait sits, and the doors of a wardrobe fly open to reveal: A SKULL!
OZ: She flees in terror, but shows great fortitude by returning to the room, grabbing the skull from the shelf, and tossing it out the window! You go, girl!
DAVID: The next day, Eric and the Snows search all over, but cannot find the skull. They wonder if Jenni is playing with a full deck, or if possibly Mickey is trying to scare the new Mrs. Whitlock away. Gradually, through conversations between various pairings of the four characters, many secrets are revealed.
OZ: A quick technical quibble: this was a very poor film transfer. The sound quality is atrocious — half the time when Jenni is speaking, I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Where did you dig up this DVD?
DAVID: I don’t know. I found it in some bargain bin. So, secrets are revealed, like: when she was a girl, Jenni saw both her parents drown. She’d been hospitalized for suicidal depression and hearing voices and stuff, and she was still in therapy when Eric met her, so everyone — including herself — suspects she may be coming unhinged again.
OZ: When Reverend Snow suggests to Eric that maybe his bride needs to return to New York for more therapy, Eric assures him that all she needs is love.
DAVID: Do you think the Beatles may have seen a screening of this film in Liverpool?
OZ: We also learn that Mickey and the deceased Mrs. Whitlock grew up together and were always very close. One evening they were working in the greenhouse together when Mrs. Whitlock had to return to the house for something. As she was coming down the garden path, it started to rain. The conjecture afterwards was that she slipped and fell, smashing her skull against the stone wall of the lily pond. She expired under the water in the pond. And Mr. Whitlock inherited the estate. Suspicious…
DAVID: Especially when we also learn that the new Mrs. Whitlock is loaded. So, donning our Holmes hats, we can speculate that either A) Mickey, resenting Eric and his new wife, wants to scare them off, or B) Eric arranged his first wife’s “accident” and now wants to be a filthy-rich, two-time widower (and finally get some furniture for the house), or 3) the dead Mrs. Whitlock’s restless skull really is seeking revenge!
OZ: A, B, three? Your list — never mind.
DAVID: We see Eric’s shady hand revealed when he suggests to his wife that it is the dead Mrs. Whitlock’s portrait that is driving her schizoid, so burning it in the garden will have a cathartic effect.
OZ: Boy, I’m glad this guy didn’t go into psychiatry.
DAVID: In the ashes of the portrait, Jenni sees THE SKULL! Eric claims not to see it, but after his wife has run off to have a nervous fit, he picks it up and hides it in the lily pond.
OZ: Enter ever-lurking Mickey, who sneaks off with the skull. What is that man-boy up to?
DAVID: You ended that question with a preposition, Mister English.
OZ: To what is that man-boy up?
DAVID: That just sounds silly.
OZ: Then it will fit right in to this review.
DAVID: It has become apparent that Eric is planning to kill off his new bride and stage it to look like a suicide, but there is one problem: when he goes to fetch his bony prop, it is gone. He gets so freaked out he dives into the pond, still in his suit and tie, and thrashes about, then chases Mickey around for a while.
OZ: Mickey keeps his cool, and when the coast is clear he tucks the skull into a breadbasket and skips off to the Snows.
DAVID: The fateful night falls. Jenni is upstairs packing to fly back to New York, unaware that her husband is out in the garden plotting her immanent demise. Imminent? Eminent?
DAVID: Thank you. Eric goes into the greenhouse, still looking to give Mickey a good beating and get his bone back, but a ghost pops up at the other end of the shed!
OZ: He flees in terror down the garden path. The apparition that follows him — his dead bride in her wedding dress and veil — is pretty well done. It is transparent, and as it floats down the path behind him we have a legitimately spooky scene.
DAVID: He runs and wails like a little girl that is, um, about to get supernatural vengeance wreaked on her by the wife she killed. I mangled that one, didn’t I?
OZ: He heads for the dubious safety of the family mansion of the woman he murdered.
DAVID: Maybe he’s hoping she’s strictly an outdoor ghost. The ghost proves that something as prosaic as a solid door is no match for ectoplasm, and follows him inside.
OZ: But when he throws a chair at the apparition — in this scene it is obviously a mannequin prop — the chair knocks it over and its arms fly off! Cheesy goodness.
DAVID: He heads for the stairs, but the skull is sitting on a stair about midway up waiting for him, its empty sockets full of grim judgment!
OZ: The skull comes bumping down the stairs (and the effect is somewhat diminished by the fact that we can see the stick that pushes it off the landing).
DAVID: He runs away from the skull like a little girl running from a skull. He gets outside, where the specter of a giant skull flies through the air screaming at him. Skull after skull appears, herding him to — you guessed it — the lily pond!
OZ: The skull chomps down on his neck, and he splashes into the pool. His “struggles” with the skull clamped to his neck is worthy of Ed Wood.
DAVID: He dies in the pond, getting his just desserts. The Snows arrive with Mickey in time to assure Jenni that she is not mad; she merely made the mistake of marrying a cold-blooded murderer who was haunted by the ghost of his dead wife. Duly comforted, she leaves the mansion arm-in-arm with the Reverend and his wife. I knew I liked ‘em.
OZ: Like my wife said, I’ve seen worse. A decently atmospheric B-movie to have on rotation in the background during Hallowe’en.
DAVID: Okay, time for my Studly Stats. MONSTER MENAGERIE: One (A series of skulls and a full-bodied apparition, all incarnations of the ghost of the dead wife). LOVELY LADY LUMPS: Zero (Jenni’s diaphanous gown may have been risqué for 1958, but it doesn’t register on the Studly Radar).
OZ: David, do you really have to include that last tally in your reviews? Some people will be offended. I just think it’s juvenile.
DAVID: Hey, it’s Studly Stats.
OZ: (mumbles) stupid stats…
DAVID: While it doesn’t really fit into any of my stats categories, I’ve got to give props to the roadster with gull-wing doors that Eric Whitlock drives around in. That car must’ve cost more than the whole budget of this movie!
Rating The Screaming Skull:
OZ: Two skulls and a mandible. That’s two-and-a-half out of five.
DAVID: Five skulls and a scream. YeeeeeeeeeeaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!
[“What’s up with this David guy?”: I “co-hosted” these reviews with a fellow named David Manning, who, back in 2001, had notoriously given glowing blurbs to some of Sony’s most wretched pictures (The Animal, anyone, starring that comedic genius Rob Schneider? Manning declared, “The producing team of ‘Big Daddy’ has produced another winner!”). His career as a film reviewer was short-lived: he was around long enough to contribute accolades to the advertisements for such films as The Hollow Man and The Forsaken, until he was busted for not existing. He is now enshrined with his own entry in The Museum of Hoaxes. Undaunted by his non-existence, I tracked him down several years later (summoning him forth from the ether, where he was still lurking in the collective unconscious) to team up and write reviews of B- and Z-grade horror, fantasy, and science-fiction films.]