Friday, January 30, 2015

Appreciating THE SCREAMING SKULL (1958)

Prefatory note:
Be warned that SPOILERS are unavoidable in the following discussion and I have not avoided them.

Alex Nicol's THE SCREAMING SKULL, for which I could find very little love to reward my Googling, strikes me as a film ripe for renewed appreciation - not as a horror classic, by any means, but rather as an extremely modest film of skilled parentage that succeeds in creating something pleasurably eerie within its very limited means.

Actor Alex Nicol conceived the six-week independent production as a career boost. After working nearly a decade onscreen - starting out as a Universal contract player in George Sherman's THE SLEEPING CITY (1950), being loaned out for the Hammer noirs THE BLACK GLOVE and HEAT WAVE (both 1954), and several years after having given an outstanding performance as Donald Crisp's deranged son in Anthony Mann's THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955) - Nicol felt that he wasn't receiving offers that were equal to his abilities. So he had the idea to make a low-budget film, in a popular genre that was all but guaranteed to make money, which might encourage those in his business to regard him with renewed seriousness. It is clear from the end product that he had studied the way Roger Corman had gone about his own early successes. THE SCREAMING SKULL was released to theaters in January 1958 on an American International double bill with TERROR FROM YEAR 5000 - a film in which, incidentally, Corman himself had invested though not officially; it isn't known whether this was also true of Nicol's film. The double bill didn't win much in the way of critical favor, but it was considered a commercial success. Even so, it didn't result in the professional sea change Nicol had anticipated.

As it happens, THE SCREAMING SKULL became one of those movies that frequently appeared on local television in my pre-teen years, during the mid-1960s, when horror pickings were so scarce that anything even remotely related to the genre tended to get watched again and again, sometimes more out of devotion and gratitude than real enthusiasm. Nevertheless, it was a movie I always liked; the story was simple enough for me to follow from an early age, and its modest, offbeat scares were genuinely creepy. 

On television, of course, whatever suspense the film generated was periodically punctured by commercial interruptions. And then, after the introduction of home video, this ambitious little film fell into the public domain, surfacing in a succession of dupey releases that made it a literal eyesore. As time went on, the simple act of trying to watch THE SCREAMING SKULL became its own worst discouragement.

So I was intrigued to discover the film on Amazon Prime's horror roster, available free to all members. Wondering if their presentation might mark any improvement over what has been generally the standard for the last 35 years, I pressed "Watch Now"  - and was delighted to see an Orion logo preceding a perfectly crisp transfer - by far, the very best quality I had ever seen! The film ended 67m 28s later with the MGM lion, marking it as being of still more recent vintage than the Orion tag suggested. This same transfer, I'm told, sneaked out on DVD last spring through Shout! Factory's economy label Timeless Media as part of a "Movies 4 U" package along with THE VAMPIRE (1957), THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) and THE BAT PEOPLE (1973), priced at only $5.99, but Stephen R. Bissette tells me that this good-looking presentation drifts out of sync with its soundtrack about 45 minutes in. Not so with Amazon Prime.

After absorbing the film as it was meant to be seen, probably for the first time, it became obvious to me that Nicol planned this project very well and assembled his crew with great care. THE SCREAMING SKULL was the first feature film to be written by CLIMAX! staff writer John Kneubuhl, whose extensive later television credits include THRILLER's most terrifying episode, based on Robert E. Howard's "Pigeons From Hell." Kneubuhl, a well-read writer judging from his many adaptation credits, took his title from an otherwise unrelated story written in 1911 by F. Marion Crawford. The film's director of photography was Oscar-winning Floyd Crosby, A.S.C., then Roger Corman's principal cameraman, who embraced the film as an opportunity to explore the then-largely-untapped potential for fright in double-exposed imagery. As far as I know, Ernest Gold's score - recorded shortly before his high profile winning streak with ON THE BEACH, INHERIT THE WIND and EXODUS - was the first in the horror genre to borrow from Hector Berlioz's "Dies Irae," as Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING would do almost two decades later. (It caught on fast, with Gerald Fried adapting it for his bombastic main theme to THE RETURN OF DRACULA, only three months later.) Already, we count three aces.

The film's pre-credits sequence alone proves Nicol a man of vision, if we look at it from the proper perspective. It opens on a lingering shot of a casket whose lid slowly opens to reveal a mood-setting message.

  
 
 
I know what you're thinking. Everything about this sequence suggests the influence of William Castle - the insurance against death by fright (explained to us in a voice-over), the surfacing of the eponymous skull from smoking, bubbling waters - I thought so, too. But if we check the release dates at the IMDb, Nicol's film premiered some ten months before the Halloween premiere of Castle's horror debut with MACABRE, which likewise insured its ticket-buyers against death by fright - and more than a year before Castle filmed a skeleton rising from a roiling acid bath in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959). To my mind, this detail alone requires a significant rewrite of 1950s horror film history.

As the narrative begins, Nicol immediately demonstrates his intention to invest the film with as much production value as he could afford, opening on an establishing shot of the splendid grounds of the Huntington Hartford Estate, located off Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, with its magnificent main mansion, San Patrizio, standing in for the Whitlock home. When the Whitlocks arrive, they do so in a new model Mercedes-Benz with gull-wing doors! Once we're inside the house, Nicol can't very cover the fact that the place is empty and unheated with chipped paint on the walls; it literally contains nothing but a downstairs rug, a particularly ragged-looking chair, a painting, a cabinet, two cots, a small wing table, and a candle! But a throwaway line of dialogue explains the spartan interior - the previous lady of the house, an eccentric, was very particular about adding only the pieces of furniture that really belonged there - and we're off and running.

The five-member cast boasts John Hudson (Nicol's co-star in Budd Boetticher's RED BALL EXPRESS, the twin brother of ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN's William Hudson) as the haunted widower Eric Whitlock; Peggy Webber (fresh from Alfred Hitchcock's THE WRONG MAN) as his new bride Jenni; Russ Conway (who had just appeared as the Hardy Boys' father in two MICKEY MOUSE CLUB serials) as the Reverend Edward Snow, a lifelong friend of Eric's; Tony Johnson as Mrs. Snow; and Nicol himself as Mickey, Eric's half-witted gardener, who clings to an irrational devotion to the late Mrs. Whitlock, Marian, who drowned on the property. Her spirit seems to inhabit a self-portrait that we're told by Eric was "poorly done" - and Floyd Crosby renders it suitably chilling with an unexpected superimposition.

Eric is seemingly devoted to his new wife, recently released from a sanitarium after suffering the shock of seeing both her parents drown in a boating accident. Jenni is one of the more sensitively written female characters to be found in this period of American horror cinema; she is not only grateful to have found love with Eric, but openly allows him any lingering feelings he may still have for Marian; she expresses her gratitude to her memory for teaching Eric what it means to love and value someone, as she needs to be loved and valued. The dialogue makes reference to Jenni being a "plain" woman, which becomes a telling plot point - but, as portrayed by Peggy Webber, Jenni is invested with all the personality, sensitivity and physical allure to make Eric's attraction to her plausible. (Without the personal charisma both Webber and Hudson bring to their characters, the film's first half would have been ruinously transparent.) This relationship stands in opposition to Mickey's more ethereal devotion to Marian, which is expressed through his keeping her former gardens in splendid condition, bringing flowers to her grave site, and paying poignant visits to the pond where she accidentally drowned, touching the face of the lilypad-mottled waters and raising his fingers to his lips. On first viewing, these scenes intentionally appear sick and neurotic but, in retrospect and on subsequent viewings, these scenes are revealed as the sanest and most tragic, as they humanize a character whom we never directly meet, whom Eric, unbeknownst to us and to Jenni, has deliberately distorted and demonized. (Nicol, wearing his hair much longer than was commonly acceptable in 1958 - prompting an early remark from the buzz-cutted Reverend Snow, about getting him to a barber soon - bears an unmistakable resemblance to Corman's screenwriter Charles B. Griffith which, considering their shared connections to Crosby and AIP, one suspects could be deliberate.)


Peggy Webber was pregnant with her first child at the time of filming, and Nicol - seizing upon another commercial element at hand - exploits her ripening figure with nightgown shots and one particularly gratuitous scene (missing from many PD tapes and discs) where she strips down to her bra (this is pre-PSYCHO, remember) to read Henry James' novella "The Beast in the Jungle." The James story is at least as foregrounded as Ms. Webber's bosom, encouraging one to seek out connections between the two works. They are there. A Wikipedia consultation reveals that the story is about a man and a woman who waste their lives by living under a sense of ominous foreboding about something that ultimately never happens - which finds resonance in the way Eric and the Reverend try to discourage Jenni's escalating feeling of being haunted, as she feels the mansion is haunted, by Marian's ghost - which becomes her idée fixe once the Reverend innocently confides to her something that Eric would not (knowing that the Reverend would) - namely, that Marian died the same way her parents did. But "The Beast in the Jungle" is also the story of an egotistical man's sense of expectation and entitlement, of feeling destined for great things that - in his mind - raise him above the commonplace rewards of the home and love that might have been his, which is ultimately revealed as the true nature of Eric.


When Eric spends a night away from the mansion, leaving Jenni alone with Mickey and the mansion and her story, the haunting takes more aggressive steps - in the form of a grinning skull that continually crosses her path. (Peggy Webber proves herself an able screamer with a terrific scream face in these scenes.) When Eric returns, he confronts Mickey with accusations of trying to torment Jenni, whom he allegedly hates for trying to take Marian's place as lady of the house. In a scene I found particularly disturbing as a child, Eric slaps Mickey repeatedly before threatening the innocent with even greater violence. We soon learn that Eric is in fact engineering the haunting himself, that he married Jenni - whose parents were wealthy - only to terrorize her back into a sanitarium so that he could take charge of her fortune. Because the script has openly referenced Jenni as a plain and troubled woman, the film allies her with Mickey as someone who is somewhat less than whole, whose perceived deficiencies makes her easy prey for the delusionally entitled Eric. In the final analysis, these deficiencies are revealed as qualities that make both Jenni and Mickey more authentic and caring as people.

Once Eric's true nature is revealed, the "Beast in the Jungle" begins to materialize to manifest his "spectacular fate." This begins when Jenni has a surprise encounter with what appears to be Marian's ghost in the greenhouse. 

 
 

In the film's most chilling shot, the transparent ghost of Marian follows Jenni down the stairs of the greenhouse into close-up - an effect that Floyd Crosby could only have achieved with a meticulously planned double exposure, matching the actual exterior of the greenhouse to an exact studio recreation of the exterior covered in black fabric, with the white-clad ghost filmed descending a cloaked set of stairs - the same principle used by John Fulton in creating his special effects for James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933.


From this point on, the film plays out in the style of a classic EC horror comic, with the scheming Eric attempting to strangle Jenni and being chased down by the very horror he dared to impersonate and manipulate to his own selfish ends. The Beast of his Jungle pounces and sinks its teeth into him.


In Tom Weaver's 2010 book A SCI-FI SWARM AND HORROR HOARDE: INTERVIEWS WITH 62 FILMMAKERS, Peggy Webber recalled that she felt like throwing up after seeing the finished picture. (Morning sickness, perhaps?) In its public domain status, the film went on to become the butt of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000's jokes. I don't get it. Knowing what I know about low-budget filmmaking of this period, I can find nothing in THE SCREAMING SKULL that speaks of creative negligence, crudity, or condescension toward its genre. On the contrary, for a directorial debut, it demonstrates remarkable credibility and resourcefulness, and for a horror film of its station and era, it earns a well-deserved niche in the curator's mind. It's a nice example of what people used to call a "sleeper." Alex Nicol himself recalled the film fondly, telling Wheeler Dixon in his book COLLECTED INTERVIEWS: VOICES FROM TWENTIETH CENTURY CINEMA, "I liked it. It had some nice dolly shots, a good atmosphere. So I was happy with that; it was a nice change from what I'd been doing."

If we discount the two Tarzan features adapted from episodes of the NBC-TV series, Nicol went on to direct two other features before his death at age 85 in 2001: the 1961 Italian-made war drama THREE CAME BACK and the 1973 Crown International release POINT OF TERROR with Peter Carpenter and Dyanne Thorne. In both cases, he demonstrated discernible care while working within challenging borders, creating modest works of quality out of almost nothing. Not bad for someone who directed only three features, each in a different decade.

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