Another classic stinker remembered today thanks in no small part to MST3K, you hardly can go lower than this independent cheesefest, which was originally released in the way most of this crap was back then, the old double-feature for the drive-in market, alongside either Earth VS The Spider or Terror From The Year 5000, both fittingly riffed by the Satellite Of Love’s crew of bots and men.
It’s technically based on the eponymous tale written by Francis Marion Crawford – which it’s quite good and can be found in The Complete Wandering Ghosts collection – itself based on a folk tale of a skull said to be that of a black slave, whose request for burial in his native country was denied following his death, and how it was subsequently followed by strange occurrences and unexplainable shrieking noises that emanated from the wooden box in which the skull was kept.
“Technically” as the movie doesn’t credit Crawford’s novel, and the plot follows a couple, Eric and Jenni, that moves to the house belonging to the husband’s late wife, Marion, which has been curated and cared for by Mickey, an odd gardener loyal to the late wife’s memory. Jenni witnesses some eerie events involving a skull around the house, and begins to think that she’s going insane..
The intro is pure 50’s b-movie cheese, with the voiceover promising a free burial to anyone who’d die of fright while watching the movie… an obvious rip-off of what William Castle did with Macabre the same exact year, and Castle actually went the extra mile for the sake of the gimmick by contacting a real life insurance agency, actually making the “life insurance coupons” legally valid, and more, instead of just doing the bit in the opening of the movie itself like in this movie’s case.
While it’s a relic of its time, just a really dated marketing gimmick, the tone of the cheesy opening and the actual film don’t really properly match…. if not accidentally, you can tell the script was originally intended for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, one that ultimately steered into the horror genre, in this case with a screaming skull that’s also capable of moving around. When it doesn’t need help.
And i’m not saying that as a joke, as the twist is that while the skull was just… a skull moved around by Eric in order to frighten to death his new wife and make her believe that it’s the ghost of his late wife, Marion. Problem is, sometimes the way he moves or hides the skull around in order to gaslight Jenni…. makes no sense (when you can’t outright see the wire it’s attached in some later sequences), unrelated to the fact the painting of Marion just happens to resemble Jenni’s dead mother, and that Marion’s ghost actually is there, appears as a ghost, a skull, then a physical skeleton in wedding dress, and ultimately in ghost form to kill Eric by making him drown in the pond.
One thing that surprised me is that many reviews complain about the plot not making any sense, since there’s no reason for Eric to make his new wife go insane by feeding into her history of mental illness, even more if you consider at one point this was supposed to be a remake of Rebecca, since they’re newlyweds…. but it’s not complete non-sense, if you actually watch the movie and pay attention you’ll realize that Eric is doing this because he wants her money.
But since this important detail is just mentioned in a single line of exposition by the other couple that lives nearby and never brought up again… it’s incredibly easy to miss, since Jenni being wealthy otherwise doesn’t factor into the plot one bit.
At least i think, it make very little sense anyway, since it doesn’t feel like Eric planned this from the beginning, at all, more likely he wanted to have his new wife put away in a mental asylum to get rid of her, but he does try to kill her anyway at end. So i choose to believe – as it’s pretty dang obvious anyway – that Eric killed Marion for whatever reason, it’s better than accepting the actual – but still vague – explanation/assumption given by the movie, that she slipped on a leaf during a rainy day, hit her head on the edge of the nearby pond, and died. Yeah, why actually bother the police?
It doesn’t help that it’s also really short, with a runtime of just 65 minutes, and coupled with the terrible editing full of bad jump cuts, you’d feel like you missed something. But no, even in a recent “remastered and uncut” DVD edition by the italian Freak Video, it’s the same runtime, even if the most notorious jumpcuts are removed. IMBD lists it as a 68 minutes feature, but lack of any info on alternate cuts probably means the movie was never meant to be longer than it is. And even if IMDB is correct, 3 minutes of footage wouldn’t have much of a difference anyway.
Arguably, the best actor is the director himself, Alex Nicol, playing the weird, mentally challenged and overall Torgo-esque gardener Mickey (an odd choice that i genuinely respect), a character that it’s just there to be a really flimsy red herring, so much he’s almost irrilevant to the plot, but he’s still the more likeable character of the bunch, and the rest of the cast is arguably worse, especially Peggy Webber (also in the MST3K- featured The Space Children) as the screaming Jenni. Not the worst acting i’ve ever seen overall, but nothing that i would classify as “good” or even close, bad but not atrocious, even if it does say a lot that the best performance in the movie is from the director, playing a character that barely has any speaking lines.
He fares better as an actor than as a director, because this is indeed a stinker, with insipid direction, pine-flavored bad acting, a lot of fairly graceless exposition in place of characterization or actual plot, bad narration, incredibly cheap production values, laughable attempts at scares or horror in general, slow pacing and it being kinda boring and dull. Alex Nicol did went on record to say he enjoyed directing it, and that it was a nice change of pace to the other movie he acted in, and he did ended up doing alright after The Screaming Skull, even directed a couple of Tarzan live-action movies and some episodes of the 1967-8’s Tarzan TV series, so i’d say he took it well.
For what its worth, The Screaming Skull it’s not completely worthless, i have to concede that at times there’s a decent creepy atmosphere, and it’s really short, so for the bad movie entusiaths might be worth a watch anyway, even outside of the MST3K riffed version, as the movie itself does have some chills and provides some laughs, you probably already own it as part of some cheap “50 movies for 20 bucks” DVD pack or can be had for free since it’s in the public domain.
I’d recommend the MST3K version anyway, especially if you never saw it before, you can easily find in on Youtube and it’s worth giving the guys some cash for it as the episode it’s available for sale on the Rifftrax site, and it’s well worth it!