The Skull 2019 ****

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‘This isn’t just any skull…’ says seller Marco (Patrick Wymark) to potential buyer Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing); it’s not even a Marks and Spencer skull, it’s the actual noggin of the Marquis de Sade himself, and no good can come of it being hawked around occult dealers in this Freddie Francis horror/thriller. With a script by Amicus regular Milton Subotsky and based on a short story by Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch, The Skull is a cut above the usual fare, with an unusual straight role for Christopher Lee, plus a perfect supporting cast including Patrick Mcgee, Michael Gough and Nigel Green. It’s quite tame by modern standards, but the quaintness is charming, and Francis whips things up to quite a frenzy by the end. The art of this kind of gentleman’s horror film is long gone; The Skull popping up on mainstream streaming services is a nice reminder of the genre’s charms. And according to Wikipedia, the actual skull of the Marquis is still unaccounted for, so in the light of what happens to the esteemed gentlemen here, best avoid any rash ebay purchases…

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Biggles 1986 ***

One name on a cast list that always makes us click is Peter Cushing; the perennially ancient leading man of many British horror films, and notably the Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. His final film was 1986’s Biggles, an attempt to build an Indiana Jones-style franchise from WE Johns’ classic character. Such efforts had gone on for decades before Back to The Future came out, and sent the team behind Biggles scuttling off in quite the wrong direction. Thus, somehow, Biggles (Neil Dickson) isn’t the main character in his own film; Alex Hyde White plays a catering salesman who is sent back in time to join forces with the WWI flying hero and stop the German army developing a deadly machine that kills using sound. Biggles; The Movie is something of a mess, never marrying the 1980’s story with the First Would War action. But director John Hough really knew how to stage action, and the helicopter vs biplane scenarios are physically impressive.  Worth seeing if only to answer the trivia question of which film features Cushing and Freddie Mercury; Another One Bites the Dust features here alongside a truly hideous score by Yes’s Jon Anderson. Dickson later reprised the role of Biggles, not for a sequel, but in Jack Bond’s musical It Couldn’t Happen Here for the Pet Shop Boys.

The Mummy 1959 ****

Terence Fisher’s sense of style often seemed to be at odds with the cheeky cheap and cheerful production values of Hammer films; this retelling of the classic Mummy story has a garish colour scheme with dynamic greens and reds splashed across the screen. Peter Cushing is amongst the party of foolhardy Brits who happen across an Egyptian tomb; murdered one by one by a mysterious assailant, it’s clear that something evil has been awakened, and that something is a mummy played by Christopher Lee. The Mummy’s narrative is straightforward enough, but there’s a lengthy and substantial flashback that details the history of Kharis (Lee) giving the star a chance to do something more than swan around in bandages and moaning in a threatening way. There’s a sense of colonial guilt at work here; although John Banning (Cushing) describes the forces disturbed as ‘evil’, it’s clear that the wrong being committed here is the desecration of the temple, and a reincarnation sub-plot involving Banning’s daughter manages to create some genuine sympathy for the monster. Jimmy Sangster’s script may feed on fear of a foreign unknown, but doesn’t shy away from identifying a genuine grievance in terms of how the Egyptians might view entitled Brits.

The Ghoul 1975 ***

the-ghoul-1975-largeBack in the 1980’s, the BBC’s late night horror double bills on Saturdays used to pull in substantial ratings; a black and white primer followed by a full-on colour horror film from the 70’s. The Ghoul was one of the featured films, and pops up now on Amazon Prime like a wine that’s been wasting in the cellar for forty years. The second film of Tyburn Film productions, it reteams Hammer veteran director Freddie Francis and star Peter Cushing, but the attitude and method is quite different from the Kensington Gore methods of the British studio. Instead, The Ghoul mines a strangely esoteric brand of horror fiction, with allusions to India via Gwen Watford as Ayah, the housekeeper to Cushing’s retired minister Dr Lawrence. It’s implied that Lawrence’s son was converted to cannibalism during a trip to Asia, and when a foursome of 1920’s flappers break down during a London to Brighton road race, the son (Don Henderson) is out for blood and more. The Ghoul is a glacially slow horror film, and the pay-off (Henderson in a tunic) must be one of the least exciting ever. But Cushing and John Hurt as his servant Bill both strike sparks, and The Ghoul is a more literate film than it’s benighted reputation suggests.

 

Scream and Scream Again 1970 ****

ScreamDespite the trio of big names, noted 1960s comic Alfred Marks largely dominates the policier segments as a tough cop, Popeye Doyle-style, who is investigating murderous proceedings. His attempts to track down a seemingly super-human killer are intercut with a hospital bed scene where a patient repeatedly wakes up to find further limbs removed. In such a surreal film, it almost feels like a let down to have a third storyline involving Christopher Lee tracking down Vincent Price, explaining that he was heading up the usual secret government plot to create genetically modified super soldiers. Played by Michael Gothard, this crazed killer can rip off his own arm to avoid a handcuffing to a police car bumper and preys on post-club ‘dolly birds’. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing’s character plays politics in a police state vividly depicted in a few nightmare sequences in the mould of 1984, a science-fictional vibe that runs against the grain of a film that is clearly 1967 London down to the inevitable psychedelic freak-out performed by Amen Corner.

The Uncanny 1977 ***

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The name of director Dennis Heroux may not be well-known in horror circles; the presence of producer Milton Subotsky (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror) indicates the real driving force behind this off-beat portmanteau thriller. Peter Cushing is writer Wilbur Gray, who dons his spectacles and carries his manuscript round to publisher (Ray Milland). Gray unfolds three tales involving feline horror to prove this thesis that household moggies are the devil in disguise. Another entry in the rare cat-spolitation genre (Eye of the Cat, Persecution), The Uncanny has some neat work from Donald Pleasance as moustachioed Hollywood actor Valentine De’ath, and genre favourites such as Susan Penhaligon as a maid who battles cats to get at her employer’s will. Best of all is the wrap-around, with Cushing amusingly pussy-whipped as the mild-mannered exposer of the cat conspiracy. Surprisingly graphic in places, The Uncanny is an enjoyably silly entry in the horror canon.

Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires 1974 ***

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Something of a shambles, but enjoyable enough, this hybrid from the Hammer and Shaw Brothers studios mixes vampire horror and kung-fu action; it’s hard to imagine what Peter Cushing made of it all. As Van Helsing, he’s back on the trail of Count Dracula (John Forbes Robertson) in rural China; Roy Ward Baker is a reliable director for hammer films, but the odd-make-up and lengthy fight-scenes seem to have pushed him well outside his comfort zone. Something of a novelty item for genre fans, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires is a charmingly odd late-cycle offering.