The Screaming Skull

September 13, 2011 at 2:20 am (9 Heads, Screaming Skull) (, , , )

The Screaming Skull – 1953 – United States

The Screaming Skull is rated 3/10 on IMDB. Forget those haters. During the tantalizing intro, an open coffin has a “Reserved For You” sign and a deep-voiced narrator promises free burial to any who die of fright. No, it’s not a William Castle flick. The director, Alex Nicol, never made another horror movie. Disappointing since Screaming Skull is compelling stuff despite its hokey opening.

A widower brings his new wife to his mansion—the same mansion where his old wife met her grisly accidental death. The new wife, rich and disturbed, was institutionalized after witnessing her parents’ own violent demise. Creeping the grounds is Mickey, the autistic gardener who has grown unstable after the loss of his mistress. In this tumultuous fear-ridden setting, strange occurrences begin. Nocturnal poundings and a disembodied skull haunt the new wife. The widower believes a menacing painting of his old wife is causing his new wife’s “hallucinations”. Burning the painting unleashes a supernatural upheaval. There’s a satisfying, if foreseeable, plot twist and a gruesome finale where a skull chews out a dude’s throat.

This plot summary is intentionally vague. Screaming Skull deserves to be unspoiled. The multi-faceted characters and believable dialogue are absorbing, but most interesting are the plot’s ambiguities. There is clever interplay between reality and hallucination or hoax and supernatural. The new wife is terrified of the possessed skull but assumes she is crazy. However, the skull might be a manmade scheme to drive her so. Thankfully, the ending, delightfully unclear in tone, leaves questions unanswered.

Beyond its engrossing narrative, Screaming Skull succeeds with gothic ambiance. The empty mansion and dense gardens are ominous, accented by expansive compositions and shadowy lighting. The high contrast nighttime scenes are particularly notable. Horrific material is abound in the numerous simple but powerful effects shots. The inescapable rolling skull is chilling, even if it is just tossed from off screen. As is the old wife’s semi-transparent specter sweeping through the grounds.

Pay attention to the effective ambient sounds. The nocturnal hauntings use wailing wind, rustling leaves, clattering shutters, and unidentifiable knockings to unsettling result. Nothing beats the uncanny tearing-metal shriek that emits from the burning painting of the old wife. The fairly conventional score is also well integrated.

Screaming Skull tells a twisting tale with few characters and locations. This is a skillful sort of storytelling. It draws you in with sympathetic characters while repulsing with shocking horror. Plot conveniences and budgetary constraints are occasionally obvious but Screaming Skull is a flick that intelligently makes of the most of its assets.

Rating: 9/10 Shrunken Heads. Be sure to dig the dope gull-wing Mercedes.

Note: One character reads Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. Might there be a thematic link? I’m interested to hear any thoughts on this.


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