For the first time in years, I just watched a double feature of THE SKULL, directed by Freddie Francis, and THE MAN WHO CHEATED DEATH, directed by Terence Fisher, released on blu-ray this week. THE SKULL has been reviewed ever since it opened without much enthusiasm, and DEATH usually gets mentioned in passing as a lesser Fisher film. Though I am not ready to proclaim the films masterpieces, I am here to urge those interested in Hammer and Amicus productions to take a look.
Fisher works from a highly melodramatic and talky Sangster script (based on a play) that somehow never transcends the boundaries of boulevard melodrama. Fisher, knowing he has a lot of talking to get the viewer through, stages each and every dialogue beat with a choreographer's exactitude, which seems at times more fitting for opera or musical theatre than film. But taking the piece as a whole, realizing the choices Fisher made and stuck with though out, there's an extraordinary sense of directorial craft on display. Typical of Fisher, every shot, camera move, and bit of blocking keeps the action forward moving; nothing is arbitrary, nothing is wasted. Jack Asher's lush photography distills Fisher's heightened dramatic choices with very clever and well placed color diffusions and short lens compositions that at times seem to sizzle in context to the action. And, of course, Robinson's sets utilize, as always, the Hammer stock, with vivid details framing the action, supporting Fisher's storytelling style with the kind of vitality only well chosen and appropriately placed details can. There is more to THE MAN WHO CHEATED DEATH then one might think. If nothing else, it offers us a rather nakedly displayed example of Fisher's directorial sense of craft, which in itself is worth the effort.
THE SKULL is a revelation. Freddie Francis could be a workmanlike director who did not appreciate the flourish of melodrama the way Fisher did. Fisher could take a script filled with narrative inconsistencies and just about any nutty idea Sangster and Elder could throw at him without wasting time on things that might draw our attention to these problems. Fisher, I think, found a way to draw the thematic from his scripts, treating the themes with a straight on seriousness that give his best films a dramatic weight missing from most others -- then and now. Fisher never condescended, whereas Francis unwittingly, I think, did. Fisher found a sense of truth in the themes he extrapolated and explored, whereas Francis merely documented action. That's why THE SKULL is so exciting; at least, watching it on blu-ray, it excited me. Am thinking it may in fact be Francis' best, most sustained work as a director.
Basically a series of long sequences without dialogue, THE SKULL comes to life, first and foremost, as an entirely visual experience. Certainly, there are dialogue scenes, but not many. The idea being, a skull, supposedly that of de Sade, is introduced into the drawing room setting of Peter Cushing's character ( a collector of macabre artifacts used for some sort of research). The skull is possessed by a demon that causes "confusion and murder." The story, then, is how the skull influences Cushing, tricking, manipulating, and even torturing him, until the end. The dialogue does very little to explain what indeed is happening in the film. Francis relies totally on camera moves, color, editing rhythms, dissolves, and music to communicate the film's significant action. A nightmare quality is sustained with a brilliant sense of ironically conceived moments where reality simple melds with hallucination; nightmare comes, then, in a keen and clear light, unannounced and challenging. To "get" the movie, one must really think about what is happening. (The whiff of Resnais in the shadow of each sequence reminded me that LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD is a twist and turn on an old horror movie concept.) Freddie Francis, like Fisher, keeps things moving without making it feel rushed. Each image implies something and inevitably leads to something else. There is never a scene that spells it all out. That becomes the viewers' job. By the time we reach the end, the perceptive viewers realize the story we think we were watching is not really the story Francis and his screen writer have been telling. It is a remarkable film.