In the early years of the nineteenth century, a phrenologist (Maurice Good) from Paris went graverobbing, intent on digging up the Marquis de Sade. The reason for this was that he believed he could learn something from examining the body's skull, and once the men he had paid to do the hard work of excavation left, he chopped off the head and carried it home. Once there, he walked into his bathroom only to find that there was a woman (April Olrich) in his bathtub, an old friend, but he told her to leave as he set about cleaning the skull for his purposes. When she went back in to see what was happening, she received a nasty surprise...
The mystique of the Marquis de Sade is something that has endured for centuries, so whenever he appears in fiction he is always the epitome of twisted evil, even when it's just his head that's involved as it is here. This film was based on a Robert Bloch short story and adapted for Amicus by one of its producers, Milton Subotsky. It is often regarded as one of the finest, if not the finest, films the company ever made aside from their portmanteau horror releases, and with their regular director Freddie Francis at the helm there was at least a guarantee it would look good.
As long as you excuse the muddy Eastmancolour, that is, which as it turns out only serves to render a seedy tone to the proceedings. That stuff with the phrenologist is merely the epilogue to a plot that features the downside of the collector's instinct as summed up by the role of Peter Cushing, playing Dr. Christopher Maitland, a man with a passion for occult bric-a-brac. We first see him while he's at an auction, in competition with a fellow collector, Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee getting the "guest star" credit even though he has one of the most significant roles).
Sir Matthew outbids Maitland for a group of small statues, but he pays an extraordinary price for them, perhaps an attempt to misdirect us that they will have more significance than they actually do. Maitland goes home bemused, but soon his regular contact, Marco (Patrick Wymark, superbly disreputable), has a new offer for him. It is a book about the Marquis de Sade - bound in human skin, naturally - and Marco strongly hints as he sells it that there's more where that came from. Which there is, being the skull of the title which carries a strange hold over its owners.
Maitland is spun a preposterous yarn about the Marquis possessed by an evil spirit to excuse the suspense to come, and soon he has the artefact in his care, although he then finds out that Marco stole it from Sir Matthew (which is why he was acting strangely). All of this is incredibly drawn out, obviously bulked up from a slim original, but Francis' skill with the camera provides some nice set ups. We get a skullcam at some points, to see the world from the object's eyes, but it's a pity it can't do much more than sit and look malevolent or float about: we could have done with a glowing skull, or a screaming skull. As it is we have to be satisfied with someone flicking a spotlight trained on the skull on and off, which is not quite as impressive. Cushing carries the film through the more impoverished patches, and there are some neat scenes of surreal menace, but there's an underfed feeling to much of the production. Music by Elisabeth Lutyens, which effectively brings the drama through some lengthy dialogue-free sequences.
A much respected cinematographer for decades, British Francis made his way up from camera operator on films like The Small Back Room, Outcast of the Islands and Beat the Devil to fully fledged cinematographer on such films as Room at the Top, Sons and Lovers (for which he won his first Oscar), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and The Innocents (a masterpiece of his art).