It Came from the ’50s: The Screaming Skull

What a boring, plodding, nonfrightening, trope-filled mess we have with The Screaming Skull, from 1958. There was a promising film in here, somewhere. After all, an uncountable mass of pulp fiction and comic books (especially EC Comics in their heyday) used the exact same plot, with the exact same ending. If they couldn’t be competent, then the least director Alex Nicol and company could have done was be enjoyably shitty, but they couldn’t even manage that.

At the beginning of this film, viewers are treated to an announcement from the film’s producers promising a free coffin should anyone die of fright while watching the movie. It’s not the worst marketing ploy of the time, and the producers could sleep easy about ever paying it out. This is amongst the least-frightening horror movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot.

The Screaming Skull stars Jon Hudson as Eric Whitlock and Peggy Webber as his wife, Jenni. The couple are newlyweds, but this isn’t Eric’s first marriage. His previous wife, Marian, died of an accidental fall, and now the new couple has moved into the palatial house Eric shared with Marian. Oh, joy for Jenni!

There’s also a groundskeeper on the property, Mickey, played by Nicol. Mickey has some sort of mental disability, and has developed a fixation on Marian. He likes to creep around the house and property, keeping tabs on Jenni and talking to Marian, as if she were still alive. It just keeps getting better for Jenni, doesn’t it?

In fact, Jenni isn’t taking the move well, at all. She worries herself sick trying to live up to Eric’s memory of Marian, and moving into the dead woman’s home isn’t helping matters. Nor is the fact that Jenni is not that far removed from a stay at a mental hospital. The Screaming SkullEric, for his part, is ever the gentleman, and tries to protect his new wife from stress that could cause a psychological relapse.

That’s the setup. So, what about this screaming skull?

With a running time of only 68 minutes, there wasn’t much time before Nicol had to show something of the plot. During the first night in the house, Jenni is startled by a sound out of the dark. And that’s pretty much how all the non-scares in this film play out. Jenni is awakened in the middle of the night by some sinister sound, and she moves through the house, slowly, to find and investigate it. Sometimes the sound is caused by something innocuous, and sometimes there’s a prop skull on a shelf and a scream in the soundtrack. When that happens, Jenni screams, herself, and passes out onto the floor. These sequences eat up vast amounts of this flick’s short running time, and are a far-too-obvious effort to pad a thin script. How thin could the script be? Well, those EC Comics I mentioned above would take care of this entire film, plot twist and all, in eight pages. Sometimes less.

My favorite moment of shitty comes near the end, when Whitlock was tasked by Nicol to hop into a goldfish pond and wrestle the prop skull. There Whitlock is, thrashing around in the water while holding the skull to his neck, pretending to be bitten. It’s like watching a toddler play pretend, and is a glorious example of shitty filmmaking.

But, I can’t recommend this film to anyone. Everything in it contributes to its dullness. Direction, acting, special effects, storytelling, pacing — it fails in everything it tries. Except for a creepy score, but that’s only because most of it was lifted directly from Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. The Screaming Skull joins the bottom-feeders of the index, burrowing into the muck in at #241, between The Last Exorcism Part II and The Giant Spider Invasion. Yuck.

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