The Screaming Skull
I definitely have a bias for creature features when it comes to picking out bad movies. They’re more action-oriented and the creature is usually ridiculous, which keeps me entertained even when the characters are wooden and the dialogue is awful; though, I can also appreciate unintentionally hilarious/horrible dialogue as well. At first, I was leery about watching The Screaming Skull because it’s a ghost story, an old, bad one, and I was afraid I’d be bored. However, I’m glad I dragged this from the darkest reaches of my personal vault. The story is entertaining and the titular skull is really amusing. It’s nice to know your prejudices can be overturned by a cheap prop skull and a woman screaming her head off.
The movie begins with a narrator telling the audience that the producers think the film is so terrifying that they have to offer free burial services if they die of fright during the film; the narrator says this as a camera pans in on a casket that opens with a sign reading, “Reserved for You.” Then it shows a pond boiling and frothing, fog coming up out of it, and a skull slowly raises out of water. Flash: the title reads, “The Screaming Skull.” Cue women singing spooky arias. The opening was so cheesy that I literally burst out laughing. My brother, who was sitting on the couch with his laptop, not particularly paying attention, looked at me like I was nuts. Comedy is something I’ve never quite understood. That is to say, I’ve never quite figured out what makes something funny because it’s not always clear why something is funny and the response to a joke is highly subjective. The beginning of The Screaming Skull is cheesy and absurd, yes, but why it earned more than my usual chuckle, why indeed it warranted anything more than a pained groan and a rolled eye is beyond me. Suffice it to say, there’s either something especially comical about the film’s introduction or I take perverse delight in the dregs of cinema.
By contrast, the story is serious, even interesting, if somewhat cliché. A pair of newlyweds named Eric and Jenni move in to a mansion belonging to Eric’s previous wife, who died under tragic circumstances. Reverend Snow and his wife, Mrs. Snow, greet the couple and help them settle into their home. We’re also introduced to Mickey, a childish, simple-minded gardener who’s been keeping the grounds for past two years since Marion’s death and Eric’s departure from the estate. He hobbles around and talks to a portrait of Marion, all while looking markedly suspicious. At night, Jenni is haunted by spooky happenings, such as peacocks crying and then disappearing, the wind blowing a door open and shut, and a cabinet opening to reveal a skull; wealthy people always have peacocks on their lawn. We learn the details of Marion’s death and Jenni’s past as the movie goes on. Marion died when she slipped and fell in the rain, cracking her skull and falling into the pond where she drowned. Jenni had a terrible relationship with her mother, so bad that Jenni wished her mother would die. When her mother and father drowned in a boating accident, she blamed herself and had to go to a sanitarium. Eric and Jenni think she’s hallucinating because her past psychological trauma has flared up again, caused by the portrait of Marion who looks so much like Jenni’s mother. However, Eric also accuses Mickey of scaring her and reprimands him. When Eric and Jenni burn Marion’s portrait in an attempt to symbolically get rid of her guilt, there are series of strange happenings: the soundtrack is filled with ghostly arias, the peacocks call, pigeons fly off, the ground under a group of daisies is rent by unseen forces, and the pond roils and fog comes out. When they put out the flames, a skull is found among the ashes. Eric insists that he doesn’t see the skull and Jenni faints, but when she’s unconscious he picks up the skull and drops it in the pond. Uh oh. We learn that Jenni, like Marion, comes from a wealthy family. Eric tells Reverend Snow that they have to leave because Jenni is still hallucinating and he’s afraid she will attempt to commit suicide like she did in the sanitarium. The night of their intended departure, Jenni goes out to the greenhouse to say goodbye to Mickey, but an apparition in a dress with a sunhat and veil chases her. She runs into the house and up the stairs only to find herself in the hands of Eric, who strangles her, seemingly to death. He composes himself to answer the pounding on the front door and finds himself face to face with a skeleton in a dress. He crumbles the skeleton Marion with a chair, but when the skull appears wherever he runs. Outside, lightning flashes and thunder crashes as a semi-opaque skull flies across the screen screaming, chasing him this way and that. Marion finally takes her revenge when the skull flies to bite his throat and he falls in the pond, where he thrashes around with the skull in his hands until he dies. Jenni wakes back up and with Reverend Snow puts together the pieces of Eric’s scheme to take her fortune by strangling her and making it look like she hung herself in a fit of psychosis.
The Screaming Skull was more endearing than I would have expected it to be. The story is a little cliché in terms of the husband killing for money and the ghosts of the dead wife seeking revenge, but it had an interesting angle with Jenni’s psychiatric history. Perhaps I’ve been watching too much Scooby Doo lately, but I also suspected the husband murdered his wife over the hobbling, simpleton Mickey; it’s never the obvious suspect in Scooby Doo, except maybe once or twice to throw you off. The special effects were on par with the ones at a haunted house in a cheap carnival, but I think that made them charming. The prop skull and skeleton were great, especially when the skull bites Eric on the neck and he thrashes around with it, pretending that it’s trying to bite him; I didn’t laugh as hard, but it still made me smile. One of the things I love about low budget films is how they manage to make so much with so little. The premise is simple and the special effects are cheesy, but the film is entertaining. In a world where expensive summer blockbusters are disposable entertainment, here today in theaters, tomorrow relegated to the bargain bin, perhaps Hollywood could learn from The Screaming Skull. Make bad films cheap. A nerd will expound upon their worth 50 years later. Then the big bucks come in.
For those of you who are curious, you can find The Screaming Skull on Youtube where you can watch it for free. How I love the public domain.