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Just in time for Halloween, welcome to a new segment on Third Act Film: It Came From The Bargain Bin, a series devoted to the weird and wacky world of low-budget cinema. From experimental indies and spaghetti westerns to the bad acting and wobbly sets of B and Z movies, there´s something for every kind of adventurous cineast in here.
Now, what better way to open this new feature than by examining a B movie that is the epitome of cheap? 1958´s The Screaming Skull, directed by Broadway veteran Alex Nicol, is so blatantly a product of 50s William Castle novelties and gimmicks, that it even opens with a promise to offer free burials to anyone who ‘dies of fright’ while watching. This Castle wannabe also offers a haunted house (and given the angle, it may well be on or near a hill), and even a tacky monster in the form of the titular bone to boot.
So, what’s the story of this just barely feature-length ‘screamfest’? Well, Jenni and Eric are a newlywed couple who move into the home owned by Eric’s late wife, Marion. Marion died mysteriously one night after falling into the pond, suffering a fracture on her skull (hence our ghoul of choice), and is mourned by the mentally handicapped gardener Mickey (played by Nicol). From there, spooky sounds echo in the night, and a skull finds itself in all sorts of places, trying to scare the living bejesus out of Jenni.
The cheapness of the production becomes painfully apparent quickly: From the opening shot of the skull, clearly on wires, rising out of the water and dry ice, to the fact that the action never goes beyond the house. It even takes place mostly in daytime, and what else are daytime scenes for in a low-rent horror film? Mammoth amounts of boring and money-saving exposition meant to fill us in on Eric and Jenni’s background, like her fear of water (which never plays meaningfully into the narrative, and she even has an extended dialogue scene right next to a pond), or her being an ex-asylum patient.
In fairness, the actors give a better than average showing, likely because of Nicol’s acting background, but the script completely lets them down, drawing out basic scenes of simply banter between characters to fill up large chunks of the hour-long runtime, while the skull or anything resembling ‘horror’, is lucky to appear every fifteen or so minutes. Jenni doesn’t have much personality other being a sweet girl who gets spooked, while Eric’s eventual motivations are only given maybe a throwaway, as well as oddly short, explanation at the end. The film only has five characters, yet only two ever feel like they push the plot forward. A cast this small should not have dead weight (pun may or may not be intended).
Even Nicol’s talents as a filmmaker are sorely lacking: He has little grasp of the cinematic language, often using lazy wide shots for extended periods when multiple characters are on-screen, as well as pointless tracking shots outside of the house at night. Add in multiple editing guffs where characters and music are cut off midway, and telegraphing of scares due to said poor editing and it renders the film every bit as tacky as the main prop. No amount of fairly decent night-time atmosphere, courtesy of Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, can give the film anything resembling creepiness. The film only has two scares: the skull’s random appearances and someone banging at the front door at night, the latter’s suspense ruined as there is only two other characters besides Jenni at the house, making it easy to guess where this thread is going.
All this blends together to make a really dull experience that even the novelty of a seemingly ‘living skull’ (which also barely screams) can’t salvage. It’s not slick or professional enough to be scary, nor is it cheesy or silly enough to be funny in that ‘so bad it’s good’ way that many of its drive-in contemporaries were. Really, that burial guarantee should have been for death by boredom.
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