Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

The Screaming Skull, 1958

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This is almost like a real movie.

The Poverty Row movies I’ve reviewed have, even the good ones, been old-fashioned in ways that American International Pictures-produced drive-in movies are not. Poverty Row movies, at least the horror ones, tend to be set-bound, stagy, and drag on for long stretches in individual scenes, following one character without intercutting anything else.

This particular AIP flick ((Which does not boast involvement from Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson, Roger Corman, or any of the usual suspects, for what that may be worth. )) is certainly location-bound, taking place almost entirely within, and on the grounds of, a single house. But the way it is cut, the way information is paid out to the audience, it has been put together by people who trust their audience, even while playing with them.

For instance, in this story of a house that may possibly be haunted, the environment is used to make the viewer uneasy — a window shutter slamming in the wind, branches rustling against the walls of the house, and the like. These things aren’t just throwaway details, but are used to establish mood.

By playing with the audience, I mean that some William Castle-ian showmanship informs the opening minute of the The Screaming Skull: The producers warn you that the closing of the movie may be so frightening as to be fatal, and promise to cover funeral and burial expenses of anyone who dies of fright watching the movie. ((No, Castle’s name was not in evidence in the credits. ))

After that opening bit of showmanship, the movie proper begins, with a man bringing his new bride home. The home is one he inherited from his first wife, and is bare and empty. His first wife was loaded, and died in an “accident” ((Spoiler: HE DID IT! HE DID IT!)), while his new wife is loaded, and has a tragic past.

The bulk of the movie involves the new wife wondering whether she’s going loony tunes, as more and more strange things happen that only she is witness to.

This film actually reminded me of two movies. The William Castle connection goes beyond the opening bit; the whole film feels like a variation on The House On Haunted Hill, with a smaller cast and tighter focus, as well as its mostly-limited location.

The other movie this reminded me of, and not pleasantly, was the (also AIP-produced) Die, Monster, Die!, insofar as it failed to make up its mind what it wanted to be. DMD, as I wrote before, was like two movies almost, one in which the supernatural was real, and one in which it was not and could not be, and it never really decided which way to go. This movie, as well, gets muddled about what it wants to be — is it an evil husband trying to drive his new wife to suicide, or is it the ghost of his first wife running the show for revenge? These two need not even have been exclusive, really. But the film plays toward rational explanations until the climax starts kicking in, not leaving a lot of room for the other possibility, then it goes for the ghost angle with guns blazing, and sort of leaves the husband’s shennanigans by the wayside, except for him finally getting his just desserts.

The Mill Creek disc I watched this on even had the picture in widescreen. Which, outside of their Spaghetti Western pack, they don’t do much at all. So that was nice.

And, as I said, it plays almost like a real movie. Mildly enjoyable, but don’t think about it too hard once it’s done.


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