The Screaming Skull [DVD]
Screenplay : Leo Gordon
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1960
Stars : Ken Clark (Steve Benton), Yvette Vickers (Liz Walker), Jan Shepard (Nan Greyson), Michael Emmet (Cal Moulton), Tyler McVey (Doc Greyson), Bruno VeSota (Dave Walker), Gene Roth (Sheriff Kovis)
In the argument of quality versus quantity, producers Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff happily opted for the latter. Both Corman and Arkoff are hallowed names in the annals of exploitation and cheapie horror movies of the 1950s and '60s. The amount of cinema these two men are responsible for is staggering: Combined, they have production credits on at least 430 movies spanning more than five decades.
While Arkoff's last production credit was 1985's Hellhole, Corman continues to produce films well into the new century. And, while both men have had been connected with the best in Hollywood (Corman's school of filmmaking gave a leg up to such directors as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jonathan Demme, while Arkoff has worked with Brian De Palma and animation maverick Ralph Bakshi), they will always be remembered for their voracious cinematic output during the days of the drive-in movie theater. Most of the movies they made were never very good, but considering the time and monetary restraints under which the majority of them were made, they are testament to the independent spirit that continues to challenge traditional Hollywood output today.
One of Corman's earliest production efforts was The Giant Leeches (aka Attack of the Giant Leeches), a joint project with his brother, Gene Corman. Set in a steamy bayou swamp town, it gleefully mixes sordid Southern-fried melodrama with monster mayhem--it's as if Tennessee Williams were asked to pen a schlocky horror movie.
Something is killing the small town's residents and also making off with all the crocodiles, but no one believes Doc Greyson (Tyler McVey) that it may be some form of life the townspeople have never seen before. How to explain the giant bloody sucker marks on the deceased? As in most horror movies, characters are always more than willing to ignore the obvious. The local game warden (Steve Benton) is sure that there is a logical explanation, but he will, obviously, be proved wrong.
Director Bernard L. Kowalski, who had directed the Corman-produced Night of the Blood Beast two years earlier, handily splits the movie's brief 68-minute running time between the two staples of exploitation filmmaking: sex and violence. Sex comes in the form of then-Playboy Playmate Yvette Vickers, who plays Liz, the sultry wife of Dave Walker (Bruno VeSota), the overweight grocery-store owner. Liz spends the first 10 minutes of the movie slinking around Dave's grocery store in a tiny bathrobe, teasing the local men and casually tormenting her husband. This soon develops into a nasty love triangle, as Liz begins an affair with a local named Cal (Michael Emmet). And, wouldn't you know that Dave catches the two of them together in the swamp, the home of the giant leeches?
The violence comes in the form of an admittedly gruesome scene depicting the titular bloodsuckers going to work on their prey in an underwater cave. Apparently, the giant leeches don't kill people right away. Rather, they drag them back to their lair and keep them in a semi-conscious state at the edge of death, feeding on them from time to time by sucking their blood. Despite the cheap special effects, this feeding scene is justifiably infamous for its squirm-inducing grossness.
The giant leeches are, like so many monsters during the 1950s, the mutant spawn of atomic testing. Brought to life by stunt men wearing modified wetsuits that look like giant garbage sacks that barely (and sometimes don't) cover their scuba tanks, the giant leeches are generally silly in execution, although the concept is dead-on. After all, in all of the animal kingdom, there are few creatures more immediately off-putting and repulsive as a leech, especially one that's six feet tall.
The horror in the Samuel Z. Arkoff-produced The Screaming Skull is of a different sort, and unlike the Corman-produced Giant Leeches, there are no giant rubbery monsters. Instead, actor-turned-director Alex Nicol appears to be going for honest-to-God legitimate suspense in the mode of Alfred Hitchcock. That he generally fails does not deter enjoyment of the film, although said enjoyment is more in laughing at the attempt than vicariously thrilling at its execution.
The Screaming Skull begins with one of those ridiculous disclaimers that were all the rage in the late 1950s. It assured viewers that, if they were to die of fright while viewing the film, the producers would pay for their burial. I doubt anyone ever died of fright while watching this film, but they may have bruised a rib or two laughing at it.
The story begins with a recently married couple, Eric (John Hudson) and Jenni Whitlock (Peggy Webber), moving into the large estate Eric has inherited from his first wife who died under mysterious circumstances (apparently, she fell down a flight of stairs, smashed the back of her skull, and then drowned in a pond). As the story progresses, we begin to learn more and more about Jenni's fragile state, as she has been previously committed to a sanatorium after witnessing the gruesome deaths of both her parents.
So, when Jenni begins to see a haunted skull appearing in the house, is it real, is it a product of her deranged imagination, or is someone playing a cruel trick on her? All fingers seem to point at Mickey, the gardener, who is played by the director. Mickey is a slow-witted man who apparently loved Eric's first wife like family. Thus, it would make sense that he would try to scare away the woman who is trying to take her place, right?
The Screaming Skull climaxes in a prolonged sequence that features not one, not two, not even three screaming skulls, but a whole hoard of them that come from every conceivable direction. The sound effects and music are quite effective (the creepy, screeching musical score is by Ernest Gold, who would win an Oscar two years later for Exodus), even if the overall sequence is hokey and more laughable than frightening.
While John Hudson generally underplays Eric, Peggy Webber's overacting turns Jenni into a shrieking hysteric who some viewers will find quite irritating. Of course, one can't blame their acting too much, as they are forced to deliver inane dialogue. To wit: Jenni (looking up at a shed): "What's that?" Eric: "That's where Mickey keeps his gardening tools." Jenni: "Who's Mickey?" Eric: "The gardener."
If John Kneubuhl's script had been better, The Screaming Skull might have been a half-decent suspense thriller (budget isn't much of an issue, considering that the only horror prop is a skull). Director Alex Nicol proves to have a craftsman-like skill at directing--not too showy, but efficient. Many exploitation fans were no doubt bored during the first half of the movie, which deliberately establishes all the characters and background information in the hopes of creating a mystery surrounding the ghostly screaming skull. Unfortunately, despite all of Nicol's efforts, the answer is so painfully obvious from the start that the movie is never able to generate any real tension.
|Drive-In Discs Volume One: The Giant Leeches / The Screaming Skull|
|This is the first entry in a multi-volume collectible DVD series from Elite Entertainment, each of which contains a double-feature and memorable drive-in extras such as cartoon shorts, commercials, coming attractions, and intermission.|
|Audio||DISTORTO! in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Supplements|| Popeye animated short|
Betty Boop animated short
Preview trailers: The Wasp Woman and The Giant Gila Monster
Classic ads, including "Pic, the smoking bug repellant" and "Chilly Dilly"
"Let's All Go to the Lobby" animated intermission clip
10-minute countdown clock
"Hello Young Lovers" promo
"Keep Quiet During the Movie" warning
"Feed Your Family" short
"Tex Rides Again" refreshment break short
|Perhaps it is in keeping true to the cheap drive-in experience, but the visual quality of the two films on this double-feature DVD is generally crummy, with neither one looking particularly better than the other. Despite being presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), the image is definitely below par, especially when compared to other DVDs of black-and-white exploitation horror films made around the same time, including Criterion's Carnival of Souls and Elite's own Night of the Living Dead. Both The Giant Leeches and The Screaming Skull look to have been transferred from multiple-generation 16-mm prints that have lost contrast and depth. Black levels are mostly gray, and some of the lighter portions of the frame become so bright and unbalanced that they fade into the rest of the image, giving little sense of delineation or detail (this is particularly problematic in The Screaming Skull). The prints were relatively clean, as there are only a few instances of significant amounts of scratches or dirt. Still, considering the amount of work that went into the overall production of this disc, it is disappointing that the feature movies don't look better.|
|The clever folks at Elite Entertainment have come up with an aural gimmick on this DVD that would make the late William Castle proud. Aptly named DISTORTO!, this audio option is actually in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, but the soundtrack from the film is in monaural and isolated in the left front speaker, thus mimicking the drive-in single speaker that you used to affix to your driver's side window. The other four channels are then used to emit various background noises that you might hear at a drive-in: people chattering at the concession stand, cars driving in and parking, hoots and hollers whenever an attractive actress appears on-screen in minimal clothing, and the crunching of gravel beneath people's feet. The 5.1 soundtrack does an excellent job of making these background noises subtle, but effective, with creative imaging between the two rear speakers to give the sensation of cars driving behind you. When I first heard of this gimmick, I thought it would be annoying. Instead, I found it to be a lot of fun. However, if DISTORTO! is not your cup of tea, a regular 1.0 monaural soundtrack is also included. Here, I found a significant difference between the two films, as the soundtrack on The Giant Leeches sounded clean, while the soundtrack for The Screaming Skull was often filled with an audible amount of hiss and occasion popping.|
|As the first volume in Elite's "Drive-In Discs" series, this double-feature DVD is packed with nostalgic drive-in extras, all of which are presented in crystal clear anamorphic widescreen (unlike the black-and-white features themselves, the extras look extremely good, with sharp edges and good color saturation). This disc offers the option of watching the double-feature presentation straight through as if you were actually at a drive-in theater, which means the disc shows all the extras in a particular order structured around the two movies, or you can pick and choose what you want to watch. The 13 extra ads and clips include famous cartoon commercials for "Pic, the smoking bug repellent" and "Chilly Dilly" pickles, as well as a short ad encouraging mothers to feed their families on nutritious hotdogs (!) at the drive-in rather than cooking dinner. There are two previews of coming attractions (in this case, The Wasp Woman and The Giant Gila Monster, which will be featured on the volume two DVD) and ads for the concession stand, including the 10-minute countdown clock that features the dancing hotdogs, which many of the non-drive-in generation will remember as being featured in the background of Grease (1978). Before each feature there is a cartoon short, one of Betty Boop inspired by Alice in Wonderland and one of Popeye, both of which are in anamorphic full-frame.|
©2001 James Kendrick