The Screaming Skull (1958) **
Phony ghost movies make me angry; they always have. When I was a little kid, at least half of the reason why I kept watching ďScooby Doo, Where Are You?Ē was a stubborn and irrational certainty that one of these days, that goddamned dog and his annoying owners were going to cross swords with a real fucking ghost, and get their clocks cleaned but good. It only stood to reason, you know? Look for trouble long enough, and sooner or later, youíre going to find it. But Iím going off on a tangentó weíre here to talk about The Screaming Skull. This AIP also-ran is notable for standing the traditional phony ghost formula on its head. It spends the bulk of its extremely brief running time setting up a plot to drive the heroine insane with a bogus haunting, but then a real ghost shows up in the climax to take down the bad guys. If it had been entrusted to somebody who had a clue, rather than to first-time director Alex Nicol, The Screaming Skull might have been a somewhat bigger deal.
As it is, The Screaming Skull makes for the most unlikely of all vehicles for the time-honored ticket-selling gimmick of insurance against death by frightó or in this case, a promise by the producers to cover the cost of your funeral if you should happen to keel over while watching the film. The only way anyone was going to get a scare (let alone a fatal one) out of seeing this turkey would be if they were to look down at their popcorn bag at the exact moment when the biggest cockroach in the state crawled out of it. And because of the filmmakersí terribly unwise decision to shoot a little prologue scene dedicated to waving the gimmick in our faces (which may simply have been the only thing they could think of to push the running time up above an hour), they have preserved the irony of their promotional scheme for all time.
Newlyweds Eric and Jenni Whitlock (John Hudson and Peggy Webber, of The Space Children) have just come to town to move into Ericís old house. Truth be told, the ownership history of the place is a bit convoluted. It belonged to the family of Ericís first wife, Marian, and it devolved upon him after Marianís sudden death in an accident a few years ago; no one is entirely sure what happened, but it seems that Marian slipped on some wet leaves while running through the back yard, fell head-first onto the low stone wall that surrounds the frog pond, and then slipped into the pond itself to drown. The place is almost entirely unfurnished at the moment, because almost immediately before she died, Marian gave orders to have everything that had belonged to her parents cleared out, so that she and her husband could remake their home entirely according to their own wishes. Thus the only part of the house that looks at all lived in is the extensive garden, which has been lovingly maintained by a halfwit named Mickey (director Nicol, who can also be seen acting in A*P*E* and The Night God Screamed), of whom Marian had been extremely fond. Mickey took the womanís death very hard, and indeed, he sometimes gives the impression that he doesnít quite believe sheís really gone. Not only that, he acts as though he regards the return of Eric Whitlock with a new wife to take Marianís place as both an affront against the dead woman and an intrusion upon his private, post-mortem relationship with Marianís ghost.
As if the idea of sleeping in an empty house, in the bedroom once occupied by her dead predecessor, and living with a guy who seems to expect the deceased to come waltzing through the front door at any second werenít enough to give Jenni the creeps, we soon learn that thereís an undercurrent to her own past that makes the situation even worse. It comes out in conversation between the Whitlocks and their neighbors, the Reverend and Mrs. Snow (Russ Conway, from War of the Worlds, and Tony Johnson), that certain aspects of Marianís demise echo those of Jenniís parents. Like Marianís, their deaths came suddenly and accidentally, and also like Marian, they breathed their last in the water. Hell, the portrait of Marian that Eric keeps even looks a bit like Jenniís mom. Furthermore, because Jenni despised her mother, and often wished her dead, she is lugging around a tremendous amount of guilt these daysó enough, in fact, to have sent her to a mental hospital right around the time that she met and fell in love with Eric. In other words, thereís every reason in the world for Jenni to develop a persecution complex in which she believes that Marianís unquiet spirit has it in for her.
Interesting, then, that Jenni should start having vivid nightmares and visions involving Marian on nights when her husband is out of town on business. In these dreams and visitations, Marianís spirit takes the form of a shrieking skull that moves of its own accord, and seems to be able to pop up anywhere it wants to around the house and its grounds. At first, the obvious interpretation is that Mickey is behind Jenniís harrowing nocturnal experiences, but more and more evidence gradually piles up to point the finger of blame at Eric instead, despite the fact that he has no apparent motive for driving his wife back into madness. Where Eric goes wrong, however, is in his failure to take into account the agenda of Marianís real ghost, which has been lurking in that frog pond for years, and which has come to take a very dim view of its former husband.
A recurring failure of phony ghost moviesó even ones that turn out to have a legitimate specter or two up their sleeves as welló is the array of preposterous contrivances that the filmmakers almost always resort to in order to explain away the various staged ďsupernaturalĒ manifestations. On this score, The Screaming Skull differs from the likes of The Mysterious Doctor only in that screenwriter John Kneubuhl never bothers to reveal what the preposterous contrivances were. This approach is marginally less irritating than the standard model, in that it saves us from the usual scene with the smug detective touring the scene of the crime and pointing out all the hidden phonographs and secret passages, but it still doesnít address the fact that Eric would have to get around several important laws of physics in order to pull most of his tricks off. Meanwhile, the real ghost introduces problems of its own. What are the odds that Eric would just happen to stage his fraudulent haunting using exactly the same modus operandi as a genuine ghost whose existence he doesnít even suspect? Finally, the all-important question of motive never comes up at all until the final scene of the film, in which it is revealed in passing that Jenni has been sitting all along on top of a humongous shitpile of money which nobody had seen fit to say anything about until then. Itís just plain sloppy writing, and in conjunction with Nicolís understandably halting and amateurish direction, it does a pretty thorough job of scuttling the movie.
What stops the shortcomings of script and direction from ruining The Screaming Skull completely is the cast, which is much better than this movie really deserves. There are no standout performances, exactly, but all of the actors make their characters seem enough like real people to give the film some kind of foundation with which to support the heavy weight of crap pressing down on it from above. The cast canít make The Screaming Skull into anything worth getting excited about, but they do at least keep it on its feet for the most part.