The Screaming Skull, 1958. 7/10

Pretty good premise for this psychological thriller. A guy Eric (John Hudson) moves his new wife Jenni (Peggy Webber) into his old place. His first wife died there–‘accidentally’. A creepy groundskeeper, Mickey (played by the director, Alex Nichol) is obsessed with the dead woman, Marianne; since Jenni is wealthy, we soon began to wonder if Mickey and/or Eric is trying to drive her nuts, maybe even set up an ‘accident’ for her.

The fact that Jenni’s recently been in an institution makes her particularly suseptible to gaslighting–she was suicidal at one point. Weird stuff happens around her almost immediately: weird noises, creep-outs by Mickey, and that nasty skull that pops up in the dead of night.

Eric blames Mickey for the skull appearances; hey, isn’t weird stuff supposed to be in a scruffy, inarticulate, somewhat lame guy’s potting shed? Eric steps up by burning the spooky painting of his dead wife. Thing is, along with other haunting notes, the ol skull rests under the ashes.

Eric actually plunges into the deadly pond to cop the skull. Now we know he’s in on the gaslighting deal, as it’s not where he expected it to be. He slaps Mickey around, thinking the batty guy is hiding it; so he is. And Mickey cosets it in a nice Easter basket, just like you’re supposed to (I guess).

Next thing we know, Mickey’s showing the head around to the Snow’s (the minister and his wife, Russ Conway and Tony Johnson). Under the patronizing questioning of Snow, we learn from Mickey that, with one exception, it’s Eric who must’ve been scaring Jenni with the skull. Well, next we actually get a visit from Marianne’s ghost.

Poor Jenni, looking for Eric in the greenhouse, sees and is chased by the diaphranous ghost. Meanwhile, Eric is inside, busy doing some loops and knots in a rope. Jenni is still outside, screaming (isn’t that the skull’s job?). Anyway, she gets inside; Eric waits–then strangles her. Ok, he is the bad guy.

But we’re not quite done. Someone’s knocking…the Snow’s? At this hour? Nope, it’s the ghost! And its head, fittingly, is the skull. He fends it off momentarily, but the detached skull is in his way now. Running outside, with lightning forking suddenly overhead, the skull grows very large as it nears, floating.

And, with an assist from a lightning bolt, Eric falls into the pond. The skull–now normal sized–attaches itself to his neck. The minister finds his body bobbing in the pond. The real surprise, however, is that Jenni’s ok, she’d just passed out when Eric had left her for dead.

I was thoroughly amazed at how successfully done this was. Not to impugn the IMDb user reviewers, but their average 3.8 rating is abysmal. What’s not to like? Well, it’s somewhat predictable. Early on we figure something bad is coming Jenni’s way. It’s how we get there that’s the fun.

Eric’s comeuppance wasn’t completely unanticipated. But, the working out of it was the highlight of the movie. For just a sec, I thought that maybe Jenni had come back from the dead too, so convincing was the strangulation scene. Also Mickey’s role was interesting; his innocence wasn’t exactly an obvious outcome. Some of the skull-duggery(!) was goofy, but, for the most part, the special effects worked well enough.

Though the performances weren’t exactly riveting, Webber showed vulnerability without ranting and raving. Everything else revolved around her character, so the relatively low-key tone let the mayhem stand out even more. A very watchable, entertaining film. 7/10.

*One very cool sidenote: the cawing of the peacocks certainly adds to the chilling atmosphere–for me it’s live action as well–peacocks roam not far from my place at night (as I write this) and chimed in. Almost on cue. As the strangulation scene developed, I really couldn’t tell if the peacock noise was coming from the next field over, or from my TV.

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