[The camera pans over a coffin with a "Reserved For You" sign inside]
Narrator: Therefore, its producers feel they must assure free burial services to anyone who dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull.
Meet a lovely couple of newlyweds, Eric and Jenni. Eric is a widower who inherited his late wife Marian's palatial country home after she died in an unfortunate and mysterious accident. Jenni is a wealthy young nervous wreck fresh out of an asylum. Oh, and there's also Mickey the gardener, he of unkempt hair and a child's mentality, who claims that Marian "cries in the night" and dislikes Jenni as an unwanted replacement. Now they're all going to spend a few days in a huge, empty mansion echoing with the ghosts of the past, with nothing to hide their emotional baggage. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Screaming Skulls, that's what. Jenni starts to hear unexplained screeches at night, and stumbles upon skulls that disappear by the time she brings someone else to see them. Is the ghost of Marian hanging around to drive Jenni away? Is this all Mickey's doing, who underneath his moronic exterior hides the shrewd mind of a psychological torturer? Is Jenni suffering another mental breakdown? Or is Eric a murderer — dispatching Marian for the mansion and attempting to do it again to Jenni so he can inherit her fortune?
Actually, though it's transparently obvious that Eric is the Big Bad, he's not the only one playing with skulls. His attempts to drive Jenni to suicide (or at least create a condition in which her ending up hanging from the ceiling won't be questioned too much) go well until Mickey swipes the skull Eric's been leaving for Jenni to find and exposes him for the murderer that he is. At the film's climax, when Eric goes looking for his missing skull, Marian's ghost really does show up, and a veritable pack of semi-translucent skulls hound Eric across the estate before one attaches itself to his neck and brings him down in a pond, drowning him.
This 1958 American horror film was directed by Alex Nicol, a character actor who was tired of being typecast as villains in Westerns and film noirs and thought a horror movie offered an opportunity to expand his range. Besides directing, Nicol also plays a supporting role as Mickey the gardener. The movie was made on a shoestring budget, mostly filmed over two weeks at the Huntington Hartford Estate in Santa Monica, with a small ensemble of character actors (Peggy Webber, John Hudson, Russ Conway and Tony Johnson) who agreed to appear in the movie for a reduced salary of $1,000. Nichol promised his costars a percentage of the film's profits, but the production company refused to pay the bonus.
Screaming Skull was originally released by American International Pictures in a double-feature package with Terror from the Year 5000. The movie gained some notoriety for its William Castle-inspired gimmick of promising a free coffin to anyone who "died of fright" while watching it (unsurprisingly, no one tried to collect). Screaming Skull received decent critical reviews and performed fairly well in theaters for a low budget picture, but earned its creators very little money; one of AIP's producers failed to file a copyright claim and thus the movie fell into Public Domain almost immediately after its release.
Tropes used in The Screaming Skull:
- Big Bad: Eric Whitlock, The Bluebeard and master of Gaslighting.
- The Bluebeard: Eric is after Jenni's fortune, and it's implied that he was also after Marian's.
- Break the Cutie: Jenni comes pre-broken, for your convenience.
- Cassandra Truth: Mickey tells Jenni that he hears Marian cry in the night. Given Mickey's appearance and mental state, no one heeds this, but he's right.
- Chairman of the Brawl: Eric throws a stool at Marian's ghost.
- Cool Car: Eric's gull-wing Mercedes.
- Creator Cameo: Director Alex Nicol as Mickey.
- Crusty Caretaker: Mickey.
- Deathly Dies Irae: The villain's Leitmotif.
- Dem Bones: Marian has a surprising number of skulls under her command.
- Department of Redundancy Department: Mickey's intro.Eric: That's where Mickey keeps his gardening things.
Jenni: Who's Mickey?
Eric: [without a trace of annoyance or irony] The gardener.
- Domestic Abuse: Eric is a fan of Gaslighting.
- Driven to Suicide: Jenni attempted it prior to the movie. This, or having her declared incompetent, seems to be Eric's goal.
- Dull Surprise: Believe it or not, the best example doesn't come from Jenni, but Reverend Snow when he finds Eric's dead body.
- Evil Plan: Eric Whitlock seeks to drive his new wife mad and gain her money.
- Fanservice: Gratuitous shots of Jenni stripping down to her undergarments.
- Gaslighting: Eric's plan to drive Jenni insane and get control of her money.
- Gold Digger: Eric is a rare male version. The death of his first wife was so sudden that she hadn't finalized her will, leaving Eric with only the house, so now he's after Jenni.
- Good Shepherd: Reverend Snow is a very nice fellow. Both he and the Mrs. make their care and concern for Jenni and Eric (who they don't suspect of any wrongdoing) very clear throughout the story.
- Happiness Is Mandatory: Eric forbids Jenni from talking about her issues. It's most likely just a ploy to keep her from discussing her problems with others, or prevent her from reaching an epiphany that might screw up his plans for her. His tone is loving, but it hides his true purpose.
- In Name Only: Has pretty much nothing to do with the F. Marion Crawford short story (which is worth reading— check it out here).
- I See Dead People: Possibly Mickey at first, then Eric and Jenni later.
- I Wished You Were Dead: One big source of Jenni's angst; she hated her mother and now blames herself for both her parents' deaths.
- Jump Cut: An unintentional example: Most prints contain a really bad splice from the scene where Jenni approaches the banging window to running toward Eric's arms. In between all that was when she locked the window and became frightened by a scary-looking portrait of a woman.Tom Servo: Oh honey, the film broke! It was horrible!
- Karmic Death: Reverend Snow says Marian's corpse was found in the pond, with everyone believing she had simply slipped in the rain and hit her head before falling in. When Marian's ghost exacts her vengeance, Eric is forced into the same pond to drown, with the Reverend later finding his body.
- Kick the Dog: Eric's treatment of Mickey — though in this case it's more "Repeatedly Bitchslap The Dog".
- Leave the Camera Running: As Jenni ponders whether she should investigate all the noises in the house.
- Left Hanging: The cast never learns whether Marian died in an accident or Eric killed her, though for the audience, the fact that her ghost returned to take vengeance on Eric makes the latter case pretty clear.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: Eric's modus operandi, assuming he actually killed Marian. Which we do.
- Manchild: Mickey.
- Minimalist Cast: There are exactly five on-screen characters in this film: Eric, Jenni, Reverend Snow, Mrs. Snow, and Mickey. That's it.
- Mister Exposition: Eric slips into this a few times.Eric: It's rather forbidding now, I suppose, empty like this. But it was usually this way. Shortly after Marian and I were married, she removed all the furniture her parents had left her. "This is our home," she used to say. "We must choose everything carefully." She didn't get very far before she died. But now that you're here, everything will be lovely again.
- Most Definitely Not a Villain: The audience spends the entire movie waiting for them to admit that Eric's the bad guy.
- Murder Is the Best Solution:
- Eventually, Eric decides this. Presumably he would try and make it look like a suicide or accident, as he did with Marion.
- Before she ran in screaming he was hanging a noose from the ceiling. Choking was no problem since she'd be in the noose when found and that town really doesn't bother investigating murders. Besides, he pretty much promised the reverend that she was going to kill herself.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The film attempts this during the Leave the Camera Running segments to build tension, but the execution leaves much to be desired.
- Police Are Useless: The cast seems to think so, since they don't bother to contact any even after Eric dies.
- Posthumous Character: Marian died from a fall (or at least was staged to look like one) before the film began.
- Real After All: Choke on that, Eric! Marian's ghost is hinted to the audience to be real when her painting is destroyed (by a scream that both Jenni and Eric hear and the flower vases at her grave shattering in response). And while the apparition which pursues Jenni at the climax could be a figment of her imagination, any such doubt is shattered when it comes for Eric himself...
- The Reveal: After Jenni faints from terror at seeing a skull in the fire that Eric swears isn't there, he smugly retrieves the skull and hides it, giving away that he's the bad guy for the tiny handful of viewers who hadn't already guessed it.
- Red Herring: Why, the creepy, child-like gardener the movie constantly shoves into your face at every opportunity and who does not profit even slightly from driving Jenni insane or killing his childhood friend Marian is not, in fact, at all responsible for the events of this film.
- Creepy Red Herring: They sure tried to make this work, but Mickey's creepiness comes off as more pitiable than threatening.
- Replacement Goldfish: Jenni can't help but see herself this way. Especially since Eric constantly talks about his first wife when she's around.
- Sanity Slippage: Mickey may not have been the sharpest tool in the box, but Marian's death — and possibly knowing Eric killed her — sent him over the edge into Madness Mantra territory.
- Screaming Woman: Peggy Webber had a pretty effective scream. Good thing, too, since her character spends about half her screentime shrieking bloody murder.
- The Sociopath: Eric Whitlock, who marries rich women and kills them for their inheritance. This time around, he's decided to fake a haunting to drive his new bride to suicide.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: The music in the earlier parts of the film isn't so bad, but the music at the supposedly shocking climax, maybe just due to technical ineptitude, ends up sounding like the music to some slapstick cartoon. It doesn't help that it accompanies scenes like Eric falling down goofily and skulls bouncing around after him.Mike: It's Bugs Bunny sneaking up music!
- Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl: In a frilly sun dress and huge floppy hat.
- Til Murder Do Us Part: Eric's ultimate plan: He married the wealthy Jenni, and now plans to either drive her to suicide, or engineer a situation where he can murder her and make it look like one.
- Those Two Guys: The Reverend and Mrs. Snow basically amount to this.
- Touch of the Monster: Just look at that poster up there!
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Reverend Snow inadvertently makes the situation worse. After The Reveal, it looks like Eric'll be able to have Jenni committed, but the Reverend talked to her and became convinced she really did see a skull. He intended to search the grounds for it the next day, even bringing along others to help. Hearing this, Eric goes to where he hid the skull, but it's suddenly gone. As a result, Eric plans to simply murder Jenni and fake a suicide before he's found out. Luckily, his attempt is interrupted.