The Screaming Skull: Portrait for Jenni

The Screaming Skull directed by Alex Nicol The Screaming Skull directed by Alex Nicol

The Screaming Skull directed by Alex Nicol It was at NYC’s revival theater extraordinaire Film Forum that I first got the chance to see the 1958 horror wonder known as The Screaming Skull. On that day, back in 1990 or so, the film was shown as part of a double feature, playing with another 1958 doozy, Earth vs. the Spider. And really, this was a most apropos pairing, as these two films, when first released in August ‘58, were indeed shown as a double feature. Somehow, though, the passing of three decades had sufficed to allow me to forget pretty much all the incidents in both films, and recent rewatches of the two have made me wonder how I could possibly have forgotten all the many fine qualities in them. (I really do need to start taking ginkgo biloba to improve my memory capacity!) But while Earth vs. the Spider continues to have many defenders today, despite its being a mere “B picture,” The Screaming Skull has been all but forgotten, and the only reviews that you tend to see of the film are largely negative in tone. True, the film is a small one, with a relatively “no-name cast,” but that recent rewatch of mine has only served to reinforce the notion that the picture is highly effective, dishing out scares in a very competent manner.

The film opens with a warning, one seemingly taken from the pages of the great cinematic showman William Castle. Castle’s first genuine horror film, Macabre, had just opened in March ’58, and its customers were all given $1,000 life insurance policies in case any of them were to die of fright during the viewing of the film. Five months later, in the opening of The Screaming Skull, we are treated, in the very first scene, to the sight of a candlelit coffin, and are told that the picture that we are about to see just might kill us, and so free burial services will be provided by the film’s producers for all of us who die of fright while watching! (Somehow, this viewer managed to survive.) It is a nice creepy way to get the festivities rolling here, after which we viewers get to meet a newlywed couple, Eric (John Hudson) and Jenni (Peggy Webber), who are about to move into the empty mansion that had belonged to Eric’s recently deceased first wife, Marion. It is a beautiful estate, with a decorative pond and greenhouse attached to the property, although the house itself is devoid of furnishings and furniture and thus looks rather eerie. The happy couple is greeted by their friendly neighbors, the Reverend Snow (Russ Conway) and his wife (Tony Johnson…and yes, that is a woman), although the estate’s gardener, Mickey (Alex Nicol, who also happens to be the film’s director), who is both mentally and physically handicapped, is not nearly as welcoming. Problems begin almost immediately for poor Jenni, a woman who had recently been committed to a mental institution after having watched both her parents drown in an accident. Now, she has a morbid belief that the portrait of Marion that is one of the house’s few adornments looks just like her dead mother. Worse, it would seem as if the ghost of Marion herself has come to haunt her, making knocking noises at night and leaving skulls in cabinets and out of doors. Eric prefers to blame all these occurrences on the very strange and secretive gardener Mickey, but we viewers just aren’t sure about that. And as the spectral manifestations continue, it would seem as if Jenni is drawing ever closer to the brink of another mental collapse…

The Screaming Skull was supposedly based on a 1908 short story by the great horror author Francis Marion Crawford, but as far as I can tell, the only things the two have in common are the title itself. Rather, this film seems to be more indebted to such great Gothic cinematic masterpieces as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (‘40) and George Cukor’s Gaslight (‘44). As in the first, here, we have a new bride who is haunted and overwhelmed by the presence of her predecessor; as in the second, we have a woman in a creepy Gothic abode who is most definitely losing her marbles. And Peggy Webber, I must say, does a pretty terrific job as the befuddled Jenni. Webber, who had previously appeared somewhere in Hitchcock’s 1956 film The Wrong Man and who is still very much alive today, at the time of this writing, at 95, is an attractive if not entirely beautiful performer, although she does look pretty alluring when stripped down to her brassiere and see-through nightie. She also happens to be a most impressive screamer, a skill that she gets to demonstrate many times during the course of this film. As for the picture’s other players, Hudson had just appeared as Virgil Earp in the great Western Gunfight at the OK Corral one year previous to this film, and he gives a nicely ambiguous performance here. Conway, playing the reverend, has a surprisingly huge filmography dating from 1947 – ’77 (it’s just remarkable how extensive the resumes of some of these relatively obscure performers are!), while Tony Johnson, playing his wife, would only go on to appear in one other film, 1959’s Crime and Punishment USA. And then there is Nicol himself, who does an impressive job at portraying the imbecilic gardener; I had just watched Nicol in a classic Twilight Zone episode entitled “Young Man’s Fancy” one week earlier.

The Screaming Skull directed by Alex Nicol As for the talents behind the camera here, Nicol acquits himself nicely here in his first go as director, and lends a genuinely creepy feel to several sequences in his film (more on this in a moment). The movie’s screenplay, by its producer John Kneubuhl, is a nicely compact one, and the film itself clocks in at a remarkably streamlined 68 minutes! Cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who had previously worked on both High Noon (‘52) and Attack of the Crab Monsters (‘56), and who would go on to shoot around a dozen other films for Roger Corman, likewise does a terrific job of giving this B&W film a sinister feel, and he makes wonderful use of light and shadow, particularly during the many nighttime scenes. Finally, the film also features the abundant talents of composer Ernest Gold, who would go on to work on such films as The Defiant Ones (‘58), On the Beach (’59), Inherit the Wind (’60), Exodus (’60, the film for which he won an Oscar), and the baby-boomer favorite It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (’63). Gold’s incidental background music for The Screaming Skull makes the already creepy visuals even more unsettling; producer Kneubuhl was indeed lucky to acquire him for this picture! So yes, some surprisingly top-notch talent here, on this little B film!

The Screaming Skull features at least four scenes that manage to impress the viewer. In the first, Peggy awakens at night, alone in her bedroom, alarmed at insistent banging sounds coming from below. She goes downstairs to discover their source, and sees the portrait of Marion, standing on the floor in a patch of light. It is a startling moment. In another sequence, that same portrait of Marion is burned in the garden by the newlywed couple, and in the burnt embers of its aftermath is discovered…a grinning skull! In the film’s final scene, the skeletal Marion, bedecked in summer dress and sunbonnet, chases after both Jenni and Eric through the moonlit gardens. But the scene that is perhaps the best of all comes at roughly the 27-minute mark of the film, and goes on for a good 10 minutes after that. It is a truly remarkable exercise in slow-burn chills, beautifully brought off by the director, cameraman, composer…and Peggy Webber. In this sequence, Jenni awakens from a nightmare. She somnolently walks downstairs, where she opens a cupboard and sees a grinning skull gaping at her. She throws the skull out of the window and into the rear garden, where the thing bounces unnaturally as if alive. Having cut her hand on that cupboard, Jenni goes back upstairs to clean it off, while the wind soughs outside and a branch scrapes against the side of the house, to the strains of Ernest Gold’s deliciously morbid music. Back in her barren bedroom, Jenni hears the repeated sound of insistent rappings on the front door, and again walks slowly downstairs to see what is going on. She opens the front door, to see … another (the same?) gaping skull on her front doorstep, leering at her! She backs up in fright, her face contorting, and emits a wonderfully strident scream before collapsing in fright. It is a wonderful 10-minute segment of the film, comprising a goodly chunk of its total running time, and again, is a bravura exercise in sustained tension. This one sequence alone, I feel, is justification for recommending The Screaming Skull to your attention.

The film is a minor one, admittedly, and one that leaves the viewer with several possibly unanswered questions by its end, but for what it is, it does its job quite well. I have a feeling that not too many people got to enjoy those promised free burial services, but those folks probably still left the theater pretty shaken up, still. And at the worst, The Screaming Skull might make for a great drinking game one night. Just take a shot every time one of the characters cries “Mickey!”


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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5 comments

  1. I Gasped With Heart-Stopping Horror just watching the trailer.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    I’m just glad you didn’t get to take advantage of the free burial policy! 🤪

  3. I thought I was the only one who had seen this one! Your review does it justice, Sandy.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Thanks for the kind words, Becky! I guess there are at least two of us….

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