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Narrator: The Screaming Skull is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror.Narrator: Therefore, its producers feel they must assure free burial services to anyone who dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull.
Mike: But we cut that.
Narrator: Its impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect...it may kill you.
Tom Servo: If you watch it in front of a moving bus.
[The camera pans over a coffin with a "Reserved For You" sign inside]
—the film's Opening Narration, more or less
Meet a lovely couple of newlyweds, Eric and Jenni. Eric is a widower who inherited his last 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 mildly retarded exterior hides the shrewd mind of a psychological torturer? Does Jenni need to go back to the asylum? Or hmmm, maybe Eric is once again trying to off his spouse in an effort to get at 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 directed by Alex Nicol, a cross between Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and George Cukor's Gaslight, would be a mere footnote were it not for its appearance (along with the Gumby short Robot Rumpus) in episode #912 of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Tropes used in The Screaming Skull:
- Alas, Poor Yorick: "She threw him well!"
- Bare Skulled Ghost Girl: In a frilly sun dress and huge floppy hat.
- The Bluebeard: Eric.
- Break the Cutie: Jenni comes pre-broken, for your convenience.
- Cool Car: "Yes, Shocking Horror rides in style in your 1953 Mercedes!"
- Creator Cameo: Director Alex Nicol as Mickey.
- Crusty Caretaker: Mickey.
- 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) The gardener.
Crow: As previously implied.
- Domestic Abuser: Murder aside, Eric "forbids" his new wife to mention disturbing issues.
- 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.
- Fan Service: Gratuitous shots of Jenni stripping down to her undergarments. Unfortunately...
- Gaslighting: Eric's plan to drive Jenni insane and get control of her money.
- Get On With It Already: At least a third of the film is Jenni listening to someone knocking at the door without opening it.
- Gold Digger: Eric is a rare male version.
- Hey It's That Gal: Peggy Webber, who played the nervous, panicky Jenni, played a nervous, panicky mother in The Space Children.
- 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.
- Jump Cut: An unintentional example: Most prints, including the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version, 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
Servo: Oh, the film broke and it was horrible!
- Kick the Dog: Eric's treatment of Mickey - though in this case it's more "Repeatedly Bitchslap The Dog".
- Leave the Camera Running: "Uh, movie? Do you need a push or something?"
- 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 certainly points the latter.
- Man Child: Mickey.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: Eric's modus operandi, assuming he actually killed Marian.
- 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."
Crow: Is he reading from a report?
Eric: She didn't get very far before she died. But now that you're here, everything will be lovely again.
Mike: And that ends my narration.
- 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.
- Police Are Useless: The cast seems to think so, since they don't bother to contact any even after Eric dies.
- Posthumous Character: Marian.
- Real After All: Choke on that, Eric!
- 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. Gasp!
- Do you need a motive if you're Axe Crazy?
- No, but Mickey is plain old, harmless crazy. He never hurts or threatens anyone.
- Replacement Goldfish: Jenni can't help but see herself this way. Especially since Eric constantly talks about his first wife when she's around.
- Screaming Woman: "I think the title was supposed to be 'Screaming, semicolon, Skull.'"
- Soundtrack Dissonance: "Yeah, when you think 'shocking horror,' you think German oomp-pah music."
- Stanley Kubrick thought it was. The score is Ernest Gold's adaptation of "Dies Irae" (Day of Wrath) theme from the fifth movement (Dream of a Witches' Sabbath) of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which was the opening theme to The Shining. For bonus points, Gold won the Academy Award for Exodus two years later.
- 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. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment even lampshades this.
Mike: It's "Bugs Bunny sneaking up" music.
- Til Murder Do Us Part
- Those Two Guys: The Reverend and Mrs. Snow basically amount to this.
- Touch of the Monster: Just look at that poster up there!