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  • The Skull (1965) Blu-ray Review

    The Skull (1965)

    Director: Freddie Francis

    Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, George Coulouris & Christopher Lee

    Released by: KL Studio Classics

    Reviewed by Mike Kenny

    Based on a story by Robert Bloch (Psycho), The Skull centers on occult antiquities collector Dr. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing, Horror of Dracula) whose encounter with the skull of the Maquis de Sade proves frightening.  Forewarned of its effects by friend and former owner of the dreaded remains, Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee, The Curse of Frankenstein), Maitland’s livelihood quickly becomes threatened by the skull’s evil forces.

    A supernatural mystery produced by noted Hammer competitor Amicus Productions, The Skull is a stylishly eerie effort from British genre titan Freddie Francis (The Evil of Frankenstein, Tales from the Crypt) that utilizes atmosphere and improvisational knowhow to its advantage.  Following a historically earlier pre-title sequence where a grave robber’s excavation of the Maquis de Sade’s cranium leaves him dead from an unknown presence, The Skull’s modern day London setting introduces occult collector Dr. Christopher Maitland whose pricy offering of the very same specimen by a shady dealer proves far too expensive albeit, very intriguing to the curious researcher.  Learning the item was stolen from a fellow colleague who was glad to be free of it, warnings of its evil capabilities fall on Maitland’s deaf ears, prompting him to retrieve it after the thieving dealer is unexplainably killed.  Casting a spell of madness and nightmarish hallucinations upon on its new owner, Maitland’s terrifying firsthand experience with the skull reveals its true potential to the previously skeptical scholar.  Headlining the feature with expected grace, Peter Cushing sells his descent into terror with a conviction memorably showcased during a particularly nail biting nightmare sequence of forced Russian roulette.  Appearing in a guest starring role, Christopher Lee’s small but welcome inclusion as a rare non-villain gives an added class to the film’s ghoulish festivities while, Francis’ resourceful direction, demonstrated in the film’s frantic and virtually dialogue-free final act, is overwhelmingly suspenseful regardless of the “floating” skull’s noticeably seen wires.  An early chapter in Amicus’ horror history, The Skull remains an effectively strong picture of its creepy caliber with its direction earning the most praise of all.

    KL Studio Classics presents The Skull with a 1080p transfer, preserving its 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Bearing noticeable signs of scuffs and speckles throughout its runtime, colors also appear occasionally drab while, skin tones and delicate facial features revealing aging lines and acne scars are well-detailed.  Meanwhile, black levels are mediocre yet, costume textures and the many artifacts spotted in Maitland’s library are agreeable.  Although a fresh scan would have been appreciated, the results remain quite adequate.  Equipped with a rather flat but serviceable DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, dialogue is handled sufficiently while an early encounter between Maitland and Marco, the sleazy dealer, registers slightly lower.  Scoring cues are decent but lacking oomph with a mild layer of hiss detected.  Special features include, an expertly researched Audio Commentary with Film Historian Tim Lucas, Jonathan Rigby on The Skull (24:14) and Kim Newman on The Skull (27:18), both of which offer encyclopedic insight into Amicus Productions, its founders, Freddie Francis and Robert Bloch’s original short story making each featurette invaluable compliments to the film.  Furthermore, The Skull: “Trailers from Hell” with Joe Dante (2:36) and additional Trailers for Tales of Terror (2:21), The Oblong Box (1:56), Madhouse (1:48), House of the Long Shadows (2:27) and The Crimson Cult (2:03) are also provided alongside Reversible Cover Art.

    A well recommended Amicus offering, The Skull brings some of gothic cinema’s finest faces together for chilling thrills and consummate direction from Freddie Francis making it a technical sight to appreciate given the film’s originally less than solid screenplay.  Possession, death and the black arts reign wildly in this nightmare come to life with a most fascinating selection of supplements making KL Studio Classics’ upgrade of the film an easy choice for fan’s unholy collections.

    RATING: 3.5/5

    Available now from KL Studio Classics, The Skull can be purchased via KinoLorber.com, Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

  • The Doctor and the Devils (1985) Blu-ray Review

    The Doctor and the Devils (1985)

    Director: Freddie Francis

    Starring: Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Twiggy, Julian Sands & Patrick Stewart

    Released by: Scream Factory

    Reviewed by Mike Kenny

    Based on a screenplay from famed Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and inspired by factual grave robbers Burke and Hare, a story of medicine and murder is birthed.  Executive Produced by Mel Brooks under his Brooksfilms (The Elephant Man, The Fly) banner, The Doctor and the Devils is a far cry from Brooks’ wildly known comedic outings but instead, a gothic thriller soaked in elegance and fear.  From the director of Girly and Tales from the Crypt, The Doctor and the Devils makes its unholy Blu-ray debut courtesy of Scream Factory.

    Set in 1820s Edinburgh, The Doctor and the Devils centers on Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton, Licence to Kill), a noted anatomy professor obsessed with pushing the boundaries of modern medicine.  Dissatisfied with the few rotted cadavers provided to him for study, Rock recruits Robert Fallon (Jonathan Pryce, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) and Timothy Broom (Stephen Rea, V for Vendetta), two fiendish grave robbers to secure quality corpses.  Understanding their reward increases with fresher corpses, the duo begin committing murder in order to supply Dr. Rock with the very best.  Twiggy (Club Paradise), Julian Sands (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Phyllis Logan (Dowton Abbey) and Patrick Stewart (X-Men: Days of Future Past) co-star.

    MOVIE:

    Basking in gothic aroma, The Doctor and the Devils is reminiscent of the period piece thrillers Hammer Films was renowned for two decades earlier.  Under the masterful direction of Hammer Films and Amicus Productions alumni Freddie Francis, The Doctor and the Devils captures an identifiable tone of dread and eloquence.  Released at the height of the slasher film craze, the film failed to ignite the box-office numbers but, delivers a lavish production with rich art direction and revered performances.  Timothy Dalton, prior to his tenure as James Bond, stars as a brilliant anatomist determined to push mankind’s understanding of the human body.  Surrounded by disapproving peers, Rock becomes obsessed with furthering his studies by examining fresher supplies of corpses.  Luckily, desperate street hustlers Fallon and Broom become captivated with providing the recently deceased for Dr. Rock.  Fueled by greed, Fallon and Broom quickly turn to murder in order to capitalize on their latest business endeavor.  Pryce and Rea steal the picture with their wild conviction and madcap energy as low level thieves with a weakness for booze and prostitutes.  In a charming surprise turn, Twiggy appears in a substantial role as an attractive working girl who, enters into a brief romance with Rock’s colleague, Dr. Murray (Julian Sands).  While, not graphically gory, the violence found in The Doctor and the Devils feels heightened due to the effectively vile nature of its devilish grave robbers.

    Gorgeously photographed and undeniably classy, The Doctor and the Devils suffers from narrative issues including, Dr. Rock’s anatomy obsessions which causes him to turn a blind eye to the morally wrong issue.  Akin to a mad scientist, Dr. Rock’s yearning to gain new insight is understandable but, without more internal conflict, his intentions feel slightly out of sorts in a more grounded film.  In addition, the lack of attention on Dr. Rock results in a blooming romance between the prostitute Jennie and Dr. Murray.  While, intriguing and nicely laid out, the effort feels wasted as the characters’ relations are hardly central to the plot.  Although, the film suffers from misguided character construction, The Doctor and the Devils is a visually ravishing period thriller with superb performances from Pryce and Rea.  Where the film lacks in cheap scares and overwhelming gore, it generally succeeds with sophisticated gothic grace.

    RATING: 3.5/5

    VIDEO:

    Scream Factory presents The Doctor and the Devils with a 1080p transfer, sporting a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Arriving with natural grain intact and relaying a very filmic appearance, this gothic thriller looks sound.  Skin tones are relayed warmly with dreary colors including blacks, browns and grays popping nicely.  In addition, the rotted and sometimes bloody cadavers offer nice contrast in their gory state to the otherwise unflashy color palette.  Although, crushing is minimal, black levels vary from clear to occasionally murky, making visibility difficult.  Overall, The Doctor and the Devils retains its fog-entrenched atmosphere of past period pieces with near perfect results.

    RATING: 4.5/5

    AUDIO:

    Equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, The Doctor and the Devils satisfies with always audible dialogue and exceptional balance of more chaotic scenes.  Moments of loud partying and heavy tavern drinking never overwhelm the mix but, instead rewards the viewer with its well handling of several components at one time.  Distortion or other anomalies are nonexistent in this nicely balanced, dialogue heavy picture.

    RATING: 4/5

    EXTRAS:

    • Audio Commentary with Author/Film Historian Steve Haberman

    • Interviews with Executive Producer Mel Brooks, Producer Jonathan Sanger and Former Brooksfilms Development Executive Randy Auerbach (15:42): In this newly recorded conversation, the creative trio reminisce about the project’s early beginnings and the importance of withholding Mel Brooks’ name on most Brooksfilms releases in order to not raise expectations of a comedy.  This laid back, informal chat also finds the three colleagues recalling a Hollywood pastime when friendships were important not only to the artists but, also in getting projects off the ground.

    • Theatrical Trailer (1:32)

    RATING: 3/5

    EXTRAS:

    Sophisticated and posh, The Doctor and the Devils is a maddening tale of obsession, murder and betrayal headlined by a stellar cast and executed by an icon of gothic cinema.  Largely inspired by the real life Burke and Hare, this cinematic grave robbing account delivers a suitable story but misfires with several character traits.  Best appreciated for Pryce and Rea’s memorable performances and its impactful production design, The Doctor and the Devils is a suitable period horror film made during a time that greatly lacked them.  Scream Factory delights fans with a near perfect audio and visual treatment of this often overlooked film along, with a decent spread of supplemental features that include insights from Film Historian Steve Haberman and Mel Brooks.  Not quite perfect, The Doctor and the Devils remains a classy love letter to the gothic outings of yesteryear with its tale of decadent grave robbing rooted in fact.

    RATING: 4/5

    Available November 4thThe Doctor and the Devils can be purchased via Shout! Factory, Amazon.com and other fine retailers.