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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.

  • Dillinger (1973) Blu-ray Review

    Dillinger (1973)

    Director: John Milius

    Starring: Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Harry Dean Stanton, John Ryan & Richard Dreyfuss

    Released by: Arrow Video

    Reviewed by Mike Kenny

    Chronicling the final months of the infamous gangster, Dillinger stars Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch) as Public Enemy No. 1 John Dillinger on his bank robbing exploits as determined FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show) closes in on his gang’s reign of crime.  Michelle Phillips (Valentino), Cloris Leachman (Young Frankenstein), Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man), John Ryan (It’s Alive) and Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) co-star in John Milius’ (Red Dawn) directorial debut.

    Displeased with the outcome of his previously scripted features, the intimidatingly creative John Milius would be lured by American International Pictures to tell the tale of one of America’s most infamous characters.  Smooth as he was crooked, John Dillinger was idolized by the country’s average joes for his style and prison escape abilities while, law enforcement, rightfully so, had little affection for the criminal outside of seeing him push up daisies.  Creative liberties withstanding, Dillinger traces the famed bank robber’s assault on the midwest, his encounter and love affair with Billie Frechette (Phillips), the culmination of his cohorts including, Pretty Boy Floyd (Steve Kanaly, Dallas), Baby Face Nelson (Dreyfuss) among others and FBI Agent Melvin Purvis’ ruthless pursuit of Dillinger leading to his unapologetic demise.  Crafting a mythic tale that lives up to Dillinger’s legendary reputation, Warren Oates, reportedly never deeply researching his character, exudes charisma and ferocity as the commonly nonlethal criminal while, Academy Award winner Ben Johnson’s controlled demeanor and cigar chomping fearlessness wonderfully counterbalances the wildness of Dillinger’s gang of deviants.

    Although its female characters are grossly underdeveloped leading more to be desired from Dillinger and Billie’s relationship, Dillinger’s technical limitations affords the film a raw, documentary-like quality juxtaposed with black and white still photography and era accurate stock footage crafting a tonally rich presentation.  Far more brutal than the eternally hailed Bonnie and Clyde, Director John Milius' debut opus is an ambitious, down and dirty shoot’em up centered on the fascinating Dillinger gang and their violent assault on the country before succumbing to the returned fire of the capture hungry FBI.  Concerned with honoring the larger than life aspects of its titular character, Dillinger enforces the legend with its ruthlessly entertaining depiction.

    Restored in 2K, Arrow Video presents Dillinger with a 1080p transfer, retaining its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  Casting a softer focus to retain a naturally lit appearance, colors can appear subdued with bolder choices found in wall paint and particular ensembles making stronger impressions.  Skin tones are rich with the gang’s suits appearing nicely textured while, black levels, although not deeply inky, are sufficiently pleasing with only minor instances of specks and flakes on display.  Equipped with an LPCM 1.0 mix, dialogue is audible while, the screeching sounds of getaway vehicles and tommy gun fire leave effective statements.  Special features include, an Audio Commentary with Author Stephen Prince, a Music & Effects Track, Shooting Dillinger with Jules Brenner (12:01) where the film’s cinematographer sits down for a newly captured interview, Lawrence Gordon: Original Gangster (10:08) hosts the producer as he recollects on his many credits and the film in question and Bullets and Ballads with Barry De Vorzon (12:00) finds the composer of The Warriors and Rolling Thunder sharing his personal experiences on many of his achievements.  Finally, a Still Gallery (99 in total), the Theatrical Trailer (2:23), a 23-page booklet featuring new and vintage essays from Kim Newman and John Astin, a DVD counterpart and a Reversible Cover Art boasting the film’s original 1-sheet poster conclude the releases supplements.

    Violently entertaining and wonderfully capturing a bygone era, Dillinger continues the assault of gangster cinema laid forth by Bonnie and Clyde with skilled performances and a rawness that draws viewers into Dillinger’s getaway ride.  Arrow Video does remarkable service to John Milius' directorial debut with a rich, newly transferred HD presentation and a strong stable of supplements that highlights the contributions of those behind the lens.  No one did it quite like Dillinger as Arrow Video’s capture and appreciation of this underrated AIP effort further cements its status.

    RATING: 4/5

    Available now from Arrow Video, Dillinger can be purchased via Amazon.com and other fine retailers.