Anton Diffring and Arnold Marlé in The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

Swinging Two Hammers: ‘The Man Who Could Cheat Death’ and ‘The Skull’

Two British horrors with iconic stars about doctors who can't heal themselves and the women who love them.

In one of these films, there’s a true aspect to the fakery.

Newly on Blu-ray are two good-looking British horror films with iconic stars, both about scientific men punished for their hubris.

In Terence Fisher’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), the arrogant doctor is played by German-accented Anton Diffring, accepting a role turned down by Hammer Studios’ resident mad scientist, Peter Cushing. In Victorian-era Paris, a cold fish named Dr. Georges Bonnet goes around periodically murdering guys for their pituitary glands, as we see in the murky credit sequence that introduces him living behind the iron bars of No. 13 Rue Noire. He treats patients (never seen) while also sculpting busts of beautiful women, like Margo (Delphi Lawrence) and the love of his life, Janine (Hazel Court, fiercely ravishing). Unless he replaces his glands periodically, he glows green and goes somehow radioactive. Otherwise, he maintains his middle-aged youth forever, like Dorian Gray. Christopher Lee is on hand as the default straight hero, a dull part save for the fact that he’s Christopher Lee.

Emphasizing the Dorian Gray parallel is Diffring’s alienated vibe. Court once stated in an interview that she didn’t understand why their scenes were so cold until she learned women weren’t this actor’s cup of tea, but this coldness and hesitation is part of his character. His sexuality is expressed by turning beautiful models into aesthetic marble and leaving the actual women unsatisfied while he goes searching for male glands. In fact, his models have a curious history of disappearing, which isn’t sufficiently explained.

This promising material was adapted by Jimmy Sangster from Barré Lyndon’s play The Man in Half Moon Street, filmed by Paramount in 1945. The studio still owned the rights, so it contracted with Hammer for a co-production. The result is very talky with spare and perfunctory action, a fact Fisher tries to offset by making sure Jack Asher’s camera is never quite immobile amid Bernard Robinson’s beautiful sets. People may be sitting around gabbing, but it’s a pleasure to wander an eye over the Technicolor doodads around them. Fisher feels comfortable in projects where characters are trapped in their doom, and perhaps this is why Bonnet’s home, where most of the drama is ensnared, feels like a prison.

Troy Howarth offers a commentary in which he discusses careers and makes remarks on the action, and there are two similar interviews with other historians, Kim Newman and Jonathan Rigby. Newman places the film in Hammer’s context and mentions parallels with Dorian Gray, while Rigby discusses the context of youth-making “monkey glands” in 1920s pop medicine and subsequent horror movies.

Peter Kushing and Patrick Wymark in The Skull (1965)

A film that goes refreshingly in the opposite direction, dialogue-wise, is The Skull, a giddy production from Hammer’s rival Amicus. It’s one of many horror films directed by Freddie Francis, who remains most famous as a cinematographer, with the result that his horror projects are more renowned for looking good than being scary. This one approaches avant-garde style.

The excellent Peter Cushing plays Dr. Maitland, a collector of occult memorabilia whose old friend (Christopher Lee) is glad to be rid of the Marquis de Sade’s skull because of its poisonous, addictive, corrupting influence. Naturally, we’re all agog to see how it works.

Amicus co-producer Milton Subotsky scripted from Robert Bloch’s story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade”. This project shouldn’t be confused with The Screaming Skull (1958) or The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959), although perhaps it’s inevitable. Something about disembodied skulls of this period seemed to drive everyone bonkers, not to mention the skull-like mask of the hallucinatory The Mask (1961).

Besides Cushing and Lee, the bonanza cast includes Patrick Wymark as a shady antiquarian (the best kind), Patrick Magee (who would play de Sade in Marat/Sade two years later) as a coroner, Nigel Green as a police inspector, Jill Bennett of the angular clamlike face as Mrs. Maitland, Michael Gough thrown away as an auctioneer in one scene, and George Coulouris in another one-scene role where at least he gets to kill someone.

The first 40 or so minutes pace and sometimes plod through the set-up, again with nicely designed claustrophobic bric-a-brac rooms shot politely and looking better than ever in HD resolution. There are wordless sequences here and there plus a couple of flashbacks to the story of the skull and highly prejudicial explanations of de Sade, and then we’re abruptly reminded that we’re in the modern world of phones and cars, although our main three collector-bibliophiles hardly live in it.

Suddenly there’s a Kafka-esque hallucinatory scene that might be a dream, and the final third of the movie has almost no dialogue, no bothering with character and such nonsense, only a sense of movement and weirdness as Maitland breaks down and does unfortunate things under the evil influence of the cursed skull — the skull! It’s what we’ve paid to see, and we get it in spades. After five minutes without dialogue, we have a couple of brief lines from Lee, then no dialogue again for the 15-minute climax, unless you count screams. All this is scored by Elisabeth Lutyens, whose career as a concert composer made room to explore avant-garde sounds in horror films.

It’s what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema”, and it’s pretty darn nightmarish and surreal. The floating objects are done excellently, the black wires only being visible in some late shots. Today these scenes would be done with CGI and might look convincing but we’d know it was fake, whereas in this movie, we know it’s “fake” and yet we also know it’s real in the sense that real objects have real floating relationships in the same room with Cushing. In other words, there’s a true aspect to the fakery.

Again, Rigby and Newman have separate interviews on the making of the picture. This time, the audio commentary is by Tim Lucas, who offers his typically thorough backgrounds and genre connections while paying special heed to the effects of composition, set design, and color. He also offers quotes and comparisons from Bloch’s story; you’ll hardly find a more informed appreciator on a film such as this, and it deserves the attention.

RATING 5 / 10