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Monday, March 24, 2014

The Screaming Skull -- Fred Olen Ray's favorite low-budget, five-actor, one-location thriller




By Steve D. Stones

Director Fred Olen Ray once said that The Screaming Skull is perhaps the greatest low budget film made with only five actors and one location. If it wasn’t for Roger Corman’s 1961 classic The Pit and The Pendulum, I would agree with Ray. The Screaming Skull has my vote as second best for a film limited to less than six actors and one location.

The film opens with an interesting gimmick of a coffin opening with a sign inside that says: Reserved For You. The narrator insures viewers that the producers promise a free burial for anyone who dies of fright while watching The Screaming Skull. I wonder if they ever had to follow through with their promise?

Next, a boiling stream of water is shown with fog as a skull floats to the surface and a loud screaming of a wild bird is heard. The bold letters of THE SCREAMING SKULL dash out in front of the floating skull.

Eric Whitlock brings his new bride named Jenny, played by Peggy Webber, who later was a frequent actress on Jack Webb's TV show "Dragnet," to his mansion in the countryside after having been gone for two years. Eric lived there with his former wife Marion, who died in the garden when she slipped and fell on a concrete wall, banging her head.

The reverend Snow and his wife arrive to meet Jenny and to bring the couple some groceries for the night. Eric informs reverend Snow in private that Jenny’s parents had died many years ago in a drowning accident, making her emotionally unstable, but also inheriting their wealth.

That night while in bed, Jenny hears a constant banging sound, which she discovers to be the wind banging some window shudders against the house. The next morning she tries to make friends with the shy, introverted gardener named Mickey by suggesting they take some flowers to Marion’s gave.

The following night Jenny has nightmares as the sound of screaming peacocks haunts her dreams. She wakes to the sound of a loud knocking on the front door. She opens the door to discover a skull on the doorsteps. What follows for the rest of the film is a series of Jenny finding the skull all over the mansion, driving her insane.

Eric suggests that Jenny is hallucinating, and that perhaps her nightmares are a result of a portrait in the house of Marion. Eric decides to burn the portrait as Jenny witnesses the destruction of the painting. As the couple rake over the hot coals from the fire, another skull emerges, causing Jenny to faint.

It turns out that Eric placed the skull in the ashes of the fire to frighten Jenny. His goal was to drive Jenny insane so that he could inherit her wealth.

By some supernatural force, the skull returns to haunt Eric, causing him to be struck by lightning and drown in his garden pond, the same pond where Marion was killed.

It’s unfortunate that many film encyclopedias give The Screaming Skull such a poor rating. I find it to be a fun little film worthy of any serious B-movie fan’s list of guilty pleasures. It’s a film that goes well with a large bucket of buttered popcorn and a soda drink at 1 in the morning. Who knows, perhaps the producers of The Screaming Skull may still promise you a free burial if you die of fright while watching the film? Happy viewing!

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