Night of the Skull
Spain | 1976
Directed by Jess Franco
Starring
Alberto Dalbés
William Berger
Lina Romay
Color
| 82 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD(R1 - NTSC)
Image Entertainment
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5
    4   10 = Highest Rating  
Guest Review by Troy Howarth
Greedy heirs fall victim to a family curse...
   
The hopelessly garbled titles credit the screenplay to Jess Franco and James P. Johnson (one of Franco's own pseudonyms!), with the source material given as Edgar Allan Poe's classic story... The Cat and the Canary (in reality a stage play by John Willard, adapted numerous times for the cinema, beginning with Paul Leni's famous 1927 version)! It is hardly surprising, then, that this atypically conventional Franco title is something of a mess in the screenplay department. The twist-laden scenario bears more than a passing similarity to the gialli of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, but Franco is more interested in recapturing the drawing room ambience of earlier versions of The Cat and the Canary than in mimicking the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Twitch of the Death Nerve (for the record, Franco has gone on record as saying that while he likes Bava and Riccardo Freda, he's not fond of most Italian horror). The problem with the film is that while some of the atmosphere is nicely rendered, the film is too recklessly made to sustain a proper sense of mood; this, coupled with a frequently ludicrous scenario, make it one of Franco's less effective offerings.
    As a director, Franco's strengths do not rest in this kind of drawing room melodrama a fact already amply illustrated by his problematic adaptation of Dracula, for example (Count Dracula, 1970). Franco's best work functions on an improvisational, perverse and experimental level, wherein his thematic obsessions and stylistic quirks are given full rein. Here, the conventions of the genre undercut much of his strength as a filmmaker his rough and ready stylistic flourishes simply don't feel proper in a period piece of this sort, which calls out for a more classical approach, and the basic lack of sex and perversion gives the film a curiously muted tone that doesn't really pay off in a meaningful way. The end result is 'Franco Lite' a film that displays many of the faults of its eccentric maker and few of the virtues.
    On the plus side, Franco assembled a strong cast of familiar faces for the film. Alberto Dalbés (Hunchback of the Morgue) gives a strong performance as the master detective called to investigate the murders, while Franco's muse Lina Romay (Female Vampire, Barbed Wire Dolls) is effective in a sympathetic role that actually keeps her clothed much of the time. American actor William Berger (Five Dolls for an August Moon, Keoma) doesn't have a lot to do as one of the heirs, but he brings a nice air of dissipated sadism to the role. Franco cameos as a notary.
    Production values are a mixed bag. The sets and costumes are better than average for Franco during this time frame, but the Louisiana setting is never convincing this is clearly Mediterranean in locale. Carlo Savina contributes a nice moody soundtrack that recycles elements from Bava's masterpiece Lisa and the Devil (1972), but the soundtrack suffers from some awfully edited sound effects the lightning effects, played on a loop, are particularly awkward. Javier Perez Zofio's cinematography doesn't compare to the sometimes picturesque lighting of Manuel Merino (Justine) or the more interesting and experimental work of Raoul Artigot (Erotic Rites of Frankenstein), but Franco often makes good use of the dimensions of the Techniscope format.
    All told, Night of the Skull is neither fish nor fowl. It never plunges the depths of Franco's worst films, yet it never attains the peculiar poetry and personality of his best work. Fans looking for a decent murder mystery may have a good time with it, but giallo buffs looking forward to seeing what Franco does in a similar format needn't get their hopes too high.

Image's release of Night of the Skull is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it marks the film's debut on American video, in any legal form, and it also comes ready with English subtitles and has been given the widescreen, 16x9 treatment. Franco buffs who've encountered the film via muddy full screen editions without the benefit of subtitles are therefore in for a treat. However, the release is problematic. One of the few films Franco shot for Spanish producers during a hectic period in France, it would seem to have been made with more restraint; thus, unlike the Spanish version of Erotic Rites of Frankenstein released by Image, it would appear to be uncut, though one can't help but think that some nudity was trimmed at some point shots of Romay laying topless in bed, revealing nothing, would seem to promise a closeup or two. The mono Spanish soundtrack is acceptable, but the English subtitles are a bit awkward in places a fault of the original dialogue, perhaps? In terms of image quality, the print is rather worn and faded. Detail is reasonably sharp, but there's a fair amount of print damage, some of the shots look overly dark, and colors have an unnatural brown hue. Extras are nonexistent, and apart from the title an odd variation of the onscreen title La Noche Por Los Asesinos ("The Night Of The Killers") the limited menu options are all in Spanish. 1/14/06
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