I love a good (bad) black-and-white horror movie. Even if it tries to be genuinely frightening, more often than not, it ends up simultaneously bordering the lines of hilarious and pathetic. I've seen many of these over my lifetime thus far, and never have I been disappointed when I start watching with the expectation of a high level of cheesiness. Such is true of The Screaming Skull, a 1958 horror film.
You know the whole movie is going to be corny when the very first scene broadcast is that of a casket with a stern verbal warning: "The Screaming Skull is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror. Its impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may kill you! Therefore, the producers feel it necessary to provide free burial services to anyone who dies of fright, while seeing The Screaming Skull!" I doubt they were being serious at the time, but any remaining inklings of sincerity in the film have now been thrown out the window. We then shift to a quaint house in the country, where Eric and Jenni, who have just married, arrive to move in. Jenni is Eric's second wife, and Jenni soon learns that Eric's previous wife, Marion, died on the grounds after bonking her noggin and drowning in a pond. Other characters that seem to hang around a bit too much are the local Reverend and his wife, as well as the disturbed groundskeeper, Mickey, who seems to still be having difficulty accepting the death of Marion, his childhood friend, and wanders about at night, searching endlessly for her. This is some heavy material.
Jenni, who has previously been institutionalized but has also been deemed to be "cured", starts feeling uneasy at night. Rightly so, considering she's hearing strange knocking at the door in the middle of the night; a painting of Marion also causes emotional distress. However, Eric shirks off her fears and advises her not to worry any longer. But the hauntings continue, and eventually, a sinister skull makes recurring appearances in the late hours, somehow proving that even a skull without arms and legs can climb steps and hide in an armoire. Eric continuously dismisses Jenni's concerns, citing mental illness as the problem and prompts her to be re-committed to a psychiatric facility. However, the skull soon appears in front of Eric, and though he denies it to others, he himself is soon haunted as well. The truth is eventually revealed: Eric was Marion's killer, and her ghost is now out to destroy him! For some reason, Eric strangles his wife (unsuccessfully), but the skull has the last laugh.
That's when the movie gets somewhat stupid and ends up full of shots of Eric dashing here, there, and everywhere across the lawn as a transparent skull is imposed on the screen to indicate that it is chasing. It's not terrible the first time, but five times in, I grow weary of the cheesy effect. But it's nothing compared to when the skull physically attacks the man and eventually drowns him in the same pond where Marion died! Honestly, could Eric not fend off a skull? It has no limbs. The struggle is jovial, but it's a fitting end to a laughable movie.
As in most horror movies, there's an ample mix of comically tense night scenes of Jenni either getting freaked out by noises or taking her sweet time getting to the door and dry daytime events. As soon as daylight hit, I internally groaned a bit, hoping that this little interlude would be short-lived so we could return to more interesting exploits. But there are other problems. The characters aren't really explored much; we have some minor background on Jenni's mental history, and we eventually learn a tad more about Eric, but character development is severely lacking. I don't mind the lack of development for the Reverend or his wife; they're as dull as it gets. Certain plot points, such as why Jenni get strangulated, doesn't seem to have direct reasoning behind it, or at least none portrayed in a clear manner on screen, making some of Eric's actions in particular seem peculiar and inexplicable. As well, the music is quite average, mostly haphazardly dramatic tunes on the piano, organ, or bass; then again, such is typical of low-budget films.
In summary, if tacky, low-budget films are what you like, then you will most assuredly find solace in The Screaming Skull. And at a modest running time of 68 minutes, it won't waste too much of your time either. But for more casual cinephiles (or pretty much anyone else), I'd recommend avoiding this one. I'd like to say the movie has its great moments, but the only exciting moment is when Eric is attacked by the skull. And that's ridiculous cinema.