Friday Night At The Home Drive-In: The Screaming Skull (1958)

When I was a kid, I saw a TV special about true ghost stories. One of the true stories was about a skull that kept “drilling itself” up out of the ground and screaming in the middle of the night. This story scared the crap out of me. Later I bought an old paperback called something like The Screaming Skull: True Stories of the Unexplained. I seem to recall that the story in the book was a little different than the one I’d seen on TV, but still creepy.

There is a also a short story called The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford. It was written in 1911, and is about an old sea captain who inherits a house from a doctor friend. Again, not the same story as the one I had originally seen on TV – and presumably not a true story.

I can’t find that old TV show anywhere, although there was another show called The Classic Ghosts which had an episode titled The Screaming Skull. Coincidentally, it’s going to be shown in a few days (on October 7, 2021) by the The UCLA Film & Television Archive. It’s a one time live event and it’s free. As cool as that is, however, it’s still not the true screaming skull story that I remember seeing as a kid.

Lobby card for The Screaming Skull (1958)I had no idea that screaming skulls were so popular. Even AIP got into the act when they made The Screaming Skull (1958). When I first discovered that it existed, I hoped that it would be a dramatization of the same story that had scared the crap out of me on TV when I was a kid. it was not. However, I could believe that the story of the movie was inspired by the same “true story” that the TV show had presented. This is, of course, assuming that there was a “true story” about a screaming skull – and that the TV show hadn’t simply made it up in the 1970s.

I don’t know what the truth is, but I suppose it’s rather beside the point. The Screaming Skull is a black and white horror film from exactly the same era as the other black and white horror films I had first fallen love with on Not Quite Classic Theatre. It’s not about a giant monster or an oversized bug, but it’s still exactly the kind of movie I might have watched back then.

1958 saw the release of several classic #NotQuiteClassic movies, including The Fly (1958), Fiend Without a Face (1958), The Blob (1958), It! the Terror from Beyond Space (1958), and one of my personal favourites, Monster on the Campus (1958). It was a good year for bad movies. And I mean good bad movies, which are basically good movies to me.

Lobby card for The Screaming Skull (1958)The Screaming Skull is not the best of those movies, but it has a lot of the elements that I really appreciated. Creepy atmosphere, a pseudo gothic location, a screaming skull –

To be honest, I’m not sure that the skull actually screams in this movie. The lead actress, Peggy Webber, screams when she sees the skull. Or rather, her character, Jenni Whitlock, does. Jenni has recently married Eric Whitlock, whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. Jenni has a history of mental illness, and she starts seeing (and hearing?) the screaming skull. In some ways, it’s almost like a forerunner of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971). Is she really seeing this skull? Or is her mental illness coming back?

The Screaming Skull is also like a few other movies which I don’t want to to name because I feel that it might spoil some of the fun if I did. Suffice it to say, it’s a familiar type of story, used by other, perhaps better (or at least better reviewed), movies that came before it. One obvious, non-spoiler comparison might be to the films of William Castle. Not so much in terms of the story, but the gimmicky feel of the ad campaign.

“FREE!! We guarantee to bury you without charge if you die of fright during SCREAMING SKULL!” the posters screamed. I doubt very much if anyone was that terrified while watching The Screaming Skull, but it does have some moments of legitimate suspense.

The film isn’t unlike something that William Castle might have made, in that it feels a bit like a B-movie version of Alfred Hitchcock. Nowhere near as good, of course, but still a lot of fun. And at 68 minutes, it’s pretty easy to take.

The Screaming Skull (1958) may not be the “lost” TV episode of my childhood, but it’s a worthy entry in the surprisingly crowded screaming skull sub-genre (whatever that is). It’s #NotQuiteClassicCinema that seems tailor-made for the second or third part of an all night triple feature on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn.