It's always nice when people show you they care. The makers of The Screaming Skull sure do. They were kind enough to guarantee to pay for all of one's burial expenses if their film made them die of fright. Will you keel over as this motion picture "reaches its climax in shocking horror" and get a casket on the house? There's only one way to find out! Soon after losing his former wife Marion in a tragic accident, Eric Whitlock (John Hudson) has decided to remarry. His new bride is Jenni (Peggy Webber), a gentle, kind and timid woman who has her own troubled past she'd like to forget. The newlyweds arrive at their new home, which Eric has just inherited (it belonged to Marion's family). The estate comes with noisy peacocks wandering around the front yard, perfectly pruned hedges, luxurious flower gardens, a large and ornate fountain full of lily pads and toads and a mansion cleared of all furniture and ready for a fresh start. Also lurking around is shaggy-haired, slow-witted gardener Mickey (director Nicol), who was a childhood friend of Marion's and has been living there ever since he was a little boy and his father was the groundskeeper there.
Reverend Edward Snow (Russ Conway) and his wife (Tony Johnson) swing by for a visit and dinner, and with them bring along some information. Because Eric won't tell her, Jenni is able to find out from the reverend how Marion had actually died. No one knows for sure exactly what happened, but she was found dead floating in the fountain with the base of her skull smashed. It happened on a rainy day and was blamed on a fall. Jenni is emotionally fragile herself from witnessing both of her parents drowning after a boat accident and has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital as a result. Jenni also happens to come from a lot of money, just like the lady of the house before her. Oh, did I mention that Eric was only able to get the house and grounds and not any of Marion's money when she died?
Jenni is woken at night by screams (blamed on the peacocks), finds a painting of Marion and wet lily pads inside the home and keeps seeing a skull everywhere. Eric believes its Mickey trying to scare her. You see, Mickey never quite got over Marion's death. He continues to mourn her passing, refuses to believe she's actually dead, wanders the grounds at all hours looking for her and claims he hears her crying in the night.
Not nearly as bad as some say it is, The Screaming Skull has been written off as being slow, cheap and predictable. It is indeed slow (though not uninteresting), very low-budget (though not poorly made) and somewhat predictable (though it has about the same predictability level as most other mysteries). It breaks down its possible outcomes to about four. The first is that the spirit of Marion is haunting the place and trying to get her husband's new wife to leave her home. The second is that Eric is trying to either drive Jenni crazy or kill her for her money. The third is that it's all in the formerly institutionalized / suicidal, nightmare-plagued wife's mind. The fourth is that Mickey - who was in love with Marion and is weird, anyway - isn't too happy about the Marion being replaced and wants Jenni out of there. The film does stick to one of those four resolutions but borrows from another of them to give this an additional twist.
It's a small-cast film using just five actors, but all of the performances are good (especially Webber's) and the actors deliver their lines in a more natural, less stilted way than usual for the time. The director also shows a sense of visual style and some attention to atmosphere, especially considering the entire film is shot at just one location. There's some good POV camerawork, panning shots and zooms that keep this from feeling too static. There's a tuba-heavy score. Sure it's not the best thriller ever made, but it's an entertaining enough 68 minute psychological horror film. Its current undeserved low rating of 3.0 on IMDb is a result of it being featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
The film takes inspiration from the Francis Marion Crawford story of the same name (which is not credited here) and was released theatrically on a double bill with TERROR FROM THE YEAR 5000 (1958). Star Hudson is the identical twin brother of ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN star William Hudson. Director Nicol also made POINT OF TERROR (1971) and acted in A*P*E (1976).