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Friday, May 22, 2020

Skullduggery (1970)




Sometimes in my attempts to track down cinematic oddities I stumble over a movie that from the plot synopsis can’t possibly exist. Skullduggery is one of those movies. It was described to me as a Bigfoot courtroom drama starring Burt Reynolds… That got my attention quickly and had me looking for a copy to watch right away. Let me clarify one thing right away. This is not a Bigfoot movie, but rather a missing link flick that does in fact end up as a courtroom drama after some *ahem* crossbreeding between the humans and the missing links. This is a weird one.

A couple of hustlers, one of them played by Reynolds, manages to get themselves attached to an expedition looking for fossils in the rain forest. The lady scientist, Dr. Greame, is played by Susan Clark (Webster’s Mom!). Temple, Reynolds’ character, and his partner are looking for a valuable deposit of phosphor and find it. What they don’t realize is that they have also found a tribe of creatures they end up calling the Tropi. This almost human missing link is the discovery of the century and Greame’s benefactor immediately sets up a facility to study them. He also goes into business with Temple to mine the valuable phosphor as well. It all seems to have worked out well for everyone.

Of course, this wouldn’t be much of a movie if that were the case. Initially Temple and his partner are pleased by how much money they are making with their endeavor. They even put the Tropi to work in the mines since they will work for canned ham. But then the evil rich guy decides to start breeding the Tropi treating them like livestock. The pair of hucksters have gotten quite attached to them and end up taking a pregnant female back with them to civilization to try and get some protection for their new friends. The logic behind this is that if a human and Tropi could mate then the Tropi would have to be human… See where this was headed? Yeah Temple’s partner Otto got a bit friendly with a Tropi. When the baby dies Temple insists he killed it and forces them to put him on trial for murder. See it can only be murder if the Tropi were human, which leads to the courtroom drama stuff.

This is a very weird movie. Not only is the content sort of odd and uncomfortable but the way it is presented is strange as well. If we are to skip past the bit where a guy might have had sex with an animal Skullduggery has this weird vibe where it can’t seem to decide if it is a comedy or drama. At times we get Reynold’s being silly with Tropi hijinks and even some stuff bordering on slapstick comedy. And then someone will straight out be killed with an arrow or in a terrible accident. Only for things to get silly again. This uneven tone never let me relax and settle in to enjoy the flick. Then again considering the abrupt and vague ending I’m not sure that the filmmakers intended for this movie to be fun.

There were a lot of sixties and seventies movies that had these bummer endings. They were supposed to provoke you to think deeper about what you just watched and maybe deliver a message along the way. I could see Skullduggery being a movie like that, but they shoot themselves in the foot with the misplaced attempts at comedy. The flip side to this is that if they wanted this to be a silly and fun movie, they focused way too much on the heavy stuff in the plot. The last thing we see is our lead Tropi getting smashed under a huge bookshelf while people laugh at her antics. They probably could have done comedy or drama, but not both.

Burt in jail... making a point!
The cast is solid and in addition to Burt Reynolds and Susan Clark we also get some other familiar faces. Wilfrid Hyde-White shows up in a small part as a casually racist scientist that discounts the Tropi as well as anyone not white. Roger C. Carmel of Harry Mudd fame is good as Otto, Temple’s partner and unfortunate father to the half Tropi half Human child. We even get a pre-Blacula William Marshall as the prosecutor. There was a lot of talent in front of the camera, so it is too bad that things turned out so poorly.

Before I wind things up, I do need to talk about the special effects work. We see a lot of the Tropi on screen and while simple the makeup is decent. It allows the actors underneath to give a decent performance which is good since there are many different Tropi onscreen. Letting the actors cast as the creatures do a good job selling it with their movements and body language is key to making the movie work. All in all, it was good work.

This is at best an oddity that only the most diehard of cinematic nerd need spend their time on. There is an obvious reason that Skullduggery isn’t better known by the public and that is because it isn’t a very good movie. Not horrible either, just a misfire that is at the end of the day utterly forgettable. I sadly can’t recommend it.


© Copyright 2020 John Shatzer

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