The Four Skulls Of Jonathan Drake directed by Edward L. Cahn
Back in the early 1960s, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) used to be aired quite often on NYC television. But somehow, I managed to miss all those many showings, although my young mind couldn’t help feeling that the film boasted one of the coolest-sounding titles that I’d ever heard. And then, as happened with so many other cheaply made “B” films of the time, it seemed to disappear, and remained virtually impossible to see for many years to come. Flash forward 50 years, and Four Skulls is now a breeze to catch at any time on home video, thanks to MGM’s Midnite Movies DVD series. Cohabiting a disc with the 1957 Boris Karloff picture Voodoo Island, it reveals itself to be a genuinely grisly and highly satisfying entertainment. Although the Karloff film boasts beautiful Hawaiian scenery (in B&W) and several well-known stars, it is not the least bit scary or suspenseful, and its conclusion is dull and somewhat disappointing. On the other hand, although Four Skulls was completely shot (again, in B&W) in the studio and features only one (character) actor who may be familiar to viewers, it is very often frightening AND suspenseful, and its final 10 minutes are quite exciting and satisfying. To be succinct, it is the superior picture, as compared to its DVD neighbor, and one that I am very happy to have finally caught up with.
In the film, Eduard Franz (who some viewers may recall from his role in 1951’s The Thing From Another World) stars as the eponymous Drake, an aging, gentle-mannered professor of the occult. Drake lives in perpetual fear of his family’s curse, under which all the males die at age 60 of heart failure, and their corpses are later decapitated by some mysterious agency. When his brother Kenneth passes away in precise fulfillment of the curse, Jonathan and his pretty young daughter, Alison (played by Valerie French), travel to the family estate to investigate. They are aided by a local police officer, Lt. Rowan (Grant Richards), and – since a shrunken head, a so-called “tsantsas,” has been found hanging in Kenneth’s window – by a nearby expert on the Amazon and Indian customs, Dr. Emil Zurich (the always hissable Henry Daniell). As is soon revealed, the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador, along with their “chingui” (witch doctor), have a long-standing, 200-year-old grudge against the Drake clan, and now Jonathan has been targeted as its last surviving male member…
Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes, Four Skulls is certainly a compact affair, with little flab and nothing unnecessary to get in the way of the fun. Whereas the Karloff film is burdened down under the weight of a seemingly inevitable romantic subplot, the 1959 picture is not; the potential for such shenanigans between Alison and the lieutenant is, admirably and fortunately, never realized. The film is straightforward and absolutely serious, and indeed, I don’t believe a single character so much as smiles once in it. The film looks just fine for a studio-bound “B,” and director Edward L. Cahn and DOP Maury Gertsman manage to create an unsettling atmosphere with their limited budget. Among their film’s numerous horrifying bits are a quartet of floating skulls, what amounts to a how-to lesson on the shrinking of human heads (we do get to see the process, and are later told that it involves “hot sand, smoke and heated pebbles”), that headless corpse, poisoning by curare, and a pair of sandals made of human skin. But perhaps the film’s most lingering horrific image is the face of the character named Zutai (played by Paul Wexler), a Jivaro Indian whose mouth has been sewn tightly shut, the sutures dangling down to his chin. And as for the Daniell character, viewers who have seen this great character actor in such films as The Great Dictator, The Sea Hawk, The Body Snatcher and various Sherlock Holmes outings know what a marvelously malevolent presence he can be. The great English actor, 65 years old at this point and four years before his passing on Halloween Day ’63, certainly does add a touch of nasty class to the proceedings here. How much more threatening he is than the voodoo chieftain in the 1957 Karloff film! The bottom line is that The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is a marvelous little chiller, and great fun for all ages. Trust me, after watching the film, you will NOT want to emulate Zutai, and keep your mouth shut about it!