FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, THE(director: Edward L. Cahn; screenwriter: Orville H. Hampton; cinematographer: Maury Gertsman; cast: Eduard Franz (Jonathan Drake), Valerie French (Alison Drake), Grant Richards (Lt. Jeff Rowan), Henry Daniell (Dr. Emil Zurich), Lumsden Hare (Rogers), Howard Wendell (Dr. George Bradford), Paul Wexler (Zutai), Paul Cavanagh (Kenneth Drake), Frank Gerstle (Lee Coulter); Runtime: 70; United Artists; 1959)
“It’s too bad this film didn’t have some more soul.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Edward L. Cahn’s Four Skulls is a rather humorless and flat horror story, but it’s blessed with a wonderful title. This one is played straight and involves a white family of former South American traders trying to combat a 200 year curse placed literally on their heads by an Amazon witch doctor.
The story opens as a passage from a book is highlighted– “The evil men do lives on after them.” We then see Jonathan Drake (Franz), the eldest male descendant of the cursed Drake family, having a strange vision of skulls flying towards him. He interprets that to mean that his brother Ken (Cavanagh) is in grave danger. But he learns that he is too late to save him. When he visits, he finds that his brother is dead and the cause is listed as a heart attack. But when the coffin is opened, it is revealed that his head is missing.
Lt. Jeff Rowan (Grant) plays the cop who just wants the facts and doesn’t believe in all that supernatural stuff. He is in charge of the case, which is now listed as murder because of the decapitation.
Alison Drake (Valerie) is the sophisticated daughter of Jonathan who is not too aware of the occult, even though her 60-year-old father is a professor of the occult and has studied it his entire life. He has studied it so that he can learn enough about it and thereby put an end to the dreaded curse placed on his family.
There are now three skulls from the Drake family–the other two are of Captain Wilfred Drake and of Jonathan’s 60-year-old father. Captain Wilfred Drake is the Amazon trader who 200 years-ago killed off a whole tribe of Amazon Indians except for one person, a witch doctor, who originated the curse on the family.
It only seems amazing that Alison was kept in the dark about the curse and only learns of it now. You would think her old man would tell her about something as important as that.
In Alison’s conversation with her father a most interesting concept is presented, as Jonathan suggests “Suppose the power of good dies after the mind dies–then only the evil lives.” This challenging idea was never really followed through. In the hands of someone more intellectually motivated than Cahn, there was the thread of a good story available. Instead Cahn shoots for the mundane spectacle of seeing a head shrunk, as if that was the story to be told.
Since Jonathan is slated to be the next victim of the curse he tells his daughter about the curse’s history and takes her into the family vault for the first time, showing her where the two previous skulls have been kept. He also presents her with the only key to the vault, telling her she’s now in charge of the family treasures.
Meanwhile the skeptical Lt. Rowan is starting to believe that he is not on an ordinary case, after going to the vault with Alison and finding a third skull there. He starts to wonder what’s going on here.
Jonathan is pierced in the neck with a stiletto by a zombie-like Indian with long black hair, whose mouth is sewn tight with the stitches visibly showing, who climbed into his bedroom window, wearing fashionable sandals made from human skin. Jonathan is saved only because the servant Rogers (Lumsden) just entered the bedroom and immediately called Dr. Bradford (Wendell).
When Lt. Rowan arrives, he spots the stab wound on the neck of Jonathan and rushes off a sample of the blood to the police science lab. The report comes back that there is a poison in the blood that is found only in the Amazon. But Dr. Bradford is able to come up with an antidote to save the professor’s life.
Dr. Bradford suspects that a Dr. Zurich (Daniell) knows something about this poison, being that he’s a Swiss (notice that his name is Zurich) archeologist, specializing in the occult. In Zurich’s home Bradford spots all the apparatus that is needed for the head-hunter’s shrinking process; and Zurich, the ghost of the witch doctor who stayed immortal by having an Amazon priest attach his white head to a brown body, tells Bradford the correct way to remove the head from the skull so that the soul doesn’t escape. The soul of the victim is essential to save, because that is the spark of life that kept the enemy alive. It is what gives one immortality. He goes on to describe the shrinking process, of putting the head into a mixture of hot sand, heated pebbles, and smoke–and then the slow-heating process takes place. Dr. Bradford will have his head shrunk and be placed on Zurich’s lab mantelpiece, as he is so richly rewarded for being the first in the movie to discover the culprit responsible for carrying out the curse.
Rowan is now convinced that he is dealing with an occult crime, so he visits the renown Dr. Zurich and he discovers on his rug a blood stain. Zurich realizes that the police are on his trail so he tells Zutai (Wexler), the spooky Indian servant of Zurich’s, the one with the sewn mouth, that they must get to Jonathan pronto (incidentally, the sewn mouth was done to Zutai so that he can be immortal).
Zurich dresses up in his witch doctor outfit and the mute Zutai beats the tom-toms and by ritualistic magic, whatever comes into Zurich’s mind will now be seen by Jonathan. When he starts seeing those animated four skulls suspended in space, poor Jonathan (he’s actually quite wealthy-get a load of that mansion he lives in) goes into shock and is rushed to the hospital.
The wind down is rather unimaginative, with a few more explanations thrown in to further explain how the curse must be carried out in order for Zurich to remain immortal. If Jonathan should take his own life, then Zurich cannot fulfill the curse. It is also explained that the only way to kill Zurich, is to sever his white head from his brown body. Don’t ask me what this means symbolically!
It’s too bad this film didn’t have some more soul. The best thing that can be said, is that it was competently made and was somehow watchable. The actors are to be commiserated with and not criticized, no actor could have done anything with the dry lines they were handed.
REVIEWED ON 1/12/2000 GRADE: C-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ