From the DVD case: The sins of the fathers rest heavily on the heads of the sons – literally – in this fun-filled frightfest that’ll keep you awake and screaming through many a traumatic night. Faced with an age-old family curse that beheaded their forefathers, two brothers attempt to unravel the family plot, even as sinister forces attempt to put them into it! (1959, b&w)
Mark says: The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was an unknown film to me until a DVD (paired with Voodoo Island) from MGM’s Midnite Movies was released. When I noticed what amateur reviewers were writing at IMDb and Amazon, I started to take an interest. Apparently Four Skulls traumatized many a youthful audience member when it was first released. When a reader wrote me with a similar story concerning his history with the film, I knew I had to give it a view.
The DVD description is not quite accurate, and deserves some clarification. Jonathan Drake is the descendant of a man responsible for a massacre of an Amazonian tribe known as the Jivaro Indians, approximately 180 years ago. Drake’s ancestor (Wilfred Drake) slaughtered every man and male child of the tribe except for the tribal witch doctor, who escaped. The witch doctor placed a curse on the Drake family. Ever since, every male member of the Drake family, at the age of 60, succumbs to death and, more mysteriously, their heads are always removed before entombment. The skulls are eventually returned to the family tomb after each death. It is important to note that the Jivaro Indians are famous for their practice of shrinking heads.
Jonathan Drake, portrayed by Eduard Franz (The Thing from Another World), is a man who has dedicated his life to the occult in an attempt to understand the curse and hopefully avoid its consequences. Jonathan’s 60 year old brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh, She Devil, 1953’s House of Wax), has recently succumbed to the curse, and as tradition dictates, his corpse was entombed without its head. Unfortunately, throughout most of the picture, Jonathan is either in a trance or going into shock every ten minutes. It’s not until the final reel that he pulls himself together enough to be effective in any real way (though he does serve the purpose of explaining the curse to his daughter and the audience). Apparently, Jonathan and his brother were very close in age, as Jonathan is also 60 years old at the outset of the story.
Valerie French plays Jonathan’s daughter, Alison Drake. Valerie is sort of an Allison Hayes-type character, but without the edge. She is pretty, but not much more than window dressing. She plays a semi-love interest to the story’s hero, but I’ll discuss that later.
Before I bore you with any more character analysis, let me tell you why I place this movie a notch above some of the other films of its time and genre. What struck me immediately was the explicit process in which the head shrinking was demonstrated. Though this portion may have slowed the picture down, I have to admit that I found it fascinating. The skull is removed from the head and the fleshy part (face, scalp, etc) is processed in a vat of boiling liquid. Then the eyes, nose, and mouth are sewn shut. The head is then filled with hot sand and the shrinking process is commenced. Though we don’t get a lot of blood, the process itself is rather unsettling. The detached head props are realistically portrayed (for the era) and the final results of the shrunken heads are appropriately freakish.
Another disturbing aspect of the film is the character, Zutai, played by Paul Wexler. Zutai is an immortal creature created through an ancient Jivaro process. To prove that he is one of the immortals, his mouth is sewn shut to demonstrate that he does not have to eat to survive. Of course, this renders his character mute, too. Zutai, we discover, is the witch doctor’s assistant, who does most of the dirty work. First he renders his victims helpless by poisoning them, and then he removes their heads. He never seems able to complete his task on the first try, but the sight of his lips sewn shut is enough to give his character an adequately creepy demeanor. Also listen for his dog-like howl when he gets shot.
The true villain of our story is Dr. Emil Zurich, played by Henry Daniell (The Body Snatcher, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). Dr. Zurich is thoroughly sinister. We are right to suspect him right from the beginning when he refuses to shake hands with the inspector. Dr. Zurich has a macabre secret which I won’t reveal here out of respect for the uninitiated. (Hint: There is a reason Zurich wears gloves throughout the picture.)
Our story’s hero is the ultra-serious Lt. Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards). Though none of the performances in Four Skulls are extraordinary, I find Richards portrayal of Lt. Rowan particularly below par. His role requires him to be a “nothing but the facts” kind of guy, but he comes off as stiff and seems out of place among the cast. A sort of romance develops between Rowan and Drake’s daughter, but the chemistry is awkward at best. Fortunately, the film does not linger on this angle long and we are spared the embrace and kiss at the film’s conclusion.
The plot is littered with flaws, some more noticeable than others. Genre enthusiast Paul Bollenbacher sent me a list of goofs he noted. One flaw he noted concerned a discrepancy in dates:
If every male member of the Drake family dies of decapitation at age 60, it’s impossible for the curse to be almost 200 years old. After Drake and his daughter enter the family crypt, we see plaques on the wall for each of the Drake men. Wilfred Drake’s, the captain who headed the rescue team to save the Swiss doctor which lead to the curse, is dated 1813-1873. Gilbert Drake, Jonathan’s grandfather, is dated 1843-1903. Jonathan’s father, David W. Drake, is dated 1873-1933. Finally his brother, Kenneth, is dated 1898-1958. Yet later, when they talk about the failed rescue, they say it happened 180 years ago. Since this movie takes place in 1958, confirmed by Kenneth’s grave plaque, that would mean the fateful mission happened around 1778, or 35 years before Capt. Wilfred Drake was even born!
Even with the numerous plot holes, it’s easy to see why this movie had such an impact on the people who remember it. The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was an unusual film for its time, with imagery that was sure to leave an indelible impression on the young audience that viewed it. Is it a “forgotten classic?” Hardly. But it’s certainly good entertainment for genre fans who crave something a little different.
Scene to watch for: Jonathan Drake opens his brother’s casket only to find his headless corpse.
Line to listen for: “Your brother’s face, sir, we thought it better to keep the coffin closed.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! out of 5.