The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake Reviews
Now, forty years have passed since I've seen this nightmarish nonsense, and I'm grateful MGM Home Video has preserved it for posterity in a double-bill DVD with another Cahn film "Voodoo Island" with Boris Karloff. Of course, "The Four Skulls" doesn't give me goose bumps anymore, but I can appreciate the dread it once instilled in me. Moreover, as a testament to Cahn's authority as a horror movie maestro, it is worth mentioning that Cahn helmed another fright flick that gave me the jitters, the outer space saga "It! The Terror from Beyond Space," one of the films that inspired Ridley Scott's "Alien." The difference between "It!" and "The Four Skulls" is the latter occurred in contemporary setting and just about everything in "The Four Skulls" appeared down-to-earth and believable.
"The Four Skulls" unfolds in the eponymous protagonist's study. Cahn highlights a line from William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" that serves as the film's theme: "The evil of that men do lives after them." The hero, Jonathan Drake, a 60-year old professor of Occult sciences, writhes in the clutches of an hallucination as unseen forces snuff out the only candle in the room and three (obviously superimposed heads) float into view. Drake's daughter Alison (Valerie French of "Jubal") lights another candle and tries to comfort her father who is clasping a shrunken Indian head. Just as Jonathan recovers from one fright, he experiences another. Alison has tried to contact him about his brother Ken who has tried to contact her father. Jonathan (Eduard Franz of "The Burning Hills") sits up attentively when Alison says Ken "said he'd seen somebody named Tsantsas." Jonathan shows Alison what a "tsantsas." He explains the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador call a "tsantsas" a shrunken head. Alison dismisses the relevance of this information in regard to Ken. "He doesn't know anything about your work or your experiments." Jonathan wires Ken he will arrive shortly by plane, and Ken instructs his butler Rogers to prepare a guest room. Meanwhile, a Jivaro Indian, Zutai (Paul Wexler of "Suddenly"), whose mouth has been sewn shut and who wears a white pajama-like outfit, sneaks into Ken's study with a basket in one hand and stiletto in the other. He pricks Ken's neck with the curare-dipped stiletto. The Indian is kneeling over Ken in the process of cutting off Ken's head when Rogers (Lumsden Hare of "The Gorilla Man") interrupts him. Zutai beats it out the back door. Dangling in the doorway is the object Ken saw just before Zutai attacked him‚??a tsantsas!
The next day, police lieutenant Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards of "Isle of Destiny") appears at Kenneth Drake's residence in response to Alison's call. At the same time that Rowan shows up, Drake's body is being loaded into a hearse. Ken's personal physician, Dr. Bradford (Howard Wendell of "The Big Heat") assures Rowan that no foul play was involved in Ken's sudden death. He hands Rowan the death certificate and explains Ken died from "coronary occlusion." He adds an autopsy would be a irrelevant. "There is a history of cardiovascular failure in the Drake family, probably a congenital weakness, something in the heredity." Bradford elaborates: "For the last three generations every male member of the Drake family has died in the same way. And at almost the same age, sixty." When Rowan wonders if the shrunken head played any part in Ken's death, a gentlemen seated in the study‚??Dr. Zurich‚??attracts his attention. "That's a little preposterous, isn't it lieutenant?" Earlier, Zurich (Henry Daniell of "The Sea Hawk") refused to shake Rowan's hands. He echoes Jonathan's comments about the tsantsas when he pontificates that tsantsas is "The Jivaro Indian name for shrunken heads." He adds that Rogers summoned him because as Zurich states, "I am considered something of an authority on the Indian culture."
When Jonathan arrives at Ken's house, he demands the undertaker open the casket. Everybody is shocked when they discover Ken's head has been removed. Lt. Rowan launches an investigation and Jonathan has to spill the beans to Alison about the family curse in the Drake vault in Ken's backyard. "The curse began with Captain Wilfred Drake who had a trading station on the upper Amazon. When the Jivaro Indians kidnapped his Swiss agent, Captain Wilfred led an expedition into the jungle to try and save him." Jonathan explains that the Captain found the Swiss agent's headless corpse in the village and massacred everybody except for a witch doctor who escaped into the jungle. "He's the one who's put the curse on every Drake male descendant."
Not long afterward, Zutai steals into Kenneth's house and paralyzes Jonathan with the curare poison, but Rogers surprises him again. Lt. Rowan behaves like "Dirty Harry" and on a hunch investigates Dr. Zurich's house and finds some interesting things, namely Dr. Bradford's head in a fridge. Rowan later learns that Dr. Zurich is 180 years old. Zurich desperately wants to kill Jonathan and acquire his head intact to shrink it. He kidnaps Alison and things really begin to snap, crackle, and pop in this entertaining claptrap. Daniell stands out as the evil Dr. Zurich. "The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake" is a hootenanny!
Starring: Grant Richards, Eduard Franz, Valerie French, and Paul Wexler
Director: Edward L. Cahn
A strange curse has plagued the weathly Drake family for the past 200 years: Male members die of heart attacks around their 60th birthdays, but also see their heads mysterious vanish. Their fleshless skulls always appear shortly after the funeral, however. Now, the curse is about to claim the final male of the Drake family, Jonathan, (Franz), but his daughter Alison (French) and no-nonsense police detective Jeff Rowan (Richards) are on the path to find the flesh-and-blood culprits behind the curse.
"The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake" is a creepy little movie that features headhunting undead, strange family curses, and a villain with a startling secret. It suffers from pacing that's a bit too slow and some redundant plot elements. It also has a couple of misguided attempts at evoking horror--scenes that would have been GREAT if they didn't seem to rely on a "surprise" that even the most inattentive viewer is already aware of. On the upside, the film does a nice job of telling the story of the police detective and scientist who discover that they are not dealing with a common murderer, and the climax is extremely well-done.
This is one of those movies I feel could do with a remake. It's story has lots of potential that I think could be fully exploited if produced by a quality crew and good actors with today's sensibilities.