The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)
Title: The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake
Distributor: United Artists
Writer: Orville H. Hampton
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Producer: Robert Kent
Starring: Henry Daniell, Grant Richards, Valerie French, Eduard Franz, Paul Cavanaugh
Released: November 1959
It’s Sunday, and that means another review of a classic flick! This one is a good one, especially if you’re into witch doctors! Why it has taken me so long to get this one out there, I can’t remember, but anyone that hasn’t seen this movie needs to right away. Things weren’t so great in the 1950’s for UA United Artists), but once the next decade rolled around they got into television, and had some better success. Don’t sleep on this one though, it’s a diamond in the rough! Both Kent (producer) and Cahn (director) had already made some decent horror/sci-fi movies for other companies, and they definitely brought that same kind of feel to this one.
I love the concept of witch doctors in films, probably ever since I saw this guy. No joke! Alright, enough of the foolishness, let’s get right down to this thriller!
The film begins with an older gentleman named Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) in his study. He has a book opened, and the passage reads…”the evil that men do lives after them.” We then focus on the man himself, as he’s deep in thought, and obviously afraid of something. In his hand he holds a shrunken head! A strong breeze whips through the room, and the candles are blown out. A young woman enters the room, and we find out that she’s his daughter, Allison (Valerie French). She questions him as to his trance-like state, but he won’t tell her. She tells him that her uncle Kenneth called but she’s having trouble remembering what he said exactly. Jonathan knows something is up, so he sends a message to his brother that he’s on his way to see him (the trip takes two days).
Over at the home of Kenneth Drake (Paul Cavanaugh), we see the servant, Rogers, and Kenneth discussing the arrival of his brother. We then see someone creeping around the outside of his home, and that person hangs a shrunken head in front of the glass doors that lead to the garden. As he attempts to investigate, a witch doctor jumps out of nowhere, and sticks a needle into his neck! The poison tip injects a paralyzing agent into his blood stream, and renders him defenseless. As he’s about to do further damage, Rogers returns, and the witch doctor runs off.
The following day, a police detective shows up, and Lt. Rowan (Grant Richards) tells Rogers he was called by Allison and told to check out the house because she and her father feared there might be trouble. Rogers tells the policeman that the only trouble was that Kenneth died suddenly last night from heart failure. Lt. Rowan tells him that he’ll talk to the family doctor about it and make sure everything is OK. Rowan then meets Dr. Bradford (Howard Wendell), and Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell), a family friend and noted archaeologist. There’s a long history of heart failure in the family so no one questions the death.
After some talk about the shrunken head, Rowan leaves but is very suspicious. Later that night, Kenneth’s corpse is in a casket at the funeral home, and the witch doctor pops up again. He has a basket and then the scene cuts to the funeral (a bit later or the following day perhaps). Jonathan shows up just in time for the funeral, and questions Dr. Bradford about the cause of death. He doesn’t believe him when he tells him it was heart failure, and needs to see the body to be sure. He opens the casket, and everyone screams in horror as we see the body has been decapitated!
We then see a laboratory with the creepy Dr. Zurich and his accomplice, Zutai (Paul Wexler). They open the basket we saw Zutai with earlier, and we see he’s the on that cut off Kenneth’s head. Zurich spouts off about a curse, and that Drake had it coming. Rowan then comes over and questions Allison about what she knows, but she’s little help. Back at the laboratory, we see Zutai and Zurich cooking the head of poor Kenneth, after they’ve removed the skull, of course. They make a shrunken head out of Kenneth, and seem very pleased with their work.
Back at the Drake mansion, Jonathan tells Allison about the family curse. He tells her that a few generations ago, their ancestors made a trip into the jungle, and even though it was a peaceful endeavor, but after one of their numbers was kidnapped and beheaded, they slaughtered all the tribal people, except the witch doctor. He managed to get away, and we’re lead to believe that Zutai is that man.
Can Rowan and Allison figure out how to stop this madness or will Jonathan Drake be the next victim!
OK, here are my thoughts:
As I stated earlier, UA was going through some tough times financially during this era, but you can’t tell from watching this film. The atmosphere is spectacular, and the actors are on point. No one person stands out but everybody delivers as they should. Wexler and Daniell are especially creepy and play their parts as if they were really into it.
The sets were very good, and helped the atmosphere keep you in suspense. As far as music, Paul Dunlap did a fine job with the score. When it counted, the music was hair-raising! As soon as you see the names Robert Kent and Edward Cahn, you know that the film has two solid men behind it. Cahn’s work for AIP is legendary as is Kent’s with Columbia. And if that wasn’t enough, you get the stunning Valerie French to gaze upon (image below)!
Set aside some time for this thriller, you wont be disappointed!