Though not exactly a forgotten classic, THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE does have quite a few things going for it (not the least of which being that wicked title).
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes–MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer and on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE (1959)
First, a little history..
The film was released in 1959 and directed by one of the true schlock masters Mr. Edward L. Cahn, who clearly possessed something of an interest in religions that are, shall we say—just left of mainstream.
Two years earlier in 1957, Cahn directed two movies which delved into the practices of VOODOO (which I have typed here in full capitals for proper effect). Those films were ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU and VOODOO WOMAN. But with SKULLS (an abbreviation I will be using henceforth due to a fear of hand cramps) the director turned an eye to a particular Amazonian tribe of Indians and their penchant for “fun-sizing” human heads.
But enough of that…
Our story begins most ambitiously with a direct quote from the immortal bard himself. The camera freezes on Act 3, Scene 3, page 4 of Shakespeare’s “Julius Casesar”. Highlighted here is the following line:
“The evil that men do lives after them”
Heavy stuff right? I mean, not as heavy as when Brian Singer opened X-MEN (2000) with the freaking HOLOCAUST, but you know… not light.
Directly following this and barely out of the gate, we slam directly into the first of the film’s many unsettling images–a shrunken human head.
The camera pans back to reveal a rather dapper gentleman who seems to be casually admiring the teeny bundle of hideous, when he is suddenly accosted by a most unsettling vision! Three dancing skulls appear out of thin air as if to taunt and torment the poor man, (whom we must assuredly assume is the titular Jonathan Drake). That’s right folks, within the first two minutes, any hope for some deep metaphor within the film’s title is utterly obliterated.
The skulls are skulls.
Before long, a striking woman (with some really lovely points) enters the room, lights a candle, and discovers her father in quite a state. She pleads with him to let her in on what really happens when he has “those episodes” (which I shall hereby dub “SKULLMARES”), but papa Drake vehemently refuses. Then, after getting all sorts of philosophical for a second, (and after recounting the Shakespeare quote, which we can already tell is going to be shoved down our throats for the next 70 or so minutes) he tells Alison, that she simply wouldn’t understand.
Well, it turns out Alison had arrived in the first place to deliver a most cryptic message which she may or may not be remembering right. Something from Jonathan’s brother Kenneth about a Mr. “Tsantsa ”. The word strikes a chord in Jonathan Drake who recognizes it not as a name, but as the Jivaro Indian word for a “shrunken human head” (quite the coincidence considering the particular trinket he was worrying over just one scene ago). Since Alison gets immediately flustered and can’t really recall the rest of the message (despite having just arrived with the express purpose of delivering said message), papa Drake basically freaks out and decides it is time to pay his brother a visit.
Cut to a scene of brother Ken, getting murdered by the closest thing the movie has to a monster. Enter character actor Paul Wexler in a bad wig.
All it takes is one little prick from the end of a long rubber knife and down goes Kenneth Drake. But before the mysterious assailant can fill his conveniently head-sized basket… the butler scares him off, leaving only the subtlest of clues behind–a teeny door mounted head, Because seriously… as if murdering poor Ken Drake wasn’t bad enough, this guy felt the need to decorate?!
Next day we meet the real star of the picture (or sort of, technically I’m not 100% sure who’s movie this is) Police Lt. Jeff Rowan. Jeff arrives, supposedly sent by Alison Drake (which makes zero sense on numerous levels) to discover that Ken had passed away the night before of… a “heart attack”. And despite being wholly unflapped, Jeff decides to “have a look around” as it were. Lounging inside (and eating biscuits no less) are two doctors.
The first is Mr. Drake’s affable, personal physician Dr. Bradford, who seems perfectly convinced of his patient’s cause of death—even citing a family history of very specific congenital heart defect which strikes at the the age of 60 and not a day before! It seems that for at least three generations, Drake men have died in this same unfortunate way.
The second doctor is very quiet and (more than a little) sinister in aspect. Of course this may be mostly due to the fact that the character is played by the great Henry Daniell!
Between 1929 and 1964 Mr. Daniell made use of his uniquely menacing looks, often playing villains of one type or another. In fact, he appeared no less than five times in the TWILIGHT ZONE styled television series THRILLER (hosted by Boris Karloff), including one of my all time favorite episodes “Well of Doom”, but I severely digress.
If it seems this so-called archaeologist/family friend Dr. Zurich (Daniell) is up to no good, it’s probably because the movie makes it fairly obvious. His role in the scene is pretty much to let the audience know he exists (as well as to be generally creepy), as he caresses and fawns over the aforementioned head that was left hanging on the door.
Interestingly, while this head is clearly the same prop held by Jonathan Drake in the opening scene, the two cannot possibly be the same. The fact is that Papa Drake is currently in transit–traveling to meet his brother by train (a journey which will supposedly take two days). Therefor, it must be concluded that the prop department did not have enough funds to sculpt a second prop, and not that the film makers intended the two to be one.
So yes… finally, Jonathan Drake arrives to find that poor brother Ken has of course died, though he doesn’t seem as convinced of the cut-and-dry heart failure as ole Doc Bradford! He barges in, demanding to see his brother’s face one last time. Unfortunately, when they open the casket, they discover that Kenny’s head has been sawed off at the neck!
Heads… this movie’s got a thing for ’em.
Up next we are treated to a rather gruesome scene which confirms what the audience surely suspects already. Henry Daniell is indeed playing the villain! Further, Dr. Zurich and the witch-doctor guy are shown to be in cahoots as they casually begin to boil the missing head of Kenneth Drake!
To be perfectly honest, there are numerous shots in this movie that surprise me. Though surely tame by the standards of today, in the 50’s there weren’t really a lot of truly shocking things that made their way on screen. Oh sure there were plenty of gangland shootings, rubber monsters and even a strangulation or two, but nothing close to the sorts of things we are treated to in THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE. Case in point, a decapitated human head (prop or otherwise) bobbing around a cauldron of boiling water.
As the movie goes on, we learn more and more about the tangled web which ensnares the Drake family. It turns out that for three generations, the male members have been dropping dead at age 60, not due to some genetic defect, but because of a flippin’ CURSE!! Eventually Jonathan shares all of this with his daughter Alison (as well as the titular SKULLS). See, it turns out that the haughty head-bones which appeared in Jonathan’s fever dream (way back in scene one) actually have physical counterparts, which sit on shelves within the family crypt. The thing is, no one knows how the skulls end up sitting on those shelves—or for that matter, how the heads which originally contained said skulls became detached in the first place!
Still with me?
The scene of papa Drake revealing the skulls is an important one for it adds a much needed layer to the film’s opening scene. If you recall, that’s the one where Jonathan (after coming down from his SKULLMARE) became immediately concerned about his brother for no apparent reason. The thing is, Jonathan’s vision contained three floating skulls, even those later we see only two within the crypt. Eventually it is possible to postulate that prior to the opening scene Jon’s typical vision must have consisted of only two skulls (those of his father and grandfather). The third (it stands to reason) must have belonged to his brother Ken, (thus portending his death) and Jon knew it. The proof of this is later on, after Ken’s skull appears mysteriously on the shelf, Jon has the SKULLMARE again, only this time there are (you guessed it folks) FOUR SKULLS (the last of course predicting the coming death of Jonathan himself).
This interesting development better flushes out the motives of the last living male Drake and really gives you a sense that the movie maybe knows what it’s doing.
While the film does tend to suffer from pacing problems and lackluster dialog, there are plenty of interesting concepts and compelling little mysteries to keep the viewer in the game. Furthermore, as previously stated, there are a number of unsettling and downright haunting shots (granted most of which deal with human heads), that truly stand out for a movie from the 1950’s. And if some of the cast is a bit lackluster, Henry Daniell delivers a deliciously creepy performance as the ice cold Dr. Zurich. A character who’s motives are not revealed until the film’s outlandishly entertaining climax!
THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE may be far from perfect, but it certainly sticks with you. And unlike many rubber monster or flying saucer films of the day, it is a difficult thing to call this one derivative. Plus you know… it opens with freaking Shakespeare for crying out loud.
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