The curse is a classic trope of the horror movie, and it has been exploited thoroughly over the years. Whether it’s a voodoo curse, like in Black Moon or Revolt of the Zombies, or a more vengeful curse, such as in Drag Me to Hell or Thinner, curses are powerful and mysterious, making them absolutely horrifying to the uninitiated masses. In 1959, an interesting curse movie was released that has flown curiously under the radar, a little film called The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake begins with Kenneth Drake (Paul Cavanagh from House of Wax) being tormented in his den by three imaginary floating skulls. Shortly after having these hallucinations, a hulking Indian with his mouth sewn shut named Zutai (Paul Wexler from The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters) breaks into Kenneth’s home and poisons him. The death looks like a heart attack, and Dr. George Bradford (Howard Wendell from The Big Heat) explains to Kenneth’s daughter, Alison (Valerie French from The 27th Day), and a close family friend, archeologist Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell from The Body Snatcher), that the Drake family has a history of cardiovascular disease – all male Drakes have died in the same manner. Kenneth’s brother, Jonathan (Eduard Franz from The Thing from Another World), shows up for the funeral, and the family is horrified to discover that Kenneth’s head is missing. The case becomes a police matter, and Lieutenant Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards from “The Untouchables”) begins to snoop around the Drake residence. It is revealed that Jonathan’s great grandfather, Wilfred, led an expedition in which he slaughtered all the male members of a tribe of Curare Indians except for the witch doctor – Zutai. With the help of Dr. Zurich, Zutai has been carrying out the Drake Curse, shrinking the heads of the men and returning the skulls. Lieutenant Rowan and Alison must figure out how Dr. Zurich is involved, and stop Zurich and Zutai’s next move before they can fulfill the curse by killing Jonathan.
Directed by Edward L. Cahn (Invisible Invaders, The She-Creature) and written by Orville H. Hampton (The Alligator People), The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is a somewhat forgotten film, and the reason is understandable. The quality is not poor enough for it to be considered “so bad it’s good,” yet it’s not groundbreaking enough to be thought of as influential or outstanding. Because of this, the film flounders away with all of the other “average” horror films of the era. Its scant running time of just over an hour also ensured that it would often be programmed on double bills with similar films, making it all the more forgettable. While it is hardly one of Cahn’s better films, it’s not one of his worst either. When it comes to The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, the film is just…there.
If it weren’t for the macabre subject matter, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake would be more of a police mystery than a horror film. Except, the mystery is solved in the eyes of the audience towards the beginning of the beginning of the film. And, the police procedure is hilariously inaccurate. Still, Lieutenant Rowan spends just as much time in his forensics lab as he does at the crime scene, and he searches and analyzes clues more than he engages with suspects. However, his lab technician easily recognizes the substance that a bullet has flown through or the material that a shoe is made out of with just a single glance into a microscope, a talent for which real forensic investigators can only wish. The attempt to make the police work look like more than just shooting at suspects is appreciated, but the accuracy is suspect as best. It may not exactly be The Silence of the Lambs, but Lieutenant Rowan’s detective methods make The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake more than just a run-of-the-mill horror movie.
The relationship between Dr. Zurich and Zutai is an interesting one. The pair has a Mad Scientist-Loyal Assistant vibe to them, with Dr. Zurich doing all of the thinking and talking while Zutai does all of the killing and head-stealing. Of course, by the end of the film their true relationship is revealed, but for most of the narrative they are like Dr. Frankenstein and Igor. Their most fascinating scenes together are when they are actually shrinking heads; the process is shown and explained, albeit tastefully and without too much graphicness, and their cooperation during the procedure is pretty fun to watch. Although they remove the skull and shrink the head, it’s a very family-friendly process, more scientific than horrific. It takes teamwork to get down to The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, and Zurich and Zutai have it to spare.
Makeup artist Charles Gemora (Curse of the Faceless Man, Jack the Giant Killer) pulls double-duty on The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. First, he does the makeup for the characters, most notably creating the zombie-like appearance of Zutai, with his stalky hair, burnt flesh, and sewn-up mouth. Secondly, Gemora designed and sculpted the shrunken heads for the film, putting detail into each one and making them look not unlike Zutai’s full-size noggin. Between the undead witch doctor makeup and the creepy shrunken heads, Charles Gemora is an instrumental part of the look of The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.
Although much of the violence in The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is implied rather than shown, there are still some fun effects in the movie. Gemora and special effects artist Rudy Stangler (The Other Side of Madness) make both the needle poisonings and the beheadings look convincing, even if not completely shown. There are several in-camera effects as well, most noticeably the floating skulls overlays that haunt the male Drakes, courtesy of cinematographer Maury Gertsman (The Creature Walks Among Us, She-Wolf of London) and editor Edward Mann (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman). The simple methods that are used are cheap ways to get effective results, and those results look dated by today’s standards. But, the techniques work; The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake doesn’t have to get bloody to be creepy good fun.
The music for The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is absolutely perfect for what the film is. The soundtrack, composed by Paul Dunlap (How to Make a Monster, Shock Corridor), is a cool mixture of dramatic orchestral swells and zany organ stabs that is as functional and it is melodramatic. The over-the-top score helps to sell the film, giving it the B-movie vibe that it lacks otherwise, without any of the rubber-suited aliens or furry-clad monsters that are found in other low budget films of the era. Dunlap’s score is a vital component to The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake.
In the horror world, there are a ton of movies about curses, and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is one of them. It’s worth a look to those who have a bit over an hour to kill and are tired of zombies and serial killers.