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|The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Edward L. Cahn|
|Produced by||Robert Kent|
|Written by||Orville H. Hampton|
|Music by||Paul Dunlap|
|Edited by||Edward Mann|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is a 1959 American black-and-white horror film written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by Edward L. Cahn, one of a series of films they made in the late 1950s for producer Robert E. Kent on contract for distribution by United Artists. The film stars Eduard Franz, Valerie French, Grant Richards, and Henry Daniell. Set in the present day (i.e. 1959), it tells the story of a curse placed on the Drake Family by the witch doctor of the Jivaro, a tribe of indigenous people in Ecuador, following a 19th century massacre led by Capt. Wilfred Drake. Since then, for three generations, all the Drake men have died at age 60, after which they were decapitated, and their heads shrunk by persons unknown.
As professor Jonathan Drake (Franz) contemplates a shrunken head, he has a vision of three floating skulls. After recoiling in fear, he instructs his adult daughter Alison (French) to dispatch a telegram to his 60-year-old brother Kenneth (Paul Cavanaugh), to say that he will visit Kenneth on Thursday.
But before Jonathan can arrive, Kenneth sees a shrunken head outside his window. A tall man with long hair and his lips sewn closed, like a shrunken head's, pokes Kenneth with a bamboo stiletto, barely breaking the skin. Kenneth dies. The man, Zutai (Paul Wexler), attempts to behead Kenneth but is interrupted.
Police Lt. Jeff Rowan (Richards) is called. He meets Dr. George Bradford (Howard Wendall) - Kenneth's physician - and sinister archaeologist Dr. Emil Zurich (Daniell), a friend of Kenneth's. Not knowing of the attack on Kenneth, Bradford determines the cause of death of be cardiovascular disease. But he casually mentions that three generations of Drake men have died from cardiac problems at age 60. Jeff asks if there is a connection between the shrunken head and the death. Bradford doesn't think so. However, Zurich, apparently not saddened by Kenneth's sudden demise, proudly calls the shrunken head a "particularly fine specimen."
At Kenneth's, Jonathan learns of his death and demands that his closed coffin be opened. The body inside has no head, Zutai having finished the task. Zutai brings Kenneth's head to Zurich, who calls it "payment for the evils of your ancestors" and begins the process of shrinking it. He says that once he has Jonathan's head, "the curse will be finished."
At the family crypt, Jonathan tells Alison that all the Drake men are entombed there except Capt. Wilfred Drake, who in 1873 led an expedition to Ecuador. There, the Jivaro tribe killed Wlifred's "Swiss agent" and as revenge, Wilfred massacred the Jivaro men and boys. Wilfred also died. He was 60. The tribal witch doctor, Zutai, cursed the male Drakes. Jonathan says that each Drake in the crypt died at 60 and each body is headless. The crypt's locked closet contains two skulls. Neither he nor Alison know how they got there.
After Zurich sends Zutai to the crypt to deposit the third skull, Kenneth's, Alison explains the curse to Jeff. He is skeptical. At the crypt, Alison and Jeff discover the third skull. Zutai attacks Jonathan. He pokes Jonathan but is again interrupted and can't behead him. Jeff sees Zutai fleeing and shoots at him, but Zutai escapes. Bradford declares Jonathan dead. But Jeff has a sample of Jonathan's blood analyzed at the crime lab, where Lee Coulter (Frank Gerstle) finds curare in it. Jeff tells Bradford to administer an antidote, which revives Jonathan. He has another vision of floating skulls, but instead of the three he saw earlier, he sees four.
Lee dusts the three skulls in the crypt for fingerprints. The prints are the same person's - even though Jonathan's grandfather, father and brother died many years apart - and each print contains a tiny picture of a skull. Alison clears up the tiny skull mystery by showing Jeff a book about "The Cult of Headless Men", who achieved immortality and branded their fingertips with images of skulls. As the immortals needed no food or oxygen, they had their lips sewn closed.
Jeff goes to Zurich's to interview him, although he still discounts Zurich's suggestion of supernatural involvement. After Jeff leaves, Zurich and Zutai go off to kill Jonathan. But they can't as Jonathan has been taken to hospital after again seeing a vision of four skulls. Jeff surreptitiously returns to Zurich's house, finds his secret laboratory, and discovers Dr. Bradford's head. Bradford had gone to Zurich's to discuss the unusual occurrences.
Lee discovers that Zurich was the "Swiss agent" on the 1873 expedition but somehow still lives. Zurich kidnaps Alison. He displays the now-shrunken head of Bradford and says that Jonathan is next. Jonathan unexpectedly leaves hospital and, arming himself, goes to Zurich's lab. He reveals that Zurich is a creature with a "white" head attached to a "brown" Jivaro body. Jonathan raises his revolver to his head to kill himself so that his soul will escape from his skull, thus breaking the curse.
Jonathan and Zutai grapple for the pistol. Jeff bursts in and during a fight flings Zutai into an open flame. Zutai explodes. But Jonathan has Zutai's curare-laden stiletto and tells Jeff to poke Zurich with it. Jeff does and Zurich dies. Jonathan decapitates Zurich, forever ending the curse. Zurich's body turns to dust ... but leaves behind the intact fourth skull.
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was produced at Paramount Sunset Studios during early November 1958. It was copyrighted by Vogue Pictures on 8 May 1959.
The poster for the US theatrical release is headlined "Written, Produced and Directed To Scare The Daylights Out Of You!"
In the US, the film was shown on its opening day, 15 May 1959 at, for example, the Kingston Federal Theatre in Kingston NY on a double bill with Invisible Invaders. It played later in 1959, as a "new first showing", at the Monroe Theatre in the Chicago Loop starting on 3 September of that year. The film was on the drive-in movie theatre circuit a few years later. It ran at the Hi-Way Drive-In Theatre in Ft. Lauderdale FL on 2 August 1963 as part of what was advertised as "4 Horror Hits 4" and "The Fright Show of the Year." The complete bill was, in order, The Screaming Skull (1958), The Brain Eaters (1959), The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, and Brainwashed (1960).
For its UK theatrical release, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was granted an X-certification by the British Board of Film Censors on 23 April 1959. The X-cert meant at the time that the film could not be exhibited to anyone under age 16.
Following its theatrical release, the film went into US television syndication as part of United Artist Association's 58-title "Science Fiction-Horror-Monster Features" package, which was released to TV stations on 15 May 1963. It became a "staple on the late-night [TV] circuit" as well as being shown during the day more than a decade after its initial theatrical release; e.g. on WNEW-TV in New York City at 1:30 pm ET on Saturday 3 May 1975.
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake has been revived for individual theatrical showings in the 21st century. It ran on 30 October 2014 as part of "The Thursday Horror Picture Show" series at the Carolina Asheville Theatre in Asheville NC and as a double feature with The Black Sleep (1956) at the Bristol Historical Society in Bristol CT on 28 and 29 April 2017 as a benefit fund-raiser for BHS.
The film has been released for home viewing a number of times. Shout Factory first issued it as a DVD double feature with Voodoo Island (1957) on 20 September 2005. On 1 October 2013, the same company released The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake as one of the films on its "Horror 4 You: Timeless Horror" boxed DVD set, which also includes The Face of Marble (1946), The Snake Woman (1961), and I Bury the Living (1958). Shout Factory again released the movie, this time as single-film Blu-ray, on 27 June 2017.
A contemporary review in BoxOffice magazine is rather lukewarm. The anonymous reviewer notes that "There are enough frightening shots of skulls and head-shrinking in this Vogue Pictures programmer to satisfy avid horror fans in the neighborhood and action houses." The review says that Cahn "gets the required shudders from the material at hand, especially the closeups of poisoned stilettos in the necks of the victims." The sources consulted on a weekly basis by BoxOffice did not find The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake to be a particularly good film. BoxOffice itself, Film Daily, the Hollywood Reporter, and the New York Daily News all rated it as "fair," while Harrison's Reports, Variety, and Parents' Magazine called it "poor."
Modern-day critic Bryan Senn finds considerable fault with the film, writing that it "comes with a distasteful whiff of bigotry. 'The head of a decapitated white man on the body of a jungle Indian', observes [Jonathan] with distaste, as if disgusted by this absurdly literal form of miscegenation." He calls the movie a "dull programmer" with a "morbid script" and actors who are "alternately incompetent and disinterested," describing French's character as "simple and shallow" and Daniell as looking "sour and bored."
Along similar lines, in The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia, academic Peter Dendle sees Zurich as a metaphor for the "awkward blend of native Indian and European" and Zutai as "a walking parable of the silenced and subservient New World slave," but one who is nonetheless "more enigmatic and compelling than Zurich." Dendle also writes of Zutai that "Though fully sentient and emotive as far as we can tell, he doesn't exhibit any volition independently of Zurich's orders. Curiously, though, he does explode when kicked into a fire.".
British critic Phil Hardy is more favorable about the film. He calls it a "preposterous but lively confection," and notes that "Cahn's direction is pedestrian, but he manipulates the paraphernalia of skulls and shrunken heads to eerie effect, while Daniell and Wexler (the latter's zombie unnervingly possessing the sewn lips of a shrunken head) made superbly sinister presences."
Wheeler Winston Dixon, in A History of Horror, is also favorable. He writes that the film is one of a number made during the 1950s that "managed to sneak through the cracks of the country's postwar complacency, all of them sharing an air of claustrophobic fatalism," something enhanced by The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake having been shot in "moody black and white on a few spartan sets." He also points out that "What sets Four Skulls apart is Cahn's absolute seriousness in the film's execution."
Leonard Maltin gives the film 2 out of 4 stars, describing it as "Acceptable horror fare involving centuries-old voodoo curse upon family and contemporary scientist who puts an end to the weird goings-on." Film historians Ted Okuda and Mark Yurkiw give the movie the same rating, but instead of stars, award it 2 of 4 skulls. They note that "The low-budget thriller made a stronger impact on impressionable young minds back in the day, but it remains acceptably creepy fare."
Craig Butler of Allmovie.com is disappointed in The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. He writes that Cahn "maintains an eerie, slightly disturbed atmosphere" with a "dependable performance from Henry Daniell and the unique 'mouth sewn shut' disfigurement of his henchman." The director's "maintenance of atmosphere is good, but it comes at the expense of lively pacing and the ability to build tension and suspense." Butler concludes that the movie "ends up a fairly dull film." The Allmovie website gives it 2 of 5 stars; a "user rating" based on two votes awards it a slightly better 2½ stars of a possible 5.
- "FILMLAND EVENTS: MGM Purchases New Novel of Chamales". Los Angeles Times. Dec 30, 1958. p. B9.
- Senn, Bryan (2019). Twice the Thrills! Twice the Chills! Horror and Science Fiction Double Features 1955-1974. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company Inc. pp. 144–147. ISBN 9781476668949.
- "Original Print Information". TCM Data Base. Retrieved 20 August 2020.
- Okuda, Ted; Yurkiw, Mark (2016). Chicago TV Horror Movie Shows: From Shock Theatre to Svengoolie. Carbondale IL: Southern Illinois University Press. p. 153. ISBN 9780809335381.
- "Movie advertisement clipping". The Kingston Daily Freeman. 15 May 1959. Retrieved 20 August 2020.
- "Movie advertisement clipping". The Chicago Tribune. 3 September 1959. Retrieved 20 August 2020.
- "Movie Advertisement Clipping". The Fort Lauderdale News. 2 August 1963. Retrieved 21 August 2020.
- "The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
- "History of the age ratings symbols". British Board of Film Classification. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
- Heffernan, Kevin (2004). Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business 1953-1968. Durham NC: Duke University Press. p. 258. ISBN 0822332159.
- "The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake". TV Guide. Retrieved 20 August 2020.
- "Television". New York Times. 3 May 1975. Retrieved 20 August 2020.
- Hanke, Ken (28 October 2014). "The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake". The Mountain Xpress. Retrieved 20 August 2020.
- "Movie: 'The Black Sleep' & 'Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake' Fri, 7pm & Sat, 1pm & 7pm". The Bristol Historical Society. Retrieved 30 August 2020.
- "Releases". Allmovie.com. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
- "Feature Reviews". BoxOffice Magazine. 25 May 1959. Retrieved 16 April 2020.
- "Review Digest". BoxOffice Magazine. 29 June 1959. Retrieved 16 April 2020.
- Dendle, Peter (2001). The Zombie Movie Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company. pp. 67–68. ISBN 978-0-7864-9288-6.
- Hardy, ed., Phil (1986). The Encyclopedia of Horror Films. NY: Harper & Row Publishers. p. 119. ISBN 0060550503.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- Dixon, Wheeler W. (2010). A History of Horror. Rutgers University Press. pp. 67–68. ISBN 9780813547954.
- "The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake(1959)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2017-10-01.
- Butler, Craig. "The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)". Allmovie.com. Retrieved 31 August 2020.
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