No one is ever likely to mistake Edward L. Cahn’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake for a great horror movie, though it could, I suppose, be called a classic of its kind — in some degree because it was a standard late show and Saturday afternoon TV offering during those years when a certain group of baby boomers (the one I belong to) latched onto the horror genre. (The why of that occurrence has long been a subject of discussion — with “answers” ranging from an escape into fantasy for those of us expecting to die in a nuclear war at any moment to the more prosaic idea that we liked the fact that this grisly stuff worried our parents. Hands up, anyone the age of 60 or thereabouts who had his or her collection of monster magazines thrown out, or were at least threatened with that prospect.) Truth to tell, in its own modest way The Four Skulls of Jonathan is pretty good horror fare.
The film was written by Orville H. Hampton — who had just provided the script for the surpringly good The Alligator People. While this lacks the scope — and the budget — of that film, it is actually far creepier. And also a good bit sillier, but that doesn’t especially detract from the movie’s entertainment value, though to co-opt a phrase from Oscar Wilde, it takes a heart of stone to learn the awful secret of Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell) and not burst out laughing. Even so, the story is briskly handled in an effectively compact manner. I’ve no doubt that the film’s compact nature stems from its budgetary constraints, but it works.
The story is all about the Drake family and the fact that all the males in that family die — apparently of heart disease — around their 60th birthday. Now, that may just sound like genetic bad luck, but the truth is that they’re being murdered with the murderer leaving a calling card of a shrunken head. Better still, their heads go missing and their skulls mysteriously show up later in the family vault. Somewhat amazingly, the Drake family harbor no suspicions of family friend — and shrunken head expert, no less — Dr. Zurich, who just happens to live nearby. At least, they appear to be unaware of his Indian servant, Zutai (Paul Wexler), who wanders around — with lips sewn shut — in shoes made of human skin doing his master’s bidding. The only one who suspects the doctor is police lieutenant Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards in an astonishingly ill-tempered performance).
The film manages to be reasonably atmospheric within limits. Zurich’s subterranean head-shrinking parlor is decidedly creepy — and the whole shrunken head business is surprisingly graphic for 1959. Overall, though, the movie looks a little more like a glossy, high-end TV show than anything else. (This, I think — combined with the fact that both stories involve curare — accounts for the fact that when I was a kid I got aspects of the film confused with an episode of Burke’s Law.) But The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake has a secret weapon in the presence of Henry Daniell — a satanic-looking actor whose world-weariness outdoes that of George Sanders — as Zurich. He alone raises the film a full star.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake Thursday, Oct. 30, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.