Tuesday, March 3, 2015

#1,660. The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

Directed By: Edward L. Cahn

Starring: Eduard Franz, Valerie French, Grant Richards

Tag line: "Written, Produced and Directed to Scare the Daylights Out of You!"

Trivia: In addition to his credited work as make-up artist, Charles Gemora also designed and sculpted the shrunken heads

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is a nifty little horror / mystery, a black and white cheapie that, with the help of a few eerie props, proves even low-budget movies can tell bigger-than-life stories.

When his brother Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh) turns up dead, college professor Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz), who’s dedicated his life to studying the occult, returns with his daughter Alison (Valerie French) to his family’s estate. Despite the findings of the Drake’s longtime physician, Dr. George Bradford (Howard Wendell), who says Kenneth died as the result of a heart attack, Jonathan is convinced his brother was the latest victim of a curse that’s plagued their family for over a century, one that claims the life of every male Drake soon after they reach the age of 60. As if this wasn’t strange enough, someone has gone to the trouble of cutting off Kenneth’s head (the previous victims, dating back to their grandfather, suffered a similar fate).

Fearing for her father’s safety (like Kenneth, Jonathan Drake is over 60), Alison puts a call in to Police Lt. Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards), who, after hearing that Kenneth Drake’s head is missing (desecrating a corpse is a criminal offense), launches an investigation, questioning Dr. Bradford as well as Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell), a neighbor who also happens to be an expert in the tribal customs of several Amazonian tribes (including a few that specialize in shrinking the heads of their enemies). The further Det. Rowan digs into this bizarre matter, the more confused he becomes, but he knows full well that, if he doesn’t crack the case soon, Jonathan Drake will surely die.

As much a police procedural as it is an exploration of tribal rituals, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake weaves a fascinating tale that grows more mysterious with each passing scene; After chasing off an odd-looking intruder (Paul Wexler) who just tried to murder Jonathan Drake, Det. Rowan finds the suspect left behind a clue: a sandal made entirely of human skin! In addition to the twists and turns its story takes, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake benefited from the fine work of makeup artist Charles Gemora, who also designed the various severed heads (both life-size and shrunken) featured throughout the film, all of which are creepy enough to send a shiver up your spine.

A low-budget movie done right, The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is 70 minutes of pure entertainment.

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