The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is a low-budget American horror movie that displays considerable originality in subject matter. Family curses are par for the course in horror movies but head-hunting Indians and immortal witch doctors are something else.
Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) has devoted his life to the study of the occult. His motivation is not curiosity but fear. For more than a hundred years the men of his family have died suddenly, apparently of heart attacks, on reaching the age of sixty. Jonathan Drake knows that these have not been natural deaths. Now his elder brother Kenneth has turned sixty and Jonathan must act immediately if he is to save him. Unfortunately his studies of the occult have not provided him with an answer and he will not be able to save his brother. The question is, will he be able to save himself?
Police Lieutenant Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards) is investigating the death of Kenneth Drake. Rowan does not believe in family curses or any manifestations of the occult. He believes in facts. But this is a case that seems to defy all logic and Jeff Roan may have to reconsider his beliefs.
The Drake family curse resulted from the actions of an ancestor who wiped out an Amazonian Indian tribe after one of the Indians killed a member of his expedition. One member of the tribe escaped, and unfortunately for the Drake family that lone survivor was a witch doctor who had achieved immortality.
The witch doctor Zutai (Paul Wexler) is being aided in his campaign of vengeance by an archaeologist, Dr Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell). Dr Zurich has other secrets, as we will discover.
Lieutenant Jeff Rowan, with some help from Jonathan Drake’s daughter Alison (Valerie French), will have to race against time to find a way to save Jonathan Drake who has already narrowly escaped several attempts on his life from the murderous witch doctor.
The low budget is quite evident. The entire movie was obviously shot on a sound stage and there are only a handful of sets. The special effects are extremely cheap and simple. This does not damage the movie too much. Dr Zurich’s laboratory looks scary and creepy. The flying skulls effect might be dirt cheap but it’s done very well done and looks genuinely scary. The atmosphere of menace and mystery is achieved in a very satisfactory manner.
The makeup for the witch doctor Zutai is rather effectively grotesque. To prove that they were immortal and no longer needed food the witch doctors had their lips sewn up, an effect that certainly looks pretty horrific.
The shrunken heads collected by Zutai and Dr Zurich add a very macabre touch, and by the standards of 1959 they add some surprisingly graphic horror imagery.
The acting is better than you might expect in such a low budget movie. Henry Daniell as Dr Zurich is wonderfully sinister and hams it up outrageously while Paul Wexler delivers some real chills as the silent witch doctor.
This is one of the four movies in the Shout! Factory / Timeless Media Movies 4 You - Timeless Horror set. All four movies come on one single-sided DVD. The transfer of The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is unfortunately full-frame but the black-and-white image quality is good. The lack of extras is disappointing but on the other hand the very very low price makes this DVD extremely good value.
The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake might not be a great horror movie but it is a rather nifty little flick. It has clever ideas, good atmosphere and some subtle but nonetheless effective chills. It’s great fun. Recommended.