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The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

Since you know that I'm dead, I suppose you know that you can't kill me.

Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell)

There may be a fair number of voodoo and “zombie” films from the early days of genre cinema, but I can’t think of any that are as specific as The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) in the way it treats shrunken heads. Not only do they provide some truly terrifying imagery here, but the movie teaches us an awful lot about the process of making them.


Similar amongst these films is the idea of a curse passed down through the generations. Different is the detail with which the curse is enacted. It feels original that the men in the Drake family would be killed when they reached a certain age, have their heads severed from their bodies, then their skulls removed from their heads and placed in the family vault, then what’s left of their heads put through the process of shrinking. That’s a lot of work!


I guess it’s worth it for Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell), whom we learn has the head of a white man attached to the body of a brown man. I missed the significance of this other than the fact that he’s not actually “alive” in the traditional sense. However, he’s less a monster, at least on the surface, than his slave, Zutai (Paul Wexler), a native with his lips sewn shut.


The story is presented as a decent mystery, the solution of which explains why Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) sees an increasing number of skulls (capping at four) dancing before his eyes. When his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), dies and opening his coffin reveals that his head is missing, danger mounts for Jonathan and his daughter, Alison (Valerie French), who inexplicably speaks with a foreign accent.


This is about the end of the movie’s originality, though. We’re introduced to Police Lt. Jeff Rowan (Grant Richards), who refuses to believe something supernatural could be happening, but is quick to accept that Alison is soon calling him by his first name and getting chummy with him.


The stars of the show are the shrunken heads. I don’t know if they’re realistic, but they look scarier than Vincent Price’s shrunken head apple sculptures. The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was written by Orville Hampton, who also wrote The Atomic Submarine the same year. The uniqueness of their stories is comparable. It was directed by Orville Hampton with similar verve as his earlier classic It! The Terror from Outer Space (1958.) It’s not a bad little film.


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