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The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)


Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake poster
70 minutes
Cast and Crew
Production Company

This is the hardest type of movie to write about: one that has no particularly good or bad aspects.  The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is simply there.  The only bad thing about it is it doesn't do what it aims at particularly well.  The only good thing about it is it has some elements that may have been frightening when the film was first released but that are not anymore.  If you're on a mission to see every horror film there is, watch it.  If you aim to watch only good movies and ones that are enjoyable awful, skip it.  It treads the middle path of monotony.

The film is meant to be a moral horror.  It begins with a quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "The evil that men do lives after them."  It then goes into a yarn about Professor Jonathan Drake, a voodoo scholar.  A long time ago, an ancestor of his massacred an African tribe, one that, unfortunately for the line of Drakes, were adept practicers of voodoo. The professor believes that there is a curse on his family, as all of the males since then have died suddenly and mysteriously, though they have been written off by the doctor as heart failure each time, a hereditary problem.

We believe Drake, though, because the first death of the film, his brother's, is shown to us.  It is committed by a tribal South American Indian with a sewn-shut mouth.  That is one of the film's biggest problems.  It plays out like a mystery, following Lieutenant Rowan's investigation into the deaths, but we already know what happened.  So, for most of the film, you are watching a guy slowly come to the same conclusion that we were given right off the bat.  Even throughout the rest of the film, we are shown each and every move of the two villains.  I guess this was done to creep people out back in the day, but the result is that, instead of letting us experience the same change of thought ourselves, we have a bit of tedium the outcome of which is entirely predictable.

The theme of evil's transcendence beyond the life of the evildoer remains largely undeveloped throughout the movie, probably because of its time spent on the "mystery" of the deaths.  The film's treatment of the theme amounts to little more than Drake telling people over and over again that it is a curse that is killing his family, often to no avail.  If there is any suspense in this film, it lies in this curse (which, by the way, is only really half a curse and half the revenge of a witch doctor and his assistant) and the fact that our main character is next in line to be killed, but the curse itself is never made interesting.

Henry Daniell, an accomplished actor of the period who also played in such films as Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, plays the chief villain in the film, Dr. Emil Zurich, and his performance is disappointing.  Apparently shooting for an understated dramatic performance, Daniell spends the whole film looking as if he has never been more bored in his life (though that may actually be the case).  Even while carrying out a head-shrinking, his demeanor looks as if he is doing nothing more eventful than mopping a floor.  Apparently not even he was capable of putting some life into the movie.

I'm guessing the makers of this film figured a few shrunken heads and an Indian with his mouth sewn shut would be enough to keep people satisfied for seventy minutes.  Maybe in 1959 they were right -- I don't know.  But nowadays this movie just doesn't have the style or substance to keep us interested.  If a curse movie is what you're looking for, turn to pretty much any mainstream horror movie made in Japan in the past ten years.  If you want some tribal killer action, watch Peter Jackson's recent remake of King Kong: in one brief scene it has more and creepier natives and primal killings than The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake does in its entire runtime.  Better yet, go read Julius Caesar, which the film tried but failed to piggyback.  As for this movie: I just can't think of any reason to recommend it.