Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake

I think I became aware of The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake thanks to the B-Movie Podcast. I'd put a moratorium on purchasing DVDs at the time, and I couldn't find anywhere to stream it for free, so I gave up until tonight when I noticed that it's free to watch for Amazon Prime members. The Amazon Prime Kool Aid is surging at an alarmingly high pressure through my veins right now, so I decided to take the plunge.

Wait, "take the plunge" is Nestea's slogan. What did Kool Aid Man say? Oh yeah.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake a highlighted quote from Act 3, Scene 2 of Bill Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "The evil that men do lives after them." The quote fades and we open on a scene which should be a reference to Hamlet, but isn't: a man sits in a chair, holding a shrunken head, prepared in the style that used to be advertised in the back pages of comic books. Suddenly, three skulls appear and loom in the air before him, before zooming at the camera and disappearing one by one. The man quakes in fear. This is Jonathan Drake.

That Mr. Drake is a troubled man has been noted by his daughter Alison, who is bothered by her father's lifelong refusal to discuss the manifestations that have plagued him. Alison has come in to say that Drake has missed a call from his brother, Kenneth. "He saw someone named Tsantsas," she says. Jonathan Drake does not take this news well, and makes immediate plans to take the two-day train ride to Kenneth's home.

Jonathan arrives just in time for his brother's funeral. Kenneth dropped dead, apparently of the same cardiovascular failure that has taken all of the men of the Drake family for the last three generations. It is to be a closed-casket funeral because sometime between the pronouncement of death and the visitation, Kenneth's head has been stolen. Jonathan Drake is unsurprised.

A tsantsas, we learn, is a shrunken head, and one was found hanging outside of Kenneth's window on the night of his death. The police get involved, and are frustrated by the level resistance they're getting from the Drake family. Jonathan is muttering things about "the evil that men do" and "the family curse". Alison tries to calm him down, but instead he tells her that it's time for her to visit the Drake family vault and learn about the secret he'd hoped to keep from her.

In the vault, Jonathan tells her the story of his great grandfather, Captain Wilfred Drake, who had a trading post on the upper Amazon. When Wilfred's Swiss agent was kidnapped by a tribe called the Jivaro, Captain Drake mounted an expedition to save the man. Upon arriving at the village, they found the agent's headless body and avenged him by slaughtering the entire village, except for their witch doctor who escaped into the jungle and cursed the Drake family. Since then, all of the men in the Drake line have succumbed to heart attacks around age sixty. Shortly after death the heads disappear, only to be returned as skulls a few days after interment. Jonathan shows her the headless bodies, and then directs her to the cabinet where the skulls are stored. There is one key, and no one has ever been observed returning the skulls...

...I could probably withhold this information, but the skulls are being returned to the vault by the man who is taking them. His name is Zutai, and he is a Jivaro indian. How does he fit into the story and what is his endgame?

I can't call The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake a good movie, but I liked it. I liked the atmosphere and the creeping menace and the gradual revelation of the supernatural element. I like the syrupy organ music that underscores all the scary parts, and the stone-faced seriousness of the movie. I liked the incongruous How-To sequence where Kenneth Drake becomes a shrunken head (even though it grinds the movie to a halt). What I didn't like is that the movie contains noticeable continuity errors and surprisingly obvious plotting problems. I'll give you an example, but you'll have to bear with me: A plaque in the vault identifies Kenneth Drake's date of death (and therefore the timeframe of the movie) as 1958. The death of Captain Wilfred Drake (1813-1873, according to his plaque) kicked off the family curse, so Jonathan's explanation to his daughter that the curse is 200 years old is clearly nonsense. Errors like this make The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake feel like an Ed Wood movie made under the supervision of a reasonably competent producer.

My other big problem with this movie is Zutai, who I wouldn't have mentioned above, except that I wanted to complain about him here. Zutai is played in brownface (well, greyface--it's a black and white movie, after all) by a white actor named Paul Wexler whose biggest role was appearing in reference footage used by animators for Disney's 101 Dalmations. I don't think Wexler deserves much scorn or disgust for his portrayal of Zutai, but the character is an awkward and embarrassing throwback to a time where Americans were fascinated by the idea of other cultures, but couldn't be bothered to learn anything about them.

The film was made in 1959 and I don't think it would have worked at any other time; it's too innocent to have been made later than the early '60s, and too graphic to have been made prior to the mid-'50s. Unfortunately, that narrow window of feasibility means that I can only recommend it to classic film buffs. Modern moviegoers probably wouldn't have the patience for The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, but there are plenty of other horror and suspense films (Se7En comes to mind--and is a much better movie) which are essentially cut from the same cloth.

Here's the trailer:
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