Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959). Directed by: Edward L. Cahn. Starring: Eduard Franz, Valerie French, Grant Richards, Henry Daniell.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. This month’s episode is the intriguingly titled Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake. This time out, I watched it on Amazon Instant Video, though I’d previously seen it on a Midnite Movies Double Feature DVD alongside the 1957 Boris Karloff vehicle, Voodoo Island, which is also worth seeing for the man-eating plants, if for no other reason.

Four Skulls boasts a pedigree that is, if not necessarily encouraging, at least substantial, coming from the creators and stars of a veritable who’s-who of Mystery Science Theater alums and Midnite Movie entries. Helmed by prolific director Edward L. Cahn, whose other credits include Creature with the Atom Brain, The She-Creature, Zombies of Mora Tau, and It! The Terror from Beyond Space, and written by equally prolific scribe Orville H. Hampton, author of such films as Alligator People and previous Vault of Secrets affiliate The Atomic Submarine. The actors are no one particularly famous, but there are a lot of familiar faces from movies of similar caliber, ranging from The Thing from Another World to The Body Snatcher, The Wasp Woman, and The Atomic Brain, to name just a few.

As you might imagine from that roundup, Four Skulls is a pretty generic potboiler of the time, at least in execution. Made as part of a package deal with alien invasion proto-zombie film Invisible Invaders – also directed by Cahn, and starring John Agar and John Carradine – it is a classic example of the kind of 50s “suspense” film that mostly involves a lot of long discussions of questionable science, anthropology, or occultism (or all three) and lots of shots of people walking around. As is often the case with movies of its type, almost everything good in it, including pretty much the entire climactic scene, is contained in the trailer, which you can watch with commentary from Joe Dante at Trailers from Hell.

What sets it apart, to the extent that it gets set apart, can probably be credited to the screenplay, which has an odd reversal of the treatment of the supernatural. Usually in movies from the era, a seemingly supernatural series of events is given a naturalistic (if difficult to credit) solution, often explained away with some more of the questionable science talk that was so popular at the time. Four Skulls takes the exact opposite tack. While the events of the movie may appear supernatural to the characters, the naturalistic explanation seems obvious enough to the audience, as we get to watch the mad modern-day witchdoctor shrinking heads and all that jazz. However, at the last minute, the villains get a wonderfully preposterous and grisly supernatural explanation that is way weirder and more supernatural than most of the stuff that you’ll find in movies this far back, which is delightful and makes me want to run out and write Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake fanfic right away! (And I’m not the only one, as I have it on good authority that there’ll be an entry for the creeping bad guy Zutai in Steve Berman‘s forthcoming someday Guide to Lost Gay Cinematic Characters. )

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we check in on a magician whose sanity might be a little questionable. (Or maybe he’s just angry?)