Four skulls without a single thought

THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE got bumped to the top of the Watch Pile, ahead of far worthier items like Rivette’s HURLEVENT and the Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY, simply because Fiona and I both grew up (if, in fact, we ever grew up) with Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies as our bible. And so a sort of mission has formed in our heads, to see every single film pictured in that quaint and curious volume.

Gifford, an appealing fan-boy writer whose works also covered British comic books and comedians, set us a formidable task by including many rare and hard-to-see movies, some of which have no historic value whatever, but had the advantage of yielding at least one eye-popping image, captured in a production still and lovingly reproduced within APHOHM‘s green-tinged dust-jacket. The idea of seeing them all was probably planted when I showed Fiona a manky tape of Mario Bava’s KILL, BABY, KILL! and she recognised the image of the little girl at the window as one she had painted in art skool. Since that initial damp glimmer, the idea of “Doing the Complete Gifford” has grown into not quite an obsession — our brains are too full of obsessions to accommodate another, unless we invest in a memory stick — but certainly something it would be fun to pursue.

I will, at some future date, append a complete list of the films we need to see. Maybe some of you Shadowplayers, all you wonderful people out there in the dark, can help source them.

THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE moves with slug-like speed through a slender narrative that might furnish an entertaining half-hour, but is overstretched by the film’s rather paltry 70 mins. Perhaps the slowness is effected by the age of the cast, most of whom seem to be in the twilight of their lives and “careers”, but that aspect of the film is actually novel and welcome, especially as it gives us the great Henry Daniell, a villain’s villain if ever there was one, as the oleaginous Dr. Zurich, of Switzerland. The aged and baggy-eyed Daniell, whose face seems more than ever to be adorned with a Lone Ranger mask fashioned from his own skin, is nevertheless on chipper form as the baddie, a man with a strange and horrible secret.

Movie begins in fun fashion as Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) meditates upon a shrunken head, and is then persecuted by a vision of three hovering skulls. I call that a fine start. Sadly we then become mired in “plot”, although the graphic and detailed visual account of how to shrink a man’s head is both entertaining and informative. In addition, we have Zurich’s South American Indian henchman, Zutai (Paul Wexler), a man equipped with a string moustache, as if somebody had tried to make a shrunken head of him, sewing up his lips, but had given it up as a lost cause.

“Who am I kidding? I can’t shrink heads!” cried the student of cephalominimalism, kicking over his cauldron and discarding Zutai’s cranium without even having severed it.

Zutai’s handsome countenance was the image Gifford chose to immortalise, and along with the floating skulls, shrunken heads and moments of gore and unpleasantness (the needle that injects a paralysing fluid that simulates death!), definitely forms a highlight. Some talkie back-story establishes how Zutai became impervious to bullets, but an even more radical reveal gives us the secret of Zurich’s immortality — his head has been attached to an Indian’s body. Somehow, as a result, he is immune to the effects of old age (even though he’s clearly suffering them RIGHT NOW) and is actually 200 yrs old. This surgical miscegenation is visualised by a shot of poor old Henry with shirt open, stitching around neck and shoe-blacked torso testifying to his offense against nature. I shouldn’t be glad I saw that, but I kind of am.

Having finally captured the ageless-yet-withered Zurich, Drake procedes to murder the helpless felon by severing his head, with the full cooperation of the local police (!) and then we get a quick disintegration, leaving only —

“The fourth skull!” affirms Drake, grimly.

“Yes! It was me all along! Mwahahahahaha!”

5 Responses to “Four skulls without a single thought”

  1. How sad that director Edward L. Cahn goes without a mention.

    I’d like to discover virtues in Cahn. One hears that “Law and Order” — which I haven’t seen — is decent. For me, though, the decisive picture is “The She-Creature,” which has a strong (if odd) cast and a very decent Lou Rusoff script — but continues to prove itself dull, dull, DULL! If only Roger Corman had been at the proverbial helm.

    Blocks of my childhood were, in any case, filled with Cahn: “It! The Terror From Beyond Space,” “Zombies of Mora Tau,” “Voodoo Woman,” “Curse of the Faceless Man,” “Invisible Invaders.”

    Perhaps “Girls, Guns, and Gangsters” has some virtues to it, or “Main Street After Dark.”

  2. I didn’t even look him up! The direction seemed the LEAST interesting element, except admittedly the floating skulls and the surprise grue. But I recall It! being genuinely scary and fun. The She-Creature yielded an ideal Mystery Science Theater episode as it contains plenty of silences and dead spots begging to be filled with back-chat.

  3. Still waiting for your definitive list of Gifford Glories. My own equivalent was the Aurum Encyclopaedia of Horror – filled with one-paragraph descriptions of obscure and terrifying films that were, once upon a time, completely inaccessible – titles like A Page of Madness, or Horrors of Malformed Men. Now that I can (mostly) get hold of these unknown pleasures without heaving myself out of my armchair, I like to remember the phantom movies these descriptions created in my head, and my friends’ heads.

  4. That’s a handsome book, that Aurum. The Gifford is absolutely decades old. My latest acquisition from it is The Living Skeleton, a Japanese classic with truly inscrutable subtitles.

  5. […] be the jewel in the cardboard crown of Schlockmeister General Edward L. Cahn, the nitwit behind THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE (which had some nifty-ish images but moved like a slug). I have returned, after what seems like […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: