Howdy folkses! Welcome to the second part of our Edward L. Cahn Voodoo Double Feature! I'm still working from home for this one, quite literally smart-phoning it in from lovely Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where we have most assuredly transitioned from the carefree delights of Spring to the hot-diggity dog days of Summer. It's been hotter than Satan's sauna out here the past few days so I'm typing this review with the air conditioning running at full blast and a huge fan pointed directly at my face. I'm also completely naked, but that's pretty much standard operating procedure when I write for Million Monkey Theater, especially when it's hot and muggy outside and I know the neighbors are watching. It makes me feel footloose, funky fresh and maybe even a little fancy free...and then the police arrive and I've got some splainin' to do.

You know where else it's hot and muggy? In the Amazon Jungle, of course...and although today's feature doesn't actually take place in the Amazon, it is a location that's crucial to the film's plot. Now I know Voodoo has very little to do with South America, but as we have seen before, Voodoo need not be strictly portrayed as the hybridized religion of the African diaspora that it actually is. It can be whatever the overwhelmingly white magic-makers of movieland want it to be.

Cultural appropriation can be simultaneously complex, craven and immensely profitable.

As you may recall, the first film of our double bill was Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), an entertaining diversion that still managed to deliver some legitimate thrills despite its questionable plotting and inexcusable lapses of internal logic. The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is thematically similar, but an altogether superior film with an engaging story, strong acting, and a well-paced plot. It's not without its flaws, of course (and you know I'll be pointing those out as we come to them), but this is a solid classic horror flick and one of the strongest films of Edward L. Cahn's prolific career. It should be required viewing for any discerning b-movie aficionado.

We open with a couplet from Act 3 Scene ii of Julius Caesar, from the famous eulogy delivered by Marc Anthony: "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones." I tingle a bit when a low-budget flick opens with a high-brow Shakespeare quote, even if it is from that one speech every single high school student is forced to learn in their freshman year english class, because it indicates a conscious pretense to art that you just know it's going to to fail to achieve. It's already got me rubbing my greedy little b-movie mitts together in anticipation right out of the gate.

Sitting alone in a study adorned with tribal masks and exotic primitive souvenirs is our titular protagonist Jonathan Drake, an anthropology professor specializing in occult studies, firmly entrenched in late middle-age and currently lost in thought, staring idly at a shrunken head he's holding at arm's length by its hard, leathery chinny-chin-chin.

It was an early role for Beebop of The California Raisins.

Suddenly a candle on his desk is blown out, his eyes dilate in terror and he sees a vision of three human skulls floating towards him from across the room. As they glide nearer and nearer he cries out and falls into a trance-like swoon.

An attractive young brunette steps in, relights the candle then kneels tenderly beside him. This is his daughter Alison, who has apparently become accustomed to these strange and alarming episodes. She gently admonishes her father for never sharing what exactly he experiences when they occur.

"All I can say is I'll be needing a new pair of Depends."

JD muses that perhaps Shakespeare was right, perhaps everything that is good in a man really does die when he dies, but that the evil in him somehow lives on. He laments that after his decades in academia he's really learned nothing, that his life's work has been wasted and that everything really is as relentlessly terrible as all those angsty goths who take his creepy classes would have him believe.

Allison has come to make sure he saw a note she'd left concerning a phone call from his brother Ken, but Mr. Sunshine was so busy stroking his little wrinkly head and thinking dark, melancholic thoughts of existential doom he never even saw the thing. The news of the call clearly upsets him, though and he asks Alison to tell him all about it. She tells him Ken "had seen somebody named Tsantsa."

This sends JD into a barely-concealed panic. He demands to know the exact words his brother said, but Allison can't recall and questions if it's really something so vital. He holds up the shrunken head and feverishly informs her "This is what the Jivaro Indians of Ecuador call a Tsantsa!"

So far so good! The Jivaroan Peoples are an actual group of related tribal cultures indigenous to northern Peru and Eastern Ecuador, and they did actually ritually shrink the heads of their enemies, so right away we have a verifiably factual foundation for some of the horrors to come. I sure do love me some verisimilitude.

JD rises in a panic and tells Allison he must leave for his brother's house immediately. No plane can get him there, so a two-days' journey by train will have to suffice. He resolves to make the next scheduled departure, which happens to be that very night.

We cut to a telegram from Allison to Uncle Ken stating that JD will arrive at the family estate on Thursday.

It would have been quicker to send him a text.

They seem to really want us to remember this information because it's conveyed to us four times in about thirty seconds--once from JD's own lips, then through seeing the telegram, then from Ken reading the telegram aloud, then again when Ken looks up and repeats the information to his butler verbatim despite that the guy was standing right there in front of him listening to him read it.

JD arrives Thursday, everybody! I've marked it on my calendar, set an alarm on my phone, pasted a note on my fridge and written it backwards in sharpie marker on my forehead so I'll see it in the mirror when I shave.

As the butler heads out to prepare a guest room we see a dark, unnaturally parched hand opening a door somewhere in the house. Ken walks over to the liquor cabinet for a well-deserved snork of whiskey, but before he can pour it he looks up to see a shrunken head hanging from a tree branch just outside a pair of French doors. When he steps over to examine it a strange, imposing man appears weilding a bamboo dagger and his lips sewn shut with four individual knots.

It's Geddy Lee from Canadian power trio Rush!

Geddy Lee glides over and in a motion as dexterous and swift as his sweet, prog-rock bass-plucking, he just barely pricks the surface of Ken's neck with the tip of the bamboo blade. The poor guy immediately falls to the floor, inert and seemingly dead.

Geddy Lee kneels behind him, sets down an open basket and holds the blade to his throat, but before he can draw it across the flesh he hears the Butler approaching and beats a hasty retreat through the French doors. The astonished servant finds his master dead on the rug with the door hanging open and the Tsantsa swaying in the wind.

The following day we see a police cruiser pulling up to the Drake house just as the body is being carried out the front door. A stern-looking detective in a rumpled fedora gives the funeral workers a brief but penetrating stink-eye, then steps up to the house and rings the bell. This is Police Lieutenant Jeff Rowan, and when he flashes his badge the butler seems confused as to why he's there, which is surprising considering the odd circumstances in which his master's body was found. The lieutenant is also a bit surprised because Allison had only called him to do a wellness check on Ken Drake and surely did not expect to find the guy being loaded into a hearse.

The Butler assures Jeff his master died of natural causes, and that the doctor who certified it is still there at the house if he'd care to speak with him directly.

Wait a minute! The nominal hero of The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is named Jeff....and the nominal hero of Zombies of Mora Tau was also named Jeff...and do you know who else is named Jeff? My big brother...who just happens to be the biggest Rush fan in the eastern United States! I'd dedicate the review to him except he never actually reads my shit.

So the Jeff that's in this movie walks in to meet Dr. Bradford, the Drake family's physician who seems to pretty much suck at being a doctor. He didn't bother ordering an autopsy, but just went ahead and put "heart failure" on the death certificate anyway because that's what all the Drake men have died from for the past three generations, each right around the age of sixty. He also apparently didn't bother to look too closely at Ken's corpse or he would have noticed the wound on the neck, which is just plain lazy.

"Some patients live, some patients die. Either way I still get paid."

Also present is another doctor, of anthropology, whom Bradford introduces to Jeff as a "friend of the family" named Emil Zurich. He's cold and smug, dressed impeccably with a high collar and grey gloves, and delicately fondling the shrunken head that was found at the scene of the most-definitely-not-a-crime.

Bradford explains that Zurich is an authority on primitive cultures, and that he's called him here because of the intriguing presence of the shrunken head. Jeff is doubly intrigued because when Allison had called him to check on Ken she mentioned that her father's suspicions were connected to just such an object. Zurich holds the thing up as if it's a delicate piece of exquisite crystal, and definitively declares it "a particularly fine specimen" of its kind.

He's got a face like a condescending scrotum.

With nothing else to be learned and no apparent crime to investigate Jeff heads for the door, confirming with the butler on his way out that Jonathan Drake is expected there the following morning. Jeff glances thoughtfully back towards the living room and asks the Butler to please tell JD to call if he needs him.

That evening the hearse returns with Ken's casket and the Butler has them set it up in the living room for the following morning's funerary festivities. As soon as the thing drives off and the Butler heads up to bed our old buddy Geddy Lee shows up again, poking his head up cautiously from behind a bush.

When not onstage he avoids the Limelight.

Geddy Lee uses his blade to pick the lock on the French door then heads straight for the coffin. He sets down his basket, pulls out his knife, pushes open the lid and gets to work.

The following morning JD drives up in a cab and is dismayed to see a hearse parked in the driveway and a black wreath on the door. Having been travelling the past two days, and apparently having left his cell phone in his desk drawer at home, he was unaware until this moment that his brother had died.

When he gets in the house Dr. Bradford fills him in about poor Ken's "heart failure," but JD is incredulous. He demands that the funeral director open the casket immediately, and the mourners all gasp when they see that the corpse has no head!

They knew they'd forgotten something.

We cut to Dr. Zurich dressed in a standard issue mad scientist smock, standing over a boiling cauldron in a stone cellar fitted out with a fire pit, a mortuary cabinet and a sturdy lab table. Geddy Lee sets his basket down on the table and Zurich pulls out Ken's head, saying "Kenneth Drake! You have paid for the evil of your ancestors!"

Is that a Longaberger Basket?

Zurich takes the thing by the hair and drops it into the boiling pot, and it bobs up and down on the bubbling surface like an apple in a washtub.

Back at the Drake house Dr. Bradford has just put JD to bed, having dosed him with a sedative to help him sleep.

Allison appears now, having just come from the train station, and I'm slightly impressed that there's nothing amiss to point out here in the timing of her arrival. If it takes two days to travel by train and she got a telegram shortly after her uncle's death, then left that very night it's just about perfect. It's quite an improvement over the slipshod time continuity in Zombies of Mora Tau.

Allison reaches her father's bedside and he laments having been too late to help his brother. "It's as I said," he concludes sadly, "The evil that men do lives after them."

As JD drifts off into sleep the Butler steps in to inform Allison that Lt. Jeff is there to see her. She heads down to the living room and the detective gives her a fairly reasonable grilling. It's not the third degree, more like a 1.6, but it's clear that this bizarre case is already starting to get on his nerves.

It's making him chain-smoke, too.

He explains that the mutilation of the corpse has made it a criminal matter, and he wants some answers beyond the shrunken heads and mumbo jumbo he's heard so far. It becomes quickly apparent, however that Allison knows only what little her father has told her, which isn't much more than Jeff already knows himself. She says she wants him to find the people responsible for what happened to her uncle so the same thing doesn't happen to her dad, and he seems to accept that she's as honestly clueless as she appears to be.

Back at the basement lab Geddy Lee is heating up a bucket of sand over the fire while Zurich cuts open the back of Ken's head with another bamboo blade. He opens the flaps of skin and peels the flesh away, removing the entire intact skull in one sickening pull. He then sews up the back of the scalp and neck with some rough sissal and holds the now-empty flesh-sack upside down so Geddy Lee cab pour in the hot sand in to draw out the moisture and shrink the features.

Most of this happens just below camera level but it's still quite gruesome for a film of this time, and I was impressed to discover that from the boiling of the head to the removal of the skull, to the sand, to the sewing shut of the mouth on the finished product, this is a completely accurate, even exhaustive depiction of the process by which genuine Jivaro tsantsas were made. My one teensie-weensie little complaint is that when Zurich sews the back of the head shut below frame it's absurdly obvious he's only miming it because the thread is hanging slack as he tugs. Still, kudos and respect to screenwriter Orville H. Hampton for putting in the time and effort to get these details absolutely right.

Some of Hampton's other work has been sampled elsewhere on MMT here, here and here.

As Zurich sets the head down to finish the shrinking process he tells Geddy Lee "Next will be Jonathan Drake...and then the curse will be finished."

"Good. I need to get back to the studio to lay down some vocals, eh."

Back at the Drake residence JD is having some sweet father-daughter bonding time, chatting about occult shamanism, shrunken heads and family curses. Like Jan from Zombies of Mora Tau listening to her great grandmother's tales of that family's curse, Allison is firm in her rejection of a supernatural explanation for the strange events they've been experiencing.

I meant to keep a tally of how many cigarettes are smoked like founder Nate used to do in the old days, but I've already lost count.

JD pours out his heart, explaining that he's spent his life knowing the horrible fate that would eventually befall him, that the foreknowledge of it has been a heavy cross to bear and may have prevented him being "the right kind of father" to Allison.

Allison finds his fatalistic tone alarming, and she tries earnestly to convince him that his nervous exhaustion is from overwork, not ominous omens, but JD knows the truth and has decided that now is the time to tell her exactly what he and his family have been facing for the past four generations.

JD leads Allison to the Drake family vault, an outbuilding located on the grounds of the estate. He explains that the key he holds is the only key the family has, and that he will now pass it on to her. Once inside he flips on some handy electric lights and we see a remarkably cheap set with hand-lettered bristol board "plaques" and "marble slabs" made of feather-painted plywood.

The magic of stagecraft.

JD tells Allison the dark, violent and shameful tale of how the men of their family came to live under a curse. It began with Captain Wilfred Drake, JD's great grandfather, who ran a trading station on the upper Amazon. One day a number of Jivaroan tribesmen kidnapped his Swiss agent. Wilfred took a group of his men into the jungle to try to rescue him but when they arrived they found only his headless corpse. The enraged traders slaughtered every male tribesperson, adult and child, except the "witch doctor" who managed to escape into the jungle.

This shaman placed his curse on every subsequent male of the Drake line. Wilfred Drake died in the Amazon, but his son, Gilbert Drake died on his 60th birthday and was buried in the crypt with his head mysteriously missing. David Drake, JD's father was also buried there, headless, having died suddenly in his 60th year. Now Ken has also been laid to rest at 60, also without his head.

Now JD shows Allison the piece de resistance, a cabinet set into the corner of the wall, wherein lie the two perfectly bare skulls of his grandfather and his father.

Plenty of room for a couple more.

It seems that the skulls mysteriously appear in the cabinet shortly after each burial, but the rest of the heads are never returned.

Speaking of the rest of the heads, we cut back to Zurich's basement chamber of horrors just in time to see Geddy Lee set a steaming, cast-iron dutch oven on the lab table. At first I thought it was a nice hot goulash or maybe a tuna noodle casserole, but when Zurich removes the lid out pops Kenneth Drake's shrunken head.

Who doesn't enjoy a little head?

Zurich hands the skull to Geddy Lee, saying that as soon as he returns it to the family vault they'll be ready to go after Professor Jonathan Drake, the last remaining male in the family line.

Later Geddy Lee is sneaking around the vault, while Jeff is pulling into the driveway in his cruiser. Before he can even make it to the front door Allison comes out to meet him, explaining that she wants to talk but doesn't want her father to hear.

Jeff, the cheeky devil, suggests they climb into the car, where he can maybe put on a little Barry Manilow to set the mood, slip his arm around her shoulders and...well, actually, no. He's absolutely by-the-book here, a little gruff but completely and appropriately respectful towards Allison every step of the way, which in an era where b-films films were often chock-full of casual misogyny and passive-aggressive condescension towards women (I'm looking at you Project Moon Base) is really quite refreshing. He's a professional with a job to do and he's going to do it, which isn't to say there might not be a wee spark between them as the film plays on. It's just been wisely relegated to the subtext so it never intrudes on the plot. Again, this is quite refreshing.

As they get in the car Geddy Lee is watching them from the bushes, and I can't help but notice it's re-used footage from the night he came back for Ken's head.

A shot so nice they used it twice.

Allison, ever the faithful, protective daughter, qualifies what she's about to say by asserting that her father is an intelligent man, and she hopes her revelations won't make Jeff think poorly of him.

Jeff agrees that a university professor of twenty-seven years, specializing in occult studies and anthropology certainly must be a very smart fellow, and Allison is at first taken aback that the detective has been digging around about her father's career. He assures her it's a standard part of his job to research the people involved in a particular case and that he's even had his people check up on her, but it's nothing to worry over. She lights a cigarette and resolves to tell him everything her father has told her about the family curse.

We cut to Geddy Lee skulking about in the trees again, unwilling to take further risks while the two maybe soon-to-be lovebirds are parked right in front of the house. We get a little swipe transition back to them sitting in the car and Allison delivers the classic off-camera-exposition clincher "Well, that's it...the whole story."

She asks if Jeff thinks there's a genuine threat to her father's life. He says he's not sure then takes a deep drag from his cigarette and asks her to take him to the vault.

Once there they discover that Ken's skull has been returned and placed in the cabinet, exactly as JD had predicted.

Back in the house the Butler is tucking JD into bed and offering to bring him some hot milk to help him sleep. He's apparently desperate for a little workaday, run-of-the-mill servitude to make him feel like his world hasn't just completely fallen apart, and though JD clearly doesn't want the stuff, he graciously says "If you like," and sends the simple old fellow off to get it.

As the Butler excitedly scurries out of the room we see that Geddy Lee has returned to the grounds with his knife and his basket. He climbs up a trellis into the guest room, sneaks up to the bed and pricks JD's throat with the bamboo blade!

After a bit of twitching and sweating JD goes still and glassy-eyed, and Geddy Lee pulls a much larger knife from the sash around his waist. He leans in to start sawing but just at that moment the Butler returns with the hot milk on a silver tray.

"Pardon me, sir, I didn't realize you had a guest."

Geddy Lee leaps from the window and flees across the yard just as Allison and Jeff are returning from the vault. The detective pulls out his revolver and fires off two shots, and at the second one they hear a muted squeal like a small animal in pain. We see the bullet pass directly through Geddy Lee and hit a tree behind him.

The spindly Rock & Roll Hall of Famer takes off like a gazelle. Jeff is chomping at the bit to follow him and maybe get an autograph or perhaps a backstage pass to an upcoming show, but the Butler sticks his head out the window calling for help, and Allison pleads with the Lieutenant to come back to the house to assist with her father. He realizes that if he wants to get any nookie later on he'll have to give up the chase and rejoin Allison now. He chooses nookie and Geddy Lee escapes.

He likes to fly by night.

Up in the guest room things are looking pretty grim. Dr. Bradford gives a quick, perfunctory listen through the stethescope and declares that JD is completely beyond hope.

Jeff notices some blood on the pillow and finds the puncture wound on JD's neck. When the Butler confirms that the assailant had a long, thin, stiletto-like knife, his police detective spidey-senses start tingling, and he decides to take the pillowcase to the police lab to have the blood tested for toxins, which is something Dr. Bradford might have suggested himself if he were the least bit competent at his profession.

"Are you even a fucking doctor?"

We fade to the Police Crime Lab where a granite faced lab tech is scrambling to identify the potential poison. Jeff still has some hope they can save JD if they can identify it in time, and it seems he already has a suspicion as to what type of toxin it might be. His suspicions are confirmed when his pal identifies it as curare. Jeff phones Dr. Bradford and tells him to immediately administer the appropriate antidote.

There are definitely some factual issues regarding this revelation, but probably nothing the target audience for this thing would have noticed in 1959. Curare is, indeed, a South American poison, derived from plant extracts and used for arrow and dart hunting by various tribes in the Amazon region, but it doesn't really work in reality the way it does here. It's a powerful muscle relaxant, with an active ingredient is still sometimes used in tandem with general anaestetics during chest and abdominal surgeries. Victims of curare poisoning would be fully conscious as they slowly suffocated to death due to paralysis of the diaphragm.

JD, however, appears to be dead, but as we shall see, he is actually in a state mimicking death that's more accurately symptomatic of a black powder allegedly used by Voodoo priests to turn people into zombies (there is at least one documented case of this phenomenon in modern times). The central ingredient in the voodoo zombie compound is tetrodotoxin, or pufferfish venom, but the formula also contains other animal, plant and human-derived ingredients including ground human bones. It is said to create a state in which it is impossible to detect any primary signs of heart action or respiration, yet from which victims may be later revived. By using a second compound administered part way through recovery from the first the victims may be held in trance-like state where they are vulnerable to suggestion and domination.

With curare poisoning there's absolutely no way Jeff could have gotten the sample to the Lab Tech and had it analyzed in time to save JD, let alone with the additional time it would have taken Bradford to obtain and administer the antidote. Once exposed, and without any artificial respiration to keep his blood oxygen levels at a nominal level, JD would only have had about a three-minute window before permanent brain damage and about a six-minute window before certain death.

Lab Tech is played by Frank Gerstle, by the way, a popular character actor whom MMT fans might remember from Killers From Space (1954) and The Wasp Woman (1959).

Jeff calls for an officer to be posted at the Drake house 24/7, then tells Lab Tech that he'd better gather up his shit because he has a job for him.

Back at the Drake house Jeff takes Lab Tech down to the vault and asks him to dust each of the skulls for fingerprints while he pokes around looking for another entrance to the place, hoping for a straightforward explanation as to how whomever was returning the skulls could possibly have gotten in when there's only one key. I would think it would be pretty obvious that the lock was simply being picked, but I guess he needs something to keep himself busy while his pal sets up his kit and gets the first skull prepped.

Okay, now that's pretty damn cool.

Lab Tech checks the other skulls and each of them has exactly the same set of prints, meaning that all three were placed there by the same person over a span of more than a hundred years...

Back inside the main house Jeff enters the guest room just in time to see JD showing his first signs of life. As he struggles back to consciousness he has a recurrence of his vision from the opening scene, only this time there are four skulls menacing him instead of three. The vision fades and he awakens, and as his body relaxes he sees his daughter looming above him. According to Bradfors the prognosis for a full recovery looks good but with his track record it might be wise to seek a second opinion.

JD is exhausted from his ordeal and needs to rest, so Jeff, Bradford and Allison head downstairs to do a little research on shrunken heads, Canadian musicians and the primitive rites of the Jivaro peoples.

We get another of those sweet wipe transitions--I don't know why but I've always found them satisfying--to the inquisitive trio poring through a chaotic mess of leatherbound volumes on subjects both eldrich and arcane.

Jeff grills Bradford on whether it's possible a person could live long enough to deposit all three skulls in the vault over the course of a hundred years or so. Our indolent physician says he knows of no such case off the top of his head and he surely can't be arsed to look it up. Meanwhile Allison finds an illustration in one of the books of an open hand with skulls on the fingers.

I'd know those fingers anywhere.

Jeff reads aloud about something called "The Cult of the Headless Men," a secret society of Amazon witch doctors and high priests who would voluntarily subject themselves to having their bodily fluids replaced by a mystical potion to give themselves immortality. Once the process was over the subject would no longer require sustenance or respiration, and to prove that the transformation was complete their lips would be permanently sewn shut. Skull impressions would then be branded on the fingertips to identify the subject as member of the cult.

I could find nothing in my research to suggest that this is anything but a macabre invention of screenwriter Orville H. Hampton, but I did come across a novella called The Cult of Headless Men by contemporary horror author Orrin Grey, reportedly inspired by this reference in this film, so I may just have to head over to the other Amazon as soon as I'm finished this review.

Jeff is a practical man, a man of intellect and action. He deals in provable facts, and all these supernatural shenanigans are rubbing well against his grain. Desperate to be proactive in the face of a case that just plain doesn't make sense to him, he says he's going to have another look around the grounds and asks if either of the others wish to come with him. Bradford declines, saying JD might need him, but Allison is eager enough, and the casual way she says "I'll go," like it really doesn't matter one way or another, but she might as well since she's got nothing else penciled in for the evening, speaks volumes about her burgeoning attraction to Jeff.

Looks like Jeff finds something attractive, too

So the pair head out onto the path where they last saw Geddy Lee hoofing it out of the grounds and the first thing they spot is a sandal made of some kind of leather, setting right in the middle of the path where he was when Jeff fired at him. Jeff turns and sees the bullet stuck in the tree and surmises that it must have passed through the guy he hit. He digs it out to take back to the lab.

As he turns to leave he barks at Allison to go back to the house and stay there, then realizing he sounds like a dick he adds in a softer tone "I don't want anything else to happen." She'd better get used to it because that's as tender as he gets.

I'll bet their babies will have cute little button noses and smoke like fucking chimneys.

Back in Zurich's basement we see him sitting on a big chair, wearing a weird tribal Santa Claus mask and surrounded by a jumbled mixture of South American and central African tchotchkes. Geddy Lee has set his bass aside in favor of a hand drum, and he beats out a mesmeric rhythm as they perform some kind of thought-transference ritual, so Zurich will be able to transmit what he thinks and sees directly into JD's brain and torture him with the inevitability of his oncoming death.

This is the worst Rush concert I've ever seen.

We fade a few times to JD, half-conscious, sweat-drenched and writhing in torment. Zurich tells him to watch as his own skull joins the others in the tomb, and we get that same vision of the floating skulls again, which becomes a little less effective and a little more goofy each time we see it.

JD knocks the lamp off the nightstand with the violence of his fearful convulsions, and Allison, Bradford and the Butler come rushing in. Bradford announces that JD has fallen into a state of catatonic shock, and he orders the butler to call an ambulance so he can pawn his patient off on some random E.R. intern and not have to deal with an actual medical crisis himself. He also fills a hypodermic needle with a generous quantity of some kind of mystery drug because it's the only thing he seems to know how to do.

"I don't know what this stuff is but it's in my bag so I might as well use it."

So Bradford sends JD off in the ambulance, but instead of heading directly to the hospital with him he tells Allison he's got something of more importance to her father that must be taken care of first and heads off in another taxi to Emil Zurich's house.

As he pays off the driver and walks up to Zurich's house we see Geddy Lee watching him from a mullioned window above and wondering why no one owns their own car in this movie.

Zurich answers the door and says "Doctor Bradford...such a pleasure," in a tone like Hannibal Lecter musing over which parts of an unexpected house guest he's going to eat now and which parts he'll dice and stick in some tupperware for later.

Bradford asks Zurich a few questions about the tribal uses of curare, then blurts out that he thinks curare killed Ken Drake, since it was also used in an attack on JD earlier that evening. Zurich just smiles and says "but Jonathan Drake did not die."

This creeps Bradford right the hell out and he demands to know how Zurich could possibly know such a thing when it only just happened. When Zurich comments dryly how he also knows that Bradford himself administered the curare antidote, the dim-witted buffoon finally realizes he's stepped into some pretty deep shit by coming here. Before he can do anything about it Geddy Lee swoops in with his bamboo stiletto and swiftly rids the world of one of its least competent medical practitioners.

Back at the police lab the Tech has analyzed both bullet and sandal and has some pretty shocking news about each of them. It seems that whatever the bullet passed through was composed of "about one third blood and two thirds curare." Oh, and the sandal? Yeah, it's made of human skin.

"Sweet Jesus, that's horrifying...pretty good arch support, though."

Jeff decides he'd better go and have a talk with Zurich since he's the only expert on this kind of shit nearby who's not currently unconscious from whatever the hell Bradford keeps in his bag.

Jeff tells Zurich about the bullet and the blood and the curare and the sandal, and the doctor gives him a potted history of headhunting and head shrinking.

It seems that once taken from an enemy's body and properly prepared, the tsantsa head becomes an inescapable prison for the dead person's soul, at least until it's somehow damaged or destroyed. Once again this is quite a good summation of actual tribal beliefs, though left unmentioned is that the tsantsas were made specifically to prevent the dead man from haunting the warrior who had killed him.

Zurich further explains how the head must be removed with a specific cut at a specific level, just above the shoulders and below the hairline, using specifically a bamboo blade, as any metal would contaminate the soul and render the totem useless. He also insists that the skull must be left fully intact and undamaged as it is extracted or the soul would escape before the tsantsa could be completed.

It's a terrific sequence. Jeff stalks around the room, passive-aggresively friendly-interrogating Zurich, casually picking up priceless primitive artifacts and weighing them in his hands like he's choosing the best-balanced club to beat somebody to death with.

It's strategically unnerving, designed to intimidate, and it slowly bores through Zurich's quietly menacing reserve, eventually forcing him to betray himself. When Jeff notices a stain on the carpet and bends down to examine it Zurich can't help but show his fear. It's only for an instant, but for a seasoned investigator like Lt. Jeff Rowan that instant is enough.

That's the exact face I made during my prostate exam.

Zurich swiftly regains his icy composure and claims the stain is just a simple red dye he's accidentally spilled, something from one of his experiments that will surely come out with some Oxy-Clean and a Sham-Wow. Jeff shrugs as if he's totally accepted this absurd explanation at face value, then changes the subject to the Drake family curse, but Zurich denies any knowledge of it.

Jeff thanks the doctor for his time, then just as he's about to head out the door he says he also found a sandal made of people-skin, just casually throws it out there as if it's of so little importance he almost forgot to mention it at all. He says if anything occurs to Zurich about that he should please call him at the precinct.

Actor Grant Richards is brilliant here, deftly balancing Jeff's aggressive physicality and his sharp, crafty intellect. Aside from his successful film career playing character and support roles Richards was well-known as a radio personality from narrating several seasons of Gangbusters (1936-57), a true crime drama program that enlisted audience help to solve real crimes. St the end of each episode he read physical descriptions of wanted criminals, a practice which lead to many arrests over the course of the program's run.

As soon as Jeff leaves Zurich calls Geddy Lee over and tells him they'd better get to headhuntin' on JD before police interest in their activities grows so intense that it makes it impossible to do so.

Jeff hops into his cruiser and radios back to the Lab Tech asking him to dig up everything he can find on Doctor Emil Zurich, and we later see the wrinkled old skin flap himself driving Geddy Lee back to the Drake house, unaware that JD has been moved to another location.

Funny, the car doesn't look like a Barchetta. It's not even red.

Zurich and Geddy Lee creep around the grounds until they discover that a uniformed policemen is making his own rounds of the estate. Geddy Lee finds and grabs a rock, and it's clear the poor, unwitting Redshirt officer will soon be meeting his maker.

Elsewhere Jeff has returned to Zurich's place to have a look at that stain and investigate the place in a warrant-free, qualified immunity, totally-not-admissible-in-court sort of way. He pulls out a big fancy ring of skeleton keys and eventually finds one that turns in the lock.

At that very moment, back at the Drake residence, Geddy Lee uses that fateful rock and there's one more hapless Redshirt who won't be coming home to his red-bloused wife and red-bediapered kids.

If you'd stop wearing those red undershirts maybe you wouldn't get killed so much.

Back across town Jeff is examining the stained carpet and feels something beneath it. He pulls it back and discovers a pull-ring on a trap door, hiding a staircase leading to Zurich's secret lab. He goes down and sees Ken's shrunken noggin on a curio shelf and Dr. Bradford's waxy-looking head inside one of the compartments of the mortuary cabinet. It appears to have been freshly battered with Crisco and rubbed with secret herbs, ready for one of those jumbo air fryers all the hipsters are using these days to cook their Thanksgiving turkeys.

That's good eatin'.

Geddy Lee comes back to where Zurich is hiding in the bushes and indicates through the power of Canadian prog-mime that JD is no longer in thr house. Our scrotal-visaged villain leaves his pal in the bush and walks cautiously up to the front door. He rings the bell, and when the Butler appears he asks to speak with JD.

The gormless old servant says "Hadn't you heard, sir?" And proceeds to spill all the beans to him about his master's brother's nervous collapse and Dr. Bradford transfer of him to the hospital. He assures Zurich that he will let Allison know he stopped by when she returns from visiting her father.

Back in their sneaky secret clubhouse bush Zurich muses that they'll be unable to get JD's head so long as he's safely resting in the hospital. He decides they'll have to find some way to make him voluntarily come to them.

Nowadays, of course, if you go to the hospital, literally carrying your catastrophically herniated intestines in a family-sized KFC bucket, they'll charge $2,700 for an E.R. visit, give you a $75 Tylenol and send you home with instructions to put a heating pad on it, but back in the 1950's you could have a nice little private room all to yourself for four or five glorious days, with hotel room-service quality meals and a pretty nurse to massage your feet, even if you just came in with a hangnail or a bruised elbow. If they really want JD to voluntary leave his malingerer's paradise they're going to have to offer him one hell of an incentive.

Oh, and we get this fucking shot again.

Back at Zurich's house Jeff has just finished up with his little extra-legal look-round. He locks up the house and heads back to his cruiser, then gets Lab Tech on the horn to see if he was able to dig up any dirt on Zurich.

Lab Tech tells him he found plenty, and it's real bad, but Jeff had better get back to the precinct because he'll apparently need to have some brandy and smelling salts handy when he hears it.

In the meantime Allison arrives back at the Drake house in yet another cab, but before she can reach the door Zurich steps out of the foliage. He tells her the hospital just called to say her father has taken a turn for the worse so she needs to turn around get back there right away. Of course he says he'd be more than happy to take her there himself...

Now we're back at the police station where Lab Tech provides the big reveal about the sinister ball-sack with soulless basalt eyes and kimodo-dragon lips. He says they had the whole team working to find him through medical directories, college faculty lists and more, and they tracked down pretty much everyone who'd ever been awarded a doctorate in anything, but the guy is a ghost. There's simply no Dr. Emil Zurich anywhere, at least not living today.

It turns out the only Dr. Emil Zurich they could find was the self-same Swiss agent from Captain Wilfred Drake's trading post, the one who had been killed by the Jivaro Indians in the Amazon jungle one hundred and eighty years before!

Jeff decides that the only course of action left to him is to go confront the only guy who can give him the explanation he craves...JD himself. As he's leaving the precinct to head back to the Drake estate where he believes JD is still resting, the thoroughly spooked Lab Tech earnestly warns him "Don't get too brave."

"Don't you worry your pretty head. Just have the champagne and baby oil ready for when I get back."

Now we see JD drivin up to the Drake house in still another cab, and not only are there tons of taxis specifically, there's just an absurd number of cars pulling up driveways generally.

JD tells the driver to wait for him. He rushes inside the house and asks in a panic if Allison has been back from the hospital, but the Butler informs him she hasn't. JD mutters to himself "then he wasn't lying..."

He pulls a loaded revolver from a fancy leaded-glass curio cabinet, and it seems odd to me that an erudite and respectable fellow like Ken Drake should keep his modern personal firearm on display with his Capidomonte teacups and Faberge eggs, but then rich people are fucking weird.

JD tells the Butler that Zurich had called him at the hospital to say he'd kidnapped Allison, and told him he'd better forego that foot massage, throw on an overcoat and come give up his head stat if he wants her to live. The Butler can only stammer that sir is ill, and insists in any case kidnapping is a matter for the police, not for some crazy-ass anthropology professor who see skulls flying at him every time he gets the vapors, but JD forbids him to call the authorities, fearing that Zurich will kill Allison unless he shows up alone.

In the basement lab Zurich is just touching up the hair on Dr. Bradford's newly and perfectly shrunken head. He turns to Allison, now tied to the chair he'd previously used for his little Santa mask ritual, and says "Now you've seen the entire process Ms. Drake."

Yep, he made her watch all the basting and boiling, slitting and splitting, peeling and pulling and everything. That's a long way to go just to impress a pretty lady.

She'll need some therapy before she and Jeff can start baby-makin'.

Zurich claims that Dr. Bradford has achieved a sort of immortality by having his soul trapped forever in it's little face-leather prison, and he gleefully assures her that her father will soon be afforded the same honor. Allison shouts that her father has done nothing to him and demands to know why he should want to do this horrible thing to him. A look of pensive resignation flashes across Zurich's face as he replies "It's not what I want. It's what I must do."

Meanwhile JD arrives and finds the front door to the Zurich house unlocked. As he steps into the seemingly empty place, we cut to Jeff arriving at the Drake house in his police cruiser...and I'm beginning to suspect the editor had some sort of weird "cars pulling into driveways" fetish.

"Yeah, baby...back out then drive in again..."

The perpetually befuddled Butler runs out to meet him saying he was just about to phone when he heard his car. He gives Jeff the skinny on Zurich, JD and--most importantly--Allison. Jeff tells him to call the precinct with instructions to wait an hour, then if they don't hear from him to send everyone they've got to the Zurich house, which will give him time to do his nominal hero things unencumbered by the paid extras there's nothing left of the budget to provide.

Back in the Lab Zurich explains to Allison that once her father's head is in the cabinet with the others "the ancient pledge will be fulfilled" and he will finally be able to rest. Just at that moment JD comes rushing down the stairs, pistol in hand and posits "but suppose it is not fulfilled?" It's a very good question and I suspect we will soon have an answer.

First, though Zurich asks how JD plans to prevent this from coming to pass, which is an even better question, especially considering how he's just voluntarily walked straight into the trap that Zurich set for him. JD confidently asserts, however, that he finally understands now exactly what he must do to defeat and destroy him.

Zurich smiles like he's humoring a child. He says that JD, of all people should know how futile it would be to try to destroy him with a gun, since he's already dead and therefore can't be killed.

JD concedes the point, helpfully explaining to us that Zurich ain't nothin' but a white man's severed head sewn onto a jungle Indian's body, reanimated by drugs, herbs and magic and sent off to fulfil the dictates of the long-dead witch doctor's curse. His solution to this conundrum is both novel and karmically satisfying. He knows that Zurich's soul will continue to walk the Earth in interminable torment so long as the curse is left unfinished, and that finishing it requires that the last living male of the Drake family line have his soul imprisoned inside a studiously prepared shrunken head. JD has therefore determined he will shoot himself in the head, simultaneously contaminating his body with the metal of the bullet and creating a hole in the skull through which his soul will escape!

Now that's using your head!

Zurich grabs JD's arm to try and stop him and Geddy Lee suddenly runs in to help, having heard the ruckus below during a break in his band rehearsal up in Zurich's garage. He leaps on JD and tries to stab him with the curare-tipped bamboo blade, which wobbles comically like a limp rubber dildo attached to the end of a power drill.

Just as JD is about to be overpowered, Jeff appears and shoots Geddy Lee and he emits another strange, animalistic squeal. The undead tribesman now turns and attacks our nominal hero, attempting to stab him with the dildo-blade instead, but Jeff, or rather a stuntman who's about twenty pounds lighter and sporting a different haircut, manages to push him backwards and into the open fire pit. As soon as his ass hits the flames Geddy Lee explodes in a thick billow of white, and presumably toxic smoke.

I don't think that thing is up to code.

When Zurich sees that his little bass-playing buddy is now just a pile of soot and cinders he tries to bolt past Jeff and up the stairs to escape. Jeff grabs at his shirt, which rips open to reveal a scar at the neck where the color changes from the pasty pale of his scrotal mug to the nut-brown complexion of the native South American whose body he's been using for cheap, reliable transportation. Jeff raises his gun to fire but JD stops him and hands him Geddy Lee's knife instead, explaining it's the only thing that can stop Zurich.

Because this is a low-budget film with just a handful of completely studio-bound sets booked and only a few hours left in which to use them at this point in shooting, Zurich flees to the Drake family vault. As he stands before it, scanning the landscape for any sign of his pursuers, we see that not only has Jeff correctly anticipated where he would go, he also somehow got there ahead of him and climbed up on the roof so he could ambush him when he arrived.

I'm suspending my disbelief as hard as I possibly can.

Jeff leaps from the roof and knocks down Zurich, but the walking skin-quilt is stronger than he appears, and the struggle turns against him. Just as it looks like curtains for poor Jeff he just barely manages to get the tip of the blade to Zurich's neck.

Just a little prick.

Zurich immediately falls to the ground, convulses a few times and goes limp as linguini. The Drakes arrive, and when we see Allison immediately run into Jeff's manly arms it's a final confirmation that these two are sho' nuff soon gonna be making all those chain-smoking babies they loved to pump out in the 1950's

They'll have her piercing green eyes and his atrophied lungs.

Jeff says it's over, but JD says no, there's one last thing he must do in order to definitively end the curse and defeat Emil Zurich forever. He must sever the white man's head from the brown man's body.

Allison is horrified but JD assures there is nothing human left in this creature, only the evil that lived on after its constituent persons had died one hundred and eighty years before. He kneels down, bamboo blade at the ready, clenches his teeth and sets himself to butchering some long pig.

JD likes it broiled and served with lemon-tarragon butter over mixed greens.

JD completes his gruesome task and stands back up, exhausted but finally, joyfully liberated from the curse that has haunted him since childhood. As the body fades into oblivion the camera pans up to reveal that the fleshless skull has remained intact, grinning impotently at them from the grass.

JD stares in stupefied wonder and shouts:

"The fourth skull!"

The End.

I genuinely love this odd, wonky, morbid little film. It packs quite a lot into its hour and ten-minutes and doesn't waste any of its brief runtime with overt romantic subplots or shoehorned-in comic relief. It takes its subject matter seriously, grounding the more fantastical elements in anthropological fact, and proceeds with a grim and deadly earnest that gives its narrative a suprising degree of gravitas. It's more on the order of the harrowing horror fiction you'd find in an old issue of Weird Tales magazine than your typical 50's Saturday matinee fare, and it's all the better for it.

All that good stuff is more than enough to offset the few specific complaints I have with the film's structure and logic, but complain I must and complain I will:

First off we have the strictly functional problem of all that tedious back and forth between the three primary locations that makes the middle act sag like Zurich's testicular neck flap. Surely there could have been a better way to handle all those transitions than with seemingly endless, nearly identical shots of cars parking in driveways.

Next there's the puzzling and slightly distracting choice to have most of the cast be British, including the guy who's supposed to be Swiss, but then just when we think the story must be taking place in merry olde England they throw the two police officials at us who bot sound like tough-talking, wise,guy, film noir Americans. Then we see that all the cars have their steering wheels on the American side and wonder what all those Brits are doing with all those shrunken heads in the Fingerlakes district of New York.

Lastly we have the most fundamental complaint, which is that curare is presented as some kind of multitasking miracle that can make a living guy appear to be dead, a dead guy appear to be living and a living dead guy go completely limp and inert so you can cut off his head without him throwing a tantrum and you throwing out your back. It seems like mighty handy stuff to keep around the house, but here it's just a heavy-handed writer's crutch propping up far too much of the film's plot.

Still, the shortcomings disappear like raindrops in a river when you're in the midst of watching it because The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake is just so darn spooky and entertaining. What more could you reasonably ask of a movie that was probably made in about two weeks and cost less than most other films' catering budgets?

That's good value for money, I say, but then again I watched it for free.

Final Observations:

--The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was the seventh of an astonishing nine films Edward L. Cahn directed in 1959. The others are Guns, Girls & Gangsters, Riot in Juvenile Prison, Invisible Invaders, Inside the Mafia, Gunfighters of Abilene, Pier 5, Havana, Vice Raid and A Dog's Best Friend.

--Henry Daniell, who played Dr. Zurich, was a well-known and well-respected veteran of stage and screen, known for such notable films as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), the Errol Flynn buccaneer classic The Sea Hawk (1940) and My Fair Lady (1964). The latter was his final appearance, as he suffered a fatal heart attack before the film was completed. Despite being frequently typecast as sophisticated villains he was a famously gentle, kind and humble man.

--The excellent shrunken and decapitated head props were created by some-time actor and full-time make-up effects artist Charles Gemorra. Some of his other fine work may be found on MMT here.

--The practice of shrinking heads declined as colonialism swept across South America and indigenous cultures became absorbed into modern society. As the practice waned and tourism increased during the late 19th century, shrunken heads became a high-demand souvenir item for travelers from Europe and the United States, so that by about 1895 the supply of genuine articles had been exhausted. To fulfil the demand fakes of various types were made and sold, many prepared from the heads of slaughtered monkeys. In traditional practice only men's heads would have been shrunk, but Mercer University in Georgia had a single female specimen (since returned to Ecuador for interment), whom researchers surmise may have been murdered to appease a wealthy collector in search of a genuine human head.

--The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake was Edward L. Cahn's 105th directorial project out of a total of 128.

As always, cheers and thanks for reading!

Written by Bradley Lyndon in June, 2021.

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