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The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Here’s a real curiosity – one that lingers in the mind long after the last frame has vanished.

One of the most curious horror films of the late 1950s, Edward L. Cahn’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) centers on Professor Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz), a “professor of Occult Sciences” at an unspecified university, who is convinced that he and all the male members of the Drake family are victims of an ancient curse, handed down from his descendants, who as colonialist explorers massacred all the members of a Jivaro native tribe in South America in the late 1800s.

As a result, every male member of the Drake family dies of a mysterious paralysis at the age of 60, and Jonathan Drake is 59 1/2. Further, before the bodies can be buried, they are mysteriously beheaded, and only the skulls are returned to the family for burial. Nor is Jonathan mistaken in his apprehensions, as a supernatural agent of the Jivaros, Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell) is working feverishly to make sure that the curse does, indeed, descend upon Jonathan Drake, the last male member of his family line.

The film opens with a quotation from Act 3, scene ii of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”), and Drake muses, “What if Shakespeare were right? What if the power for good dies when the mind dies, and that only the evil men do lives after them?” What follows is a curious mixture of the obvious and the hypnotic, intertwined into a narrative that is at once preposterous and yet grimly serious, directed by Cahn as if in a trance.

As Zurich notes late in the film, “when the head of a strong, valiant enemy is properly taken, the possessor acquires the spirit, the soul, the vital spark that kept his enemy alive – a degree of immortality.” So it is with this absolutely singular film, a curious artifact of 50s pop culture that, like its undead protagonist, refuses to die.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this deeply peculiar film.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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