Directors: Edward L. Cahn
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

From MGM’s United Artists vaults comes a golden-age chiller that many grew up watching on late-night TV in the 1960s and 1970s. A mad witch doctor in suburban 1950s America runs amuck in Edward L. Cahn’s THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, a former MGM “Midnite Movies” cult favorite now being made available on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory.

In the enjoyable THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE, Kenneth Drake (Paul Cavanagh. THE MAN IN HALF MOON STREET) dies suddenly at age 60, and on the day of his wake, his body is discovered with the head removed. Brother Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz, THE THING) arrives and is about to suffer the same fate, as he explains that there's a curse on his family where both his father and grandfather, and now his brother have had their heads removed, only to have the skulls neatly returned to a cabinet in the Drake crypt. In the meantime, a police detective (Grant Richards, NIGHT OF MYSTERY) with nothing better to do is snooping around the estate with the help of Drake’s pretty daughter (Valerie French, THE 27TH DAY). Neighbor Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell, THE BODY SNATCHER) is quickly revealed as the culprit: a centuries-old Indian witch doctor with a white man’s head sewn onto his body! Zurich—whose latest head-shrinking victim is Drake family physician Dr. George Bradford (Howard Wendell, MY BLOOD RUNS COLD)—removes the skins from the skulls, sews up the eyes and mouths, and shrinks the heads to miniature size in a boiling pot.

Produced by Robert E. Kent (THE WEREWOLF) for Vogue Pictures, THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE is a real cheapie with soundstage-bound sets (the whole show takes place in two different darkly lit houses), but a moody, creepy little thriller at that. Somewhat resembling a 1950s William Castle effort (especially in the hallucinatory sequences featuring floating skulls) veteran workman director Edward L. Cahn (INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE) is able to cram enough thrills into 70 minutes, and the cast does a decent job with the material. Wrinkly Daniell makes a really creepy villain, and as a witch doctor, is able to perform some nasty things (the head shrinking is pretty graphic for the time) in his dungeon-like basement. Make-up artist Charles Gemora (I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE) also designed and sculpted the shrunken heads, and they actually look quite convincing. Probably the film’s most memorable character is that of Zutai (Paul Wexler, THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS), a too-tall, longhaired Indian servant with drawn out features and sewn-up lips. Zutai sneaks around, crawling through windows looking for heads to slice off, and occasionally gasps a doglike howl when wounded. THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE was written by Orville H. Hampton (THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE, JACK THE GIANT KILLER) and the eerie music score is by Paul Dunlap, who had done the same for so many other 1950s monster movies (including I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, BLOOD OF DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN 1970 and THE ANGRY RED PLANET).

Originally released theatrically on the bottom of a double bill with Cahn’s INVISIBLE INVADERS, THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE was one of those movies never available legitimately on VHS, though it did come out on laserdisc in 1990s as part of the “United Artists Horror Classics Volume 1” box set and then on DVD (paired with VOODOO ISLAND starring Boris Karloff) in 2005. Scream Factory’s 1080p HD presentation definitely impresses, and this is the very first time the film has been presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio on home video (previous releases have all been open matte) and the compositions definitely improve the film’s appearance. The black and white image is satisfying overall, with the gray scale looking dead-on; black levels are good, with whites being crisp. Detail is generally sharp, especially on close-ups which offer consistently impressive textures in facial features. The transfer is void of any excessive debris and the grain structure is filmic and well-rendered. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track has clear dialogue and music, and optional English subtitles are included. The originally theatrical trailer (1080p) is included, and it’s narrated by the great Paul Frees! (George R. Reis)