Written by: Mildred Pares
Directed by: Ron Honthaner
Starring: Victor French, Janee Michelle, and Jean Durand
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Which of these five will come down alive?
Sometime in the mid-70s, some enterprising Atlanta businessmen got together to bankroll a movie to capitalize on a pair of nascent Hollywood trends in occult horror and blaxploitation. They dubbed their outfit Chocolate Chip & Pinto Productions and titled the film The House on Skull Mountain, two striking names that hint at the colorful fun on display in this Old Dark House update. Seasoned viewers will recognize several familiar beats and tropes lurking within these walls, but, as is often the case with this sort of thing, itís all about the embellishments. And The House on Skull Mountain has some embellishments.
Letís start with that title, which is more than just some evocative marketing: no, the Christophe estate literally sits atop a mountain adorned with a skull carving. Much more interesting than the actual Stone Mountain in Georgia, in my opinion. Our first glimpse inside the home captures the last rites of Pauline Christophe (Mary J. Todd McKenzie), an elderly woman whose last wishes involve a set of letters sent out to her distant relatives. Shortly after her passing, a quartet of great-grandchildren--none of whom know each other, much less the departed Pauline--arrive at the mansion. Some, like the smooth-talking, hyperactive Phillipe Wilette (Mike Evans), are hoping to hear about an inheritance; others, like white anthropology professor Andrew Cunningham (Victor French), are trying to sift through the family history to figure out who they really are. But someone--or something--seems to be haunting the place, as the cousins start to uncover the familyís history with the occult, dating back to their great-grandfather invoking tribal spirits to ferment a slave revolt in history.
Obviously, weíve seen the likes of this before, but not quite with this kind of voodoo-tinged window dressing. A small distinction, to be sure, but a crucial one that sets the otherwise derivative House on Skull Mountain apart, if ever so slightly. It evokes those old dark house movies, not to mention the more obvious House on Haunted Hill, though it isnít quite as playful as William Castleís seminal spook show. Hollywood journeyman Ron Honthaner helms a steady production thatís at its most lively when the script provides its sparse shocks, like the recurring image of a cloaked phantom or one of the cousinís bizarre out-of-body experience. The former is probably the filmís signature image, or at least the one that endures after watching it--I just wish it could have played a more prominent role. Instead, like most of the horror elements here, itís lurking in the background, nestled in the impressive, exotic production design of the titular house. Despite unfolding in the shadows of Atlanta, The House on Skull Mountain might as well be situated in some far-flung corner of the world, what with its middle-of-nowhere ambiance and occult mysticism. In many ways, it feels like the early voodoo zombie movies, only now the terror is brought home quite literally for a set of protagonists grappling with their sordid family history.
The repurposing of these tropes with a mostly Black cast makes The House on Skull Mountain noteworthy. Where so many of those movies invoked the exocitism of the Other and unleashed it on white protagonists (and, letís be honest, mostly white audiences), this one directs it at African-American characters confronting an almost otherworldly past of mysticism and tribal feuding. Itís also interesting that the main character arc--if the film can really be said to have one--involves a white man looking to confirm his heritage in a black family. Even more interesting is that it isnít approached from a position of revulsion or horror but instead brings him peace. (Before we should praise such progressiveness, it should be noted this angle was apparently only introduced because producers didnít want to depict an interracial romance between French and co-star Janee Michelle.) I donít know that The House on Skull Mountain engages with this stuff in any meaningful way, but, again, itís the sort of movie where you feel compelled to latch onto the interesting scraps hanging from a familiar frame.
Because thatís the deal here: thereís just not a whole lot of this movie to go around. Even at 84 minutes, it feels egregiously padded: thereís an entire scene where two characters take a daytrip to Underground Atlanta and look at antique clocks, and this is to say nothing about the climactic tribal ritual that quickly wears out its welcome. Its mystery is virtually nonexistent, and the interpersonal dynamics arenít, well, very dynamic. The most lively cast member doesnít even survive the first night in the mansion, and the rest are so underdeveloped and given so little screen time that they mostly amount to pieces on a chessboard, just waiting to be knocked off by the supernatural forces at work. If The House on Skull Mountain were about 10 minutes shorter, it could have easily sufficed at a TV-movie-of-the week. Maybe that isnít surprising, considering how much of the cast and crew (including Honthaner) had steady television work throughout their careers. This isnít a knock by any means: if nothing else, the 70s made-for-TV scene was reliable as hell, full of movies with solid production values and a smattering of cool imagery.
The House on Skull Mountain delivers that much, at least, making it a perfectly fine grab-bag of this eraís horror fare. In fact, something must have been in the air in Ď74 to give us both this and House of Seven Corpses, a pair of virtual cinematic twins dealing with occultism and haunted estates. Both even climax with the undead rising from the grave, though this one at least shows the courtesy of explaining just what in the hell is going on. Maybe thatís damning with faint praise, but we shouldnít take that sort of thing for granted. At any rate, the words ďquaintĒ and ďcharmingĒ are probably the best way to describe The House on Skull Mountain: even though itís certainly riffing on films that did this sort of thing more memorably, itís doing so with the type of panache youíd expect from a company bold enough to name itself Chocolate Chip and Pinto Productions. I probably wouldnít trust their culinary taste, but they put together a pretty solid movie.
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