Directed By: Ron Honthaner
Written By: Mildred Pares
Produced By: Ray Storey
Cast: Victor French, Janee Michelle, Jean Durand, Mike Evans, Ella Woods, Xernona Clayton
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 84 minutes
Review Date: January 21, 2011
The House on Skull Mountain is a relic from a time when checked bell-bottoms and powder-blue cowboy shirts weren’t fashion no-nos, when people drove cars the size of houseboats and thought of them as compact, when the guy with the handlebar mustache wasn’t a villain and/or a pedophile. Its very ’70s-ness is perhaps its most dominant feature, and it threatens to overwhelm and destroy an otherwise solid (if slightly goofy) horror film. Look past the surface, and you might find something resembling actual suspense, and occasional shock moments that actually shock.
What we have here is little more than a Blaxploitation haunted-house film. Like many films of the genre, it adds a supernatural twist to a fairly straightforward locked-room mystery. As the film opens, inexplicably wealthy voodoo priestess Pauline Christophe (Mary J. Todd McKenzie) lies on her death bed, a shriveled husk. She recites an incantation, then digs through a box of treasured mementoes, pushing past a handful of pin-filled voodoo dolls until she finds a group of letters. She tells her faithful manservant, Thomas (Jean Durand), to mail a handful of the letters bearing old-fashioned wax seals. Then, she passes from this mortal coil.
A group of disparate strangers gather at the titular house, a mansion on the outskirts of Atlanta that sits atop a matte painting of a mountain resembling a skull. First comes Lorena Christophe (Janee Michelle), a fetching direct descendent of Pauline. Well, technically, Phillippe Wilette (Mike Evans) shows up first, after nearly running Lorena off a treacherous mountain road. He’s the token jive-talking turkey, so indoctrinated in the slang and fashion of ’70s Black culture that it takes him awhile to remember the word “house.” Then comes Harriet Johnson (Xernona Clayton), the first to see the shadowy, robed figure who will eventually come after all of them.
They all arrive with the knowledge that they’re related, however distantly, to Pauline, and to each other. Phillippe doesn’t care — he just wants Thomas to read the will. Thomas ominously says they’re waiting for a fourth person, before leaving for a full week to let the fourth person arrive. He does, and to everyone’s surprise — he’s a white guy, and an anthropology professor, Dr. Andrew Cunningham (Victor French, best known as Mr. Edwards from Little House on the Prairie and Michael Landon’s human sidekick on Highway to Heaven). In addition to wanting to learn more about his roots, he’s fascinated by the history and artifacts of Pauline’s voodoo culture.
Over the course of their week together, the foursome starts to get picked off by supernatural forces, accomplished with the use of sometimes effective but frequently awful (and unnecessary) special effects. Left alone after Harriet and Phillippe bite the dust, Cunningham and Lorena find the time to fall in love — they assume, rather safely, that their familial relationship is distant enough for a romance to not be terribly creepy — but all is not well in the house on skull mountain. One night, Lorena disappears without a trace, and Cunningham must search for her before she dies, too.
The film approaches its voodoo sequences with painstaking — sometimes painfully dull — attention to detail. Long sequences involving bongo drums, gyrating, and colorful clothing give way to bizarre (one assumes fictitious, but who knows?) ritualistic killings. It all builds to a trippy ending that’s happy in a general sense, but only satisfying in the context of the ennui and cynicism plaguing those burned by the peaceniks and free love movement.
One of The House on Skull Mountain’s major strengths is the direction by Ron Honthaner. This makes some sense; although this is his only directorial effort (a shame, I have to say), he spent years alternating between film editing and television writing (for four seasons of Gunsmoke, among other things). Despite the shaky special effects, Honthaner knows how to cut (or not cut) to maximize suspense and potential scares. Any campiness to be found here is on the surface — the goofy clothes, the jive talk, the sometimes hilarious romantic storyline — because Honthaner is making a serious, well-intentioned horror film. It doesn’t always work, but it works more often than not.
In most cases, the acting helps, too. Michelle has one of the most beautiful faces I’ve ever laid my eyes on, but she was clearly hired more for her abundant beauty than her acting ability. Her large, expressive eyes nearly overcome the flat line readings, but they don’t quite make it. Fortunately, she has a pair of anchors in the form of the surprisingly terrific French (only surprising because the character is so different from his more famous roles, and he does a great job) and Durand. The former’s charming bashfulness and studious demeanor make a borderline incestuous romance founded on the corpses of distant relatives more plausible than it has any right to be. Durand’s glowering intensity make him an early favorite for the secret villain, so it’s no surprise (or spoiler) when it’s true, but he turns that intensity up to eleven after the reveal. It’s one of the all-time great crazy-villain roles in B-movie history. The supporting roles are padded with other solid players, notably Evans as Phillippe and Ella Woods as Thomas’s somewhat dopey wife.
The fact that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore might cause a particular segment of the population to jump for joy. Really, though, I enjoyed The House on Skull Mountain. If you know what to expect and embrace it, it’ll be more of a pleasant surprise than a dated, eye-rolling trainwreck.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.