Review: “The House on Skull Mountain” (1974)

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Featuring a nearly all-black cast and unexpected themes of racial identity and interracial harmony, The House on Skull Mountain takes what could otherwise have been a throwaway low-budget cash-in on the blaxploitation craze and turns it into something far more interesting.

While its making it to the screen may have been propelled by the Shaftgeist, the sensibilities of this odd little movie are rooted firmly in the classic gothic melodramas of Mario Bava, Hammer and Amicus.

Of course, that’s not to say that it’s not also totally hilarious and good for some seriously un-PC laughs. Scream, Fagula, Scream!

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The House on Skull Mountain takes place in a cabin by Moose Lake. Okay, kidding – it’s a house on a mountain that looks like a skull. When we first see the titular property, it’s through the Fabulashed eyes of Lorena Christophe (Janee Michelle), our gorgeous-yet-constipated heroine, who is responding to a letter from her recently-deceased grandmother, a voodoo priestess.

It seems the old doll-poker has gathered her descendants to her home for the reading of her will, including jive-talking man-about-town Phillippe Wilette (Mike Evans) and awesomely dotty nana Harriet Johnson (Xernona Clayton).

Please allow Xernona to demonstrate how to react when you spot a hooded ghoul sitting in first class when you’re stuck all the way back in coach:

skullmemabeforeBefore…

skullmemahood… and…

skullmemaafter… after!

Lesson learned.

But that’s not all: Last arriving of the grandkids is – dun-dun-DUNNNNNNN – Dr. Andrew Cunningham, played by Highway to Heaven‘s impressively mustached – and very white – Victor French. French is as surprised as anyone to learn that he is part Haitian, but he’s as proud as can be, and won’t let anyone – white or black – look down at their nose at his mixed-race heritage.

Now, this could be totally awesome, in theory – I love me some racial tolerance lessons in my horror movies (Night of the Living Dead, White Dog, etc.). But the fact that this essentially sets up what is otherwise an all-black movie to have a suspiciously white-looking hero is a bit of a disappointment. Who knows, maybe it’s the only way they could get the film made. But it’s one of the few elements that keeps House from being a total knock out of the park.

Anyway, it’s no surprise that the descendants start getting offed one by one in the big spooky house (classic gothic horror stuff), but it is a bit surprising how much care was put into the look of the film, which has some pretty impressive compositions and startling imagery that is much more akin to Black Sabbath than Blackula. Remember that old optical illusion drawing that can either be a woman sitting at a round vanity mirror or a skull? That image is unexpectedly recreated here, and punctuated with a hot dubbed scream that would have made Daria Nicolodi proud.

skullmirrorBefore…

skullmirrorafter… and…

skullmirrorrun… after!

Unfortunately, the climax of the film dips into your standard ooga-booga voodoo nonsense, with religious rituals and snakes and “Haitian dancing” being used as horror elements (see … black people really ARE scary!). From the vantage point of 2010 it’s almost amusing to see what is probably a bunch of Alvin Ailey-trained dancers working their loincloths while a handful of extras bounce around to bongos in the background, but I have a feeling that in 1974 it might have read a bit differently.

It’s a shame, because up to that point the movie had used the more pat voodoo elements sparingly and to clever effect. But the rather casual way that half of the characters are reduced to bug-eyed, murderous, crazy-dancing tribespeople that the outwardly white guy has to trounce at the end comes across as a bit careless.

skullritualLove your necklace!

Overall I’d definitely give The House on Skull Mountain a look, as I’m sure you’ve never seen anything quite like it. Visually interesting and seriously ballsy for its time (director Ron Honthaner never made another movie despite being clearly quite competent behind the camera, so you have to wonder if nobody got what he was going for), Mountain is worth the climb.

RATING (OUT OF 5):

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The House on Skull Mountain is Rated PG for brief ooga-booga stereotypes, occasional jive turkey and a scene of gratuitous mema-in-peril.

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Buzz created CampBlood.org in 2003 to meet a need for a safe place for weirdos of all stripes to discuss horror movies from a queer perspective. Now that the campers have overtaken the Camp staff and locked them in the Arts & Crafts cabin he is questioning that decision.