‘Every room is a living tomb in’
The House on Skull Mountain is a 1974 American horror film directed by Ron Honthaner (whose only other horror screen credit is as an uncredited policeman in The Hideous Sun Demon) from a screenplay by Mildred Pares.
The movie stars Victor French, Janee Michelle, Jean Durand, Mike Evans, Xernona Clayton, Lloyd Nelson, Ella Woods, Mary J. Todd McKenzie, Don Devendorf, Jo Marie and Leroy Johnson.
After Pauline Christophe, the sole heir for the mansion on Skull Mountain dies, four of her family members are called to hear her will.
Upon arrival, each of the guests is stalked by a skeleton in a robe, and begin to meet their deaths. Now, it’s up to the few remaining to figure out who or what is killing them off, and how they can escape from The House on Skull Mountain…
Before I say anything else about The House on Skull Mountain, I just want to say how much I love the film’s poster. Seriously, that poster is everything that you could hope for from an exploitation film print ad.
Everything about it, from the lightning to the giant skull to the mansion to the unfortunate person plunging to her doom is pure perfection. I especially like the question at the bottom of the poster: “Which of these five will come down alive?”
And, to be honest, it’s actually a fairly honest poster. The majority of the film really does take place in a house on a mountain that has features that look like a skull. Of course, the skull in the movie is not quite as prominent as the one in the poster. The house actually does look a lot like the one on the poster. There’s also a lot of lightning in the movie. It’s the same basic lightning stock footage that has appeared in almost every film ever produced by Roger Corman. In The House on Skull Mountain, it’s used as a transitional device. “Is that scene over?” you might find yourself wondering. Well, don’t worry. The lightning stock footage will let you know.
One reason that I’m focusing on the poster is that, unfortunately, the film itself is kind of anaemic. In the movie, the house on top of Skull Mountains belongs to Pauline Christophe, a direct descendant of the first king of Haiti. Upon her death, Pauline’s four great-grandchildren are invited to hear the reading of her will. None of the four has ever met Pauline or each other.
Phillippe (Mike Evans) is an alcoholic who says things such as, “Baby, what’s the scene?” Harriet (Xernona Clayton) is fragile and nervous and it certainly doesn’t help her nerves when she briefly sees a hooded skeleton sitting a few rows in front of her on her flight to Atlanta. Lorena (Janee Michelle) drives too fast but is otherwise responsible and mature. And then there’s Doctor Andrew Cunningham (Victor French), who shows up late and turns out to be white.
“You’re the wrong colour!” Phillippe snaps at him.
Andrew shrugs and says that he’ll explain it all later. He does eventually tell a story about being abandoned on the front steps of an orphanage but the dialogue is so awkwardly-written and delivered that I’m not sure if he is being serious or if he is poking fun at Phillippe’s shock.
Because Andrew showed up late, the four of them have to stay in the house for a week until Pauline’s lawyer returns to read the will. Keeping them company is the butler, Thomas (Jean Durand), and Louette (Ella Woods), the maid.
And that’s not all. It also appears that there is a robed skeleton wandering around the house as well! Add to that, the relatives start having visions. One falls down an elevator shaft. Another has a heart attack after someone stabs doll with a pin. Could all of this have something to do with the fact that Pauline and her servants were all dedicated practitioners of voodoo?
It is sad to say but the House on Skull Mountain is pretty dull. The film does provide a brief history lesson concerning how Haiti was the only nation to be formed as a result of a slave rebellion and how the real-life Henri Christophe went from being a slave to a king yet the film doesn’t really do much with the information.
It’s tempting to look for some sort of subtext in the film’s plot, however, it’s really just not there. Much like Andrew being the only white member of a historically important black family, the history of Haiti and the actual origins of Haitian voodoo are elements that are brought up and then quickly abandoned.
There is one good and lengthy voodoo ceremony; otherwise, the whole film is almost all filler. When it’s not showing us the same lighting stock footage, it’s showing us, Andrew and Lorena, wandering around Atlanta.
Seriously though, that movie poster is to die for.
Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Through the Shattered Lens
“… Skull Mountain is terribly quaint and old-fashioned, thus thoroughly forgettable. Populated by cardboard characters, the confusing mess of a script has no idea what do with them. Simply casting black actors (like Mike Evans from The Jeffersons and character actor Jean Durand) isn’t anything special…” DVD Drive-In
“Despite a largely static camera, one-time director Honthaner does give us a couple of nice transitions based on skull imagery, including a rather effective overlay of a death’s head on a living (?) character’s face near the end. And late in the proceedings there’s a voodoo ceremony/human sacrifice that is actually well filmed and choreographed…” Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies
” … despite the promise, the film is merely good, never great, and never as weird or as haunting as one would hope. The simple dialogue, middling acting, and scarcity of gore give everything the feeling of a TV movie. It feels like everyone was playing it safe.” David Elroy Goldweber, Claws & Saucers
“The film is dull, and padded with nonsense like two characters who just met going off into the city to look at antique clocks (set to a weepy ballad no less) – but I could forgive that if any of it was the least bit suspenseful. It’s basically one of those 30s/40s horror style movies…” Horror Movie a Day
“There’s some spells, some snakes, some undead; typical voodoo stuff–all of it perfectly fine, but it’s all presented so boringly that it was really hard for me to stay interested. This is one of those instances where the poster promises a lot more than the movie can deliver.” Rob Kelly
“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!) … It’s a shame because up to that point the movie had used the more pat voodoo elements sparingly and to clever effect.” Camp Blood
“The danger posed by voodoo is not the supernatural threat common to horror films — it is instead the horror posed by the discovery of blackness represented by voodoo as the sweaty, rhythmic, superstitious primitive: beneath the superficial fantasy of a dissolution and banishment of racism lies, instead, a fundamentally racist conception of both white and black, one where the “Haitian” serves to represent the dangerous, threatening, and irrational other to American (white) rationality.” Bright Lights Film Journal
“Very atmospheric, with a disturbing climax featuring the dead old woman plodding her way towards the house.” Dr Arnold T Blumberg, Andrew Hershberger, Zombiemania: 80 Movies To Die For
Cast and characters:
Victor French … Doctor Andrew Cunningham
Janee Michelle … Lorena Christophe
Jean Durand … Thomas Pettione
Mike Evans … Phillippe Wilette
Xernona Clayton … Harriet Johnson
Lloyd Nelson … The Sheriff
Ella Woods … Louette
Mary J. Todd McKenzie … Pauline Christophe
Don Devendorf … The Priest
Jo Marie … The Doctor
Leroy Johnson … Mr Ledoux (as Senator Leroy Johnson)
Ray Bonner … Deputy Sheriff
O.J. Harris … Voodoo Dancer
The House on Skull Mountain was distributed in the USA by 20th Century Fox.
Image credits: Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies