Monday, December 14, 2009

The House on Skull Mountain (1974): or, Voodoo House Party

Rich old woman Pauline Christophe (Mary J. Todd McKenzie) seems to have everything a woman could want: a palatial estate, devoted and attentive servants, and the respect of her community engendered by her fabulous wealth and rumored occult powers. However, like many landed aristocracy, as she nears the appointed hour of her death she begins to think about the important things that are missing from her life--namely, family. Therefore, from her deathbed, she sends out four letters to her remaining living relatives, summoning them to her mansion for a chance at reconnection and an opportunity to pass the torch, and presumably all her glorious riches. However, before her grandchildren--none of whom has ever met any of the others--arrive on a stormswept summer afternoon, Pauline kicks the old bucket, clutching a voodoo doll in her gnarled, wrinkled fist. Of course almost immediately Strange Things start happening around the Cristophe estate.

Stop me if you've heard this one.

It may not tread any new ground, but here's a movie that hits its marks with competence and enthusiasm if not overwhelming skill. Featuring some well-done voodoo sequences, a couple of strong performances, and enough nonsensical supernatural happenings to keep you from getting bored, 1974's The House on Skull Mountain does manage to divert and entertain for its hour-and-twenty-minute running time. And really, what more could you ask for from a voodoo epic starring Carter Country's Victor French?

The first of the family to arrive at Christophe Manor is Lorena Christophe (the elegant and lovely Janee Michelle)--or rather, she would have been the first to arrive, had her loud-mouthed, jive-talkin', fast-drivin' cousin Phillipe Willette (Mike Evans, better known as the straitlaced spawn of George and Weezy Jefferson) not nearly run her off the treacherous mountain road in his pimped-out land yacht. Understandably shaken by her brush with automotive cataclysm, Lorena pulls over to the shoulder of the road...

...gets out of the car, takes a few deep breaths...

...and then looks out through the clear, sunlit summer afternoon sky to get a look at her destination, which looks...well, a little like THIS:

He-Man's Summer House

And, just so you don't think you're flashing back to the thunderstorm that accompanied Grandma Christophe's death, director Ron Honthaner stretches his budget to give us some near-seamless matte work:

Welcome, Matte

Say what you will about this movie, but when it promises a house on Skull Mountain, it FUCKING DELIVERS.

Lorena gets to the house in time to attend the last half of Grandma Christophe's funeral, attended only by the old lady's servants Louette (Ella Woods) and Thomas (Jean Durand). Here we get a little voodoo lore for no extra charge, as the servants have scattered shards of broken mirror on the grave "to keep the evil spirits away." It doesn't seem to work, though, as Louette sees a crow drop a chicken-foot totem on the coffin, which bursts into flames! I don't know from voodoo omens, but it's clearly meant to be a not-so-good one here.

Inside, Lorena spars with Phillippe over his near-vehicular homicide, though her righteous indignation does not prevent him from putting the moves on his much classier cousin. Nor his OTHER much classier cousin, Harriet (Xernona Clayton, who arrives safely despite having a vision of Hooded Death on her plane trip), nor serving girl Louette--here's a brother who believes in keeping all options open. One Christophe is still missing, and stately Mr. Leroux (Senator Leroy Johnson, the first African American to be elected to the Georgia General Assembly since the end of the Reconstruction era--thanks imdb!) insists they wait for him to arrive before reading the will.

"Whattaya think? Too much, right?"

As it turns out, to quote the ever-observant Phillipe, there must have been "a honky in the woodpile," as the fourth cousin is Dr. Andrew Cunningham (Victor French, also of TV's Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven fame, though both those efforts pale in comparison to his Carter Country years, in my humble), a white professor of anthropology with an emphasis in voodoo studies. The will stipulates the expected division of gold between the surviving children and the servants, and also contains the requisite warning against evil spirits, lest you forget where you are.

Photographic proof of the existence of the Lightning Worm

Man, I just love that.

After some racial tension between Phillippe and Andrew (that neither of the much more sophisticated female cousins take part in), they all turn in for the night, and of course that's when the voodoo vengeance starts in earnest. Drunken Phillippe is lured to his death in a vacant elevator shaft, and Andrew finds a chicken-foot totem beside his corpse. The next day Lenora and Andrew go out on the town (Atlanta, I think, though I don't know of any famous skull-like rock formations in that general area) for a falling-in-love montage and an appropriately heartfelt love song. Back at the house, Harriet sees more visions and finally falls prey to a venomous snake in the old lady's rocking chair. Another chicken-foot calling card is found at the scene.

Don't go thinking this is some kind of pre-Clue whodunnit, however--we the audience know from early on that the bad mojo in the Christophe House is being delivered courtesy butler Thomas, a voodoo priest of great power who was (I think) enslaved by the more-powerful Pauline Christophe while she was alive. Now seeking vengeance on her heirs (not to mention an undivided chunk of the estate), Thomas is bumping them all off with his evil black magic. Can Dr. Cunningham's university training stand between Thomas and his evil goals?

"Don't worry, Sheriff--I'll handle-it handle-it."

With at least two relatively famous TV personalities in the cast and a cinematic style that would be right at home in a two-camera sit-com of the era, The House on Skull Mountain feels like it'd be right at home as a Very Special Episode of The Jeffersons or Good Times. (You know, like the evil-Tiki Hawaiian episode of The Brady Bunch, only a lot funkier.)

Still, there are a few things that lift it from the "meh" to the "actually pretty okay." 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, a few suggestive snake scenes (sometimes a bulging python is just a bulging python, but not here), and a double-astral projection for no reason that nonetheless made me smile.

It's symbolic, of course

The performances are all pretty good as well. Victor French does his usual tough guy/teddy bear character work, and has a real knack for playing both strong and vulnerable at the same time. He has a certain amount of chemistry with love-interest Janee Michelle, who is strong and intelligent (not to mention lovely) in her only screen appearance. It's interesting to watch Mike Evans play the jive-talkin' asshole instead of the upright young man he essayed on TV. But the best acting prize goes to Jean Durand as voodoo baddie Thomas, who really brings power to his role as voodoo master bent on vengeance--even going so far as sacrificing his coworker and raising his former boss from the dead to kill her own offspring! Talk about a disgruntled domestic!

Benson: The Untold Story

I'm gonna go ahead and classify The House on Skull Mountain as a blaxploitation flick just because it was clearly intended to cash in on the blaxploitation audience; however, as far as the ethos of those films go it kind of drops the ball, since the male hero is the only white character (as appealing as French might be) and the only sharp-dressin' brother is the first to go. It's not a barn burner, but I had an okay time with it, so I give it the slightly better-than-average 1.75 thumb rating.


Okay, 1.85. But that's my final offer.

"Okay, me how funky and strong is your fight."


Anonymous said...

"Every room is a living tomb." Wow, Marketing put the A-team on this one. Is that what scored the extra .10 thumb?

Anonymous said...

Or was it that serious dude in the second-to-last screen grab?

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Geo--it was actually the scary zombie lady that squeezed the extra tenth-point outta me. :) That and my unhealthy nostalgia for Carter Country...

Anonymous said...

Saw this movie about 5 o'clock this morning and enjoyed it. Agree that it has that "made-for-tv" look. Hmmmmm, was it made for tv? The acting was very well done as were the special effects (I was surpised, too, by how well the matte work looked). There's a scene where our heroine is sitting at her vanity table and you see the optical illusion of a skull (see "All is Vanity" illustration by C. Allan Gilbert at wiki and you'll know what I mean) which I thought was a clever touch. Jean Durand was also a delight. Unfortunately, I can't find much about him. All in all, an enjoyable little film.

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