Column: The Vault of Secrets: The House on Skull Mountain (1974)

By Orrin Grey

The House on Skull Mountain (1974). Directed by: Ron Honthaner. Starring: Victor French, Janee Michelle, Jean Durand.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is one that I’d been meaning to watch for ages, even though I knew nothing about it, just because of that title (and a pretty great/ridiculous poster design). Luckily for me, I didn’t watch the trailer beforehand because it gives away just about everything in the movie, including most of the very end sequence.

It’s tough to talk about The House on Skull Mountain without talking about issues of race, though I’m going to try to do just that as much as I can. Michael Betancourt wrote a pretty substantial treatment of the subject, using one of the film’s more striking images as a jumping-off point, for Bright Lights Film Journal.

The plot of The House on Skull Mountain could describe any number of old dark house/whodunit/proto-slasher films, as a group of relatives – none of whom knows each other – gather in their ancestral estate for the reading of a will after the passing of the family matriarch. The movie has many of the same elements that you’d normally find in such fare, including hidden chambers, sinister servants, and dark and stormy nights. One of the main things that set The House on Skull Mountain apart from most other movies with a similar logline is that the family in question is a black family descended from Haitian ancestors – supposedly descended from real-life figure Henri Cristophe, former slave and leader of the Haitian Revolution who later proclaimed himself King of Haiti. The other is that the mysterious force that’s offing the Cristophe heirs one by one is Voodoo, rather than simply a masked killer.

Like many films that treat Occult subjects, especially Voodoo, Voodoo is portrayed in The House on Skull Mountain as largely backward, sinister and superstitious, and is juxtaposed against our protagonist, a rational, ostensibly mixed-race but played by a white guy (Victor French, of many things, including Little House on the Prairie), man of learning. Yet, as with most films that try to treat the confrontation between the rational and the supernatural, Voodoo clearly and emphatically works in The House on Skull Mountain, which makes the conflict seem a little one-sided, even if the protagonist does ultimately win out.

There’s a lot to like in The House on Skull Mountain, including the aforementioned striking image of our female lead Lorena sitting at her dressing mirror as it pans out to make the shape of a skull. Other moments in the film play out in ways that are rather William Castle-ish in tone, especially things like a flashing skull that indicates danger at one point, or a superimposed apparition seen at the window. The best touch in the movie, however, is undoubtedly the fantastic matte painting of the titular house and mountain that shows up several times throughout the proceedings. (It’s a really great painting; I’d have gotten all the mileage I could out of it, too.) There’s also a pretty wonderful closing sequence, following on the heels of a really extended Voodoo dance ceremony which involves, among other things, a flaming headstone and a classic image of a hand reaching up from a grave. It helps that Jean Durand turns in maybe the best performance in the movie as the film’s villain.

Weirdly, several of the actors seem to have had their dialogue dubbed in after the fact, though I couldn’t find any online confirmation of this.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time for something completely different!