All In The Family

THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN is a sort of black CAT AND THE CANARY story, obviously indebted to THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and ironically also dating back to Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers… which might have made a good title for a blaxploitation film. Maybe not. It’s an amiable piece of work, with the strong performances and writing I’ve found typical of the blaxploitation horror sub-genre (except BLACKENSTEIN).

Director Ron Honthaner manages a few nice tropes and one very good scare (Fiona screamed and frightened the cat), but his film is a bit flat and overlit. Mildred Pares’ script is strong on dialogue and she seems to really like her characters, which helps actors and audience alike. Sadly, neither Honthaner nor Pares made another feature. This is a little indie movie made in Atlanta, Georgia — the only “star” is sitcom actor Mike Evans, playing a wonderfully stupid and obnoxious character (the exception to the likability rule here), alternately grinning arrogantly or staring in sullen, slack-jawed incomprehension. He’s so aggravating, something valuable goes out of the film when he’s not around.

The lead is Janee Michelle, who was so memorable in SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM — she doesn’t get such great scenes here, but she projects intelligence and conviction, anchoring the film in some kind of reality. The leading man is a white, schlubby guy called Victor French, who’s such an unexpected choice, and such an appealing, low key performer, that he adds another tub-load of charm to the proceedings.

The current NAACP view seems to be that blaxploitation films were a good thing because they gave roles and visibility to African-American talent. This wasn’t so much their attitude at the time. Seeing the excellent and personable performers in this film, both BLACULA movies and SUGAR HILL and JD’S REVENGE, it’s depressing to think that all this ability was out there all along and rendered invisible by lack of opportunity. And that it mostly vanished again. The very least you could say about the performances in these films is that they’re easily better than most of those in white-centric exploitation films of the era.

Endearingly fake matte painting, intercut with characters looking at it from brightly sunlit desert locations…

Four cousins are gathered in an old mansion atop the titular matte painted mountain (a rather unconvincing job where it’s always a foggy night, even when it’s the POV of a character filmed on a bright sunny day). They’re there for the reading of a will, which is delayed, and then they start dying. It’s fairly PG certificate stuff, with no nudity (a little diaphanous robe action) and hardly any bloodshed, but what matters is that we actually care about the people. The plot is a touch thin, it’s true, but just enough to maintain interest, apart from the long and curiously slack voodoo ritual near the climax. When we finally get a zombie, it’s pretty special.

Plus, perhaps my favourite image in any supernatural blaxploitation film — “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”

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7 Responses to “All In The Family”

  1. Mike Doran Says:

    You never heard of Victor French?

    Who was in dozens of TV episodes from the ’60s onward (including many episodes of GUNSMOKE, which is where he hooked up with Ron Honthaner, who held many positions with that show over the years)?

    Who appeared for many years with Michael Landon on Little House On The Prairie and Highway To Heaven, starting around the time this movie was made?

    Who headlined his own sitcom, the short-lived Carter Country, in 1977?

    THAT Victor French?

    Hmmmmmm …..

  2. I suspected I’d seen him in TV stuff in my youth — Little House on the Prairie was one we watched. But I have no memory of him in it (I have very little memory of anything except the titles).

    He’s very good, but maybe what I liked best was how he had no business being a leading man. In character roles he would have been less striking, because that casting would make perfect sense.

  3. Mike Doran Says:

    On Little House, Victor French was Mr. Isaiah Edwards, the boisterous neighbor. He wore a big salt-and-pepper beard here, as he did for most of the latter part of his very long career.
    You have got one thing right, though – Victor French was first and foremost a proud character actor, in demand as such for years, right up to his death. (He also directed many shows – both Michael Landon series, and even a few of the later Gunsmokes, where he worked with Ron Honthaner.)

    Just out of curiosity, how young are you, exactly?

  4. I remember Victor French because I grew up during the time he was in high demand. Being American and watching television helped, too.

  5. I’m not young at all, Mike! I was born in 1967.

    While I saw Little House a lot, and probably other shows Mr French was in (but not all of them would make it to the UK at the time), as a kid I didn’t seem to register actors much, except comics and scary bad guys. Plus aspirational figures like Gene Kelly and Errol Flynn, whom I envied.

    My love of character actors seems to have blossomed around the same time I started appreciating glamorous actresses in movies too.

  6. Mike Doran Says:

    So you’re 17 years younger than I am, and you’re from the UK. That explains much.

    As a ’50s kid growing up in Chicago, TV was a fact of my life from the get-go – and the actors were the first thing I noticed.

    In fact, my noticing actors consisted of noting how many of them were in the old Poverty-Row movies and the newer television films, only separated by 10-20 years at that time.

    This is what started me reading TV Guide in detail: to see which actors were appearing in which shows – and which older movies that were turning up at odd hours.

    By the time I was in high school, I prided myself on being able to identify on sight character actors, second leads, and very pretty girls from several eras of Hollywood. I carried this through to adulthood, ultimately becoming the annoying old man I am today.

    So that’s me.
    Thanks for setting me off.

  7. You’re welcome!

    My evolving appreciation for thespian talent began with comic hams, only slowly taking in the more nuanced types like Victor French.

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