Directors: Ron Honthaner and Paul Wendkos
Fox Home Entertainment

Appropriating the Midnite Movies label from MGM, Fox has begun to release a number of two-disc double feature sets, raiding their vaults to bring many horror, sci-fi, and exploitation films to DVD for the first time! This said, the genius at Fox who decided to pair these two completely unrelated films deserves a medal for bone-headed move of the year. THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN, a PG-rated no-budget blaxploitation haunted house/voodoo flick, and THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, an R-rated major release focusing on the occult, simply don’t belong together. Maybe it’s the fact that actress Janee Michelle is in both, or the vague connection between the black arts of voodoo and Satanism? After watching both films back-to-back, the real reason may be that they’re both pretty disposable genre entries.

As an elderly black woman lies dying in her mansion, she instructs her doctor to send out letters to four of her distant relatives, sophisticated Lorena, obnoxious youngster Phillippe, matronly Harriet, and white anthropologist Andrew, none of whom know her or each other. They arrive in time for the funeral, but soon learn that their deceased great-grandmother, Pauline Christophe, and the entire Christophe family’s history is teeming with voodoo, and because they have come back to the family estate, evil spirits are intent on bumping them off one by one to fulfill some ancient curse.

Essentially an "Old Dark House" movie with a black cast (and one white leading man, with top billing, for no real conceivable reason), THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN came about at the wrong time. By 1974 the American horror scene had been witness to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, THE EXORCIST, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. In comparison, 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; the filmmakers should have done something with this new movement in film spotlighting black talent and the desire within the community for films that spoke to them. BLACULA was a great horror film, because not only did it feature likable black characters and a romantic lead in William Marshall, but it also addressed race issues by making the vampire Mamuwalde the victim of white vampirism. Forgoing the social politics of the film, it also provided a number of decent scares and memorable moments. SKULL MOUNTAIN offers none. Attempts at atmosphere fall flat, especially when a matte shot of the mountain and a cheap cutaway of a stormy night sky (with animated lightning bolt and sprinklers to create the illusion of rain) are used ad nauseam; a cheesy romantic sequence with Andrew and Lorena is completely out-of-place (and rather inappropriate considering they’re supposed to be related by blood); and the script, written by a Mildred Pares who never wrote another film, has not one lick of sense to it. Characters are threatened by flashing skulls, giant snakes, hooded figures, hypnotic trances, and voodoo dolls, and none of these threats are ever tied together coherently. They’re just nonsensically thrown into the film as horror elements and couldn’t scare a five-year-old.

Giving credit where credit is due, leading lady Janee Michelle does her best with the material, and she obviously is a talented actress, but it’s not hard to see why she wouldn’t get much more work after this thankless role. Stuntman Victor French, as Andrew, looks and acts completely out of his element and it’s actually kind of offensive not only that the producers crowbar in a white face in a group of black leads, but even give him top billing!! Jean Durand makes for an imposing voodoo high priest, that’s for sure, but here is where a little camp could have aided the proceedings and he doesn’t oblige. It shouldn’t have been impossible to make a good haunted house or voodoo picture; LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE and SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM were admirable efforts from the previous year. What could Fox have seen in this film to pick it up for theatrical distribution? SKULL MOUNTAIN is ultimately a dreadful bore you’ll be depressed you wasted your time with.

Classical music journalist Myles Clarkson, his wife Paula, and daughter Abby have their lives turned upside down when Myles becomes the new pet favorite of one of his interview subjects, the world-famous pianist Duncan Ely. Ely and his mysterious daughter Roxanne take a liking to Myles, especially his hands, and insist he take up the piano again after abandoning it for his writing career. Things take a turn for the worse when Ely passes away, but Paula soon begins to notice that Myles has begun to take on the personality of the deceased pianist, becoming obsessed with the instrument and distancing himself from the family in favor of Roxanne. Paula’s paranoid investigation into Ely and Roxanne’s history uncovers an unusual death and an ex-husband that may lead her to discover just what happened to her husband.

If THE MEPHISTO WALTZ sounds an awful lot like ROSEMARY’S BABY, you’d be right. And it’s not just that both are based on novels. The concepts of a married couple being preyed upon by elderly Satanists and the wife experiencing a major change in her husband aren’t entirely original and where Polanski was able to draw suspense and dread out of Mia Farrow’s plight as ROSEMARY, Paul Wendkos doesn’t have the talent to do the same with Jacqueline Bisset in MEPHISTO. The interesting premise of Satanists transferring their souls to other, preferable bodies so they can live forever may be interesting, but it isn’t necessarily good scary movie material unless handled carefully. There is no mystery to MEPHISTO. Wendkos, perhaps because of his and producer Quinn Martin’s backgrounds in television, shows the audience the entire process of how Ely has his soul transplanted into Myles’ body; we know what’s wrong with Myles. For the remainder of the film, we’re left waiting for the other shoe to drop, but who cares really? Paula is really pretty irritating anyway, and her realization of the fate of her husband isn’t believable or, frankly, very interesting.

“Bland” is the operative word when describing MEPHISTO: Alan Alda, just before he shot to superstardom on “M*A*S*H*”, is handsome, but an utterly milquetoast lead; Jacqueline Bisset, while the ravishing beauty she still is today, simply can’t stand out when her character’s motivations are basically to be suspicious and concerned because the script asks her to be, not because she actually is; Barbara Parkins, the least memorable lead in the notorious VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, is a stunning woman and an underrated actress, and tries her best with an interesting role, but isn’t nearly as much of a femme fatale as the script requires of her. One of the only bright spots in the cast is child actress Pamelyn Ferdin, several years before she would mature into Cameron Mitchell’s obsession in TOOLBOX MURDERS, but she doesn’t last long (in fact, her exit from the film is handled quite callously by the screenwriter), and neither does veteran character actress Lilyan Chauvin, familiar with horror fans as the sadistic Mother Superior in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, and still working, last seen as a Mexican seer last year on “Ugly Betty”. See if you recognize lovely Marta Kristen (“Lost in Space”, TERMINAL ISLAND) and Antoinette Power (PROM NIGHT) among Duncan’s party guests. The musical score by Jerry Goldsmith is great, and a stand-out moment finds a giant human mask placed on Duncan’s vicious Rottweiler, an image so weird it appeared on the film’s theatrical poster. But a script that jumps all over the place, characters you could give a damn about, and an implausible twist ending make MEPHISTO WALTZ nothing more than an interesting Satanic curio to come out of Hollywood between ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST. For a much better film about Satanists’ souls being transplanted to other bodies, the independently-made THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN, released the same year as MEPHISTO WALTZ, is a much more satisfying unsung gem, made all the more chilling as the targets of the villains are children. Shot for a fraction of MEPHISTO’s budget, all involved with the Fox film could have learned a lot from that one.

The good news is, that if these films do indeed have fans (every film has its share of followers), they will be overjoyed by the transfers here! Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers, both films look as if they were shot recently, with solid colors, a crystal clear image, and no print damage or debris to be seen. Of the two, HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN is the cleaner, as MEPHISTO has some slight grain issues during darker scenes, but nothing to really complain about. The English mono tracks on both are very strong, bringing the musical scores to life beautifully and delivering dialogue clearly. SKULL MOUNTAIN includes a Spanish mono track, as well as optional subtitles in English, Spanish and French. MEPHISTO includes Spanish and French mono tracks, as well as optional subtitles in English and Spanish. The only extras on both discs are the theatrical trailers and brief stills galleries.
(Casey Scott)