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South Of Hell Mountain (1971)

Directed by Louis Leahman/William Sachs
MGM/UA VHS

THE FILM
I’ve never placed much stock in Gene Autry’s Old West ballads. After watching South Of Hell Mountain, I understand why. He left out all of the good stuff.

This might be 1898 (horses, not cars) or 1971 (blue jeans). Who can tell? The dual action confusion is only fitting; disorientation slaps through every inch of this film. South Of Hell Mountain is a free-form oddity that bounces from PG-rated exploitation to soap operatic blushes to grimy “horror” in two shakes of a holster. The not-so-wild west is the one and only constant amidst the clang of bizarre soundtrack cues and random mood swings. If that sounds aggravating, cool your jets. There’s a special opening credit that reads, “Insane Asylum Sequences Written And Directed By William Sachs”. He also directed The Incredible Melting Man. That’s a hint. Take it.

Is that Candice Hilligoss (Carnival Of Souls, Curse Of The Living Corpse) in a meaty, heretofore uncredited roll? Did Donn Davison rip the holy begeezus outta this film for his outstanding Honey Britches from the same year? Again, who can tell? Paw and his two sons rob a mine, murder the workers, and shack up with two women, Anna and Helen (if that’s not Ms. Hilligoss, I’ll eat my shoe), in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, it all becomes unclearer. Grimy flash-forwards take us to Anna’s present day asylum adventures, which consist of kiddie LP sound effects, rat close-ups, and blank stares. Back to the stix. Back to the asylum. Repeat. Repeat. Anna escapes a brother’s rape attempt, but falls in love with the other. Sex in a cave follows. Paw says, “You Jezebel!” and Hell Mountain soon lives up to its name.

Make way for the caricatures. If it weren’t for the player-piano cartoon music and boisterous acting, South Of Hell Mountain would be taken seriously. But who wants that? While the film deals in cold, somber subject matters, that lack of sobriety is what makes it click. There’s no set pattern to anything; photography (lots of split-second edits), score (orchestral bombast vs. inept banjo licks), and plot strands make a mess of themselves, but never go overboard. The restless asylum sequences aren’t overly strange, just visually filthy and always amusing. In the end, the film is a dizzy mix of Hands Of Blood‘s no budget, regional grimness and the erratic exaggeration of Honey Britches. I didn’t notice any sagebrush, though. Darn shame.

If he were still around, Gene Autry would exclaim, “I don’t approve of South Of Hell Mountain!” I’d yell back, “Oh yeah? Well I’m not down with Gaucho Serenade!” It’s a cosmic balance.

AUDIO AND VIDEO
Fantastic. Given the film’s extreme rarity and limited distribution on home video, it’s a wonder that both the print and ex-rental tape are so exquisite. Colors are perfectly fitting, with brightness and gloom right where you need ‘em. Print damage was minimal. The opening credits swayed to the left, so I just moved over a little on the couch.

EXTRAS
Jezebels!

FINAL THOUGHTS
Every western should turn out like this one. South Of Hell Mountain isn’t must-see trash, but sets itself apart with distinct frigidity and flat-out weirdness. Perfect for a hot summer night.