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  • nickkarner

Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983)


“I’m dreading the reviews, I can tell you that much,” mutters Carl Denham stand-in C. Montgomery Burns. His depression and disillusionment stems from the fact that King Homer, the giant ape he attempted to display on Broadway, broke loose from his chains and ran amok in downtown Springfield. Perhaps he should’ve gone to Candy Apple Island instead. Regardless of how things pan out for Burns in the classic “Treehouse of Horrors III,” one thing is for certain: the TripAdvisor reviews for Mountaintop Motel are most certainly not going to be kind. On the bright side, at least it was dry. Dangerous and infested with wildlife, but dry.

Jim McCullough Sr.’s Mountaintop Motel Massacre holds a curious place in the pantheon of mad slasher films. While the familiar and comforting logo of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures (a symbol which I always equated with Godzilla 1985) shows up at the beginning of the film, it had actually been shot and locally distributed years prior, during the so-called “Golden Age of the Slasher Film,” which lasted roughly from 1978 to 1984. Released as Mountaintop Motel, it was made in 1983 and remained something of a Southern obscurity, unable to break through like Charles B. Pierce’s similarly rural-set The Legend of Boggy Creek. It wasn’t until 1986 that New World acquired the distribution rights, shot a memorably kooky poster featuring a completely different actress, along with a gloriously trashy tagline: “Please do not disturb Evelyn. She already is,” and beefed up the final showdown. The Louisiana-born McCullough, along with his son Jim McCullough Jr., had previously produced the silly G-rated comedy Charge of the Model T’s to a lackluster reception, so it’s clear the two were interested in cashing in on the popular horror subgenre. What they eventually produced would be an admittedly lower-tier entry which manages to have a few minor tricks up its sleeve.

The surprisingly distinctive cinematography by Joseph Wilcots (a frequent McCullough collaborator and a mostly television-based DP) features a muddy, brownish palette that recalls Vilmos Szigmond’s work in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film at least has the look and feel of a movie shot in the backwoods of some tiny community. It certainly doesn’t encourage anyone to visit this motel though. These “rooms,” which are clearly small cabins, look absolutely horrible and the geography of where they are in terms of distance from the main office is rather confusing. Regardless, it’s not the Holiday Inn, an establishment one character later describes as if it’s Shangri-La.

Hotel proprietor and gardening enthusiast Evelyn (local Shreveport actress and singer Anna Chappell) doesn’t like her creepy daughter Lorie (Jill King)’s critters wandering around her garden patch, so she slices and dices one of them (a gerbil or a hamster, I can't tell) with a sickle. Lorie, meanwhile, would definitely have grown up to be a hip Goth chick were she not destined to die, because her room is extremely gloomy and alarming as fuck. She has a ton of animals, which is fine, but also an unbelievable amount of dolls, most unclothed, strewn about the place. If that weren’t enough, she’s also into witchcraft and attempts to summon her dead father because she’s worried Evelyn’s mental state is deteriorating again, having been released from the Arkansas State Mental Hospital after a near three-year stint. The film indicates that Evelyn is a deeply devout Christian woman and goes berserk when she discovers Lorie holding the ritual, prompting her to slash her daughter over and over. The idea of a psychotic religious mother isn’t particularly novel and has been done much better in films like Carrie and Deranged.

I’ve always been a fan of the minutiae involved in the occupations of characters. If there’s one element of Mountaintop Motel Massacre that’s to be commended, it’s in the level of realism it attempts to portray. Most films, after a murder, don’t take the time to have paramedics attempt to resuscitate the victim. Usually, it’s either a frantic rush to the hospital where the person dies on the way, or they simply pronounce the victim dead without even showing an examination. Evelyn is freaking out as they try to bring her daughter back, to no avail. The Sheriff (James Bradford, Hiroshima, The Aviator) tries to get the whole story, but fortunately for her, permanent guest and alcoholic Revered Bill McWilley (noted Texan character actor Bill Thurman, Silverado, The Last Picture Show) fends him off, at least for a while. Most of the older actors do a respectable job throughout. Thurman in particular, who resembles a larger version of his Picture Show co-star Ben Johnson, has a great scene with handyman Melvin Crenshaw, played by Major Brock. A Delta Airlines baggage handler for over 30 years, McCullough convinced Brock to play this role, and his laid-back, natural performance is a highlight of the film. This was his only on-screen performance, but he certainly fooled me. I assumed he was some old character actor.

The younger performers in the cast fare much worse. There’s a distinct “lambs to the slaughter” vibe as the film clumsily cuts from one character to another, very briefly establishing their presence just so we’ll have some context when they’re killed later. I find it hard to believe that so many folks would be staying at such an out-of-the-way motel, but there you go. I guess the $7 a day cost is enticing. Newly-married couple Mary (Marian Jones) and Vernon (Gregg Brazzel, a much better stunt performer than an actor, The Mist, The Iceman) show up, followed by singing cousins Tanya and Prissy (Virginia Loridans and Amy Hill), whose car gets run off the road after they’re caught in a storm.

Wearing white, they look like they’re part of a wet t-shirt contest, which is likely the reason sleazebag ad executive Al (Will Mitchell) decides to pick them up in the first place. Of course, since he’s got a car phone, he must be loaded, at least according to Tanya: “A telephone! You must be rich or something.” Admittedly, this car phone does come in handy later on, but her response to his snazzy tech prompts him to lie his ass off about being a record producer with Columbia Records. The ease in which he weaves a bullshit story with vague, yet convincing details is disturbing, as if he’s done this before. Scumbag that he is, Al tries to finagle his way into a threesome, although Prissy is highly suspicious. “You can audition all night,” Al remarks. Yeeeccchhhh!

Evelyn’s mental state goes up and down as the guests check in. She starts to hear Lorie’s voice, commanding her to kill, and she paints herself up like a two-dollar whore. One of the kookier but original elements of the story is an entire underground tunnel system underneath the motel’s land which allows her to enter each room through hidden doors. Utilizing her dead daughter’s menagerie, she snatches up a snake, which is apparently a rattler since the soundtrack injects a shockingly unconvincing rattling effect, and places it in Mary and Vernon’s room. Vernon claims “I’m so horny, I can’t stand it!” The snake must be a prude 'cause it bites Vernon in the face. Mary, who really should’ve sucked the poison out, runs away since the phones are dead and happens upon Al. Guess what? The future is here, bitch! For some reason, he calls the police rather than 911 or a hospital, but it’s at least a realistic conversation. When he has to provide his mobile number, holy shit! This is what a mobile number was in 1983! 12-16-3-878-2238. Dude. I don’t know exactly what the deal is with this town, but they have to get in touch with the sheriff just to get anything done. Just call an ambulance, dumbass!

Evelyn is a malevolent force of minor inconveniences. She releases rats into Bill’s room...and he shoves them off. It takes an interminable amount of time for her to gather roaches which she throws into Melvin’s cabin. Again, he’s grossed out, but otherwise, meh. Meanwhile, in a hilariously gross cut, we see Tanya and Prissy singing, then discover Al lying shirtless in bed, listening. Prick. His manipulation of Tanya is stunning and Prissy heads into the bathroom with a huff. “She’s just hacked off,” claims Al. The fuck does that mean? Well, nonsensical or not, it’s accurate since Prissy is Evelyn’s next victim. She’s slashed and pulled into the tunnel while Al and Tanya get hot and heavy, but not too much. Besides the wet t-shirt bit, the film has a “tell, don’t show” approach to sex. Everyone’s horny, but very little actually happens.

“Away Satan!” shouts Evelyn as she hacks Reverend Bill. Her delivery is something akin to The Lone Ranger’s “Hi-ho Silver, away!” Melvin unfortunately starts monologuing, which he does his best with considering the bizarre dialogue. He decides to leave, but realizes his “truck ain’t got no crapper.” Very astute. While he’s doing his business, Evelyn pops up the trap door, but he sees it. As Al and Tanya discover the blood on the bathroom walls, Melvin seals the trap door entrance. Even though Tanya is hysterical and terrified, Al decides now is the time to confess his ruse. “I hope you got what you wanted,” she says. I guess if constantly-interrupted dry humping is what he wanted, then sure, he got it. Melvin shows up at Al’s room and the script decides to just skip past any explanations or introductions and pretend as though each knows exactly what’s going on. It’s clunky. Loridans, obviously directed to act as though she’s in shock, does a piss-poor job of it, but at least she just stays in the room with the door locked.

In a bizarre mistake, Al and Melvin search Lorie’s room, shining a flashlight along the shelves full of dolls. Al steps into the light, then walks away, followed by Melvin, yet the light doesn’t move. Who the hell is holding the light?! In what’s probably the smartest thing anyone in this film could say, Melvin refuses to follow Al’s suggestion of going after Evelyn, figuring that it’s the police’s problem, not his. Very good point. Still, they at least head into every room and nail the trap doors shut.

Vernon’s face is swelling up and after Melvin and Al leave, Evelyn turns out to already be in the room. “Aren’t you a mess!” she says to Vernon, before sticking her sickle through his face. It’s a decent little effects shot. Oh, and Mary is killed too, but does anyone really care? With the exception of Evelyn, the women are shockingly inactive. It's a fairly misogynistic portrayal of ineffectual women.

Finally, Melvin and Al head into the tunnel since the sheriff, who’s finally gotten off his ass after brooding about Lorie’s murder and probably not leaving much of a tip at his local bar, is caught behind a fallen tree. A convenient lantern placed right by the trap door entrance allows the audience to see the awful sweater Al decided to put on. Tanya locks herself in Al’s car and then, like a moron, starts yelling for him. He’s underground, moron! How the fuck do you expect him to hear you, you Tammy Wynette-wannabe lunkhead!! This movie can also go fuck itself, because Melvin’s hand gets chopped off and then he’s killed. Real nice, movie. You killed the most likeable character. Lorie keeps flash-cutting into view, looking like goddamn Pazuzu and the sheriff has a surprisingly difficult time battling Evelyn. Finally, she’s taken out in a slapstick manner when the sickle is stuck in a board and then falls down, stabbing her neck. It’s as unconvincing as it sounds. Al doesn’t do dick and throws out a lame excuse as to why he never encountered Evelyn. They leave and we get a meaningless cutaway to a zombified Lorie wandering the woods. Fin.

With a funkier, more outrageous approach, the idea of a nutcase wandering underneath a motel could’ve had a kinky, voyeuristic flavor. For now, what might’ve been sinister fun is reduced to an intermittently amusing but overall lackluster production.