Sunday, June 30, 2019

Mountaintop Motel Massacre

(R, New World Pictures, 95 mins., theatrical release date: March 14, 1986)

In one of his earliest stand-up routines, Patton Oswalt revealed what he considers the greatest movie title ever: "Texas. Chainsaw. Massacre." The beauty of it, as opposed to the mealy-mouthed romantic comedies in the mainstream, was how you envisioned a free movie playing in your own head based on those three words. But the most substantial element for me is the word "massacre" alone, because it has been the perfect hook for B-movie entrepreneurs, especially thanks to Tobe Hooper's film: Massacre at Central High, Drive In Massacre, Mardi Gras Massacre, The Slumber Party Massacre, Microwave Massacre, Women's Prison Massacre, etc. etc. Just affixing "massacre" to any object or setting fires up the projector in the mind, which is great for the imagination but also troublesome knowing the concept has already been made tangible. This is where the burden of expectations comes in.

Hooper's film worked far beyond most people's mental image of a Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and a few of the mercenary examples listed above were pretty much as straightforward. Yet in the summer of 1986, the novelty of "[fill in the blank] Massacre" wore off thanks to Hooper's official sequel to his decade-old trendsetter. But there was another pretender from earlier that year thanks to New World Pictures, who picked up a regional horror film from Louisiana (premiere date: July 15, 1983), commissioned a new finale and shipped it out for wide release with "massacre" tacked onto its original title.

The result was MOUNTAINTOP MOTEL MASSACRE, and it's not just the title which tipped me off to the debt that all movies with "Massacre" at the end owe to Tobe Hooper. The film itself strikes me as the type of movie Hooper could've made near the mid-80s were he not spending Golan-Globus' money, with mundane characters in foreboding rural environs getting picked off by a deranged loner. His 1976 follow-up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive, itself took place at a bayou lodge and featured a scythe as a notable murder weapon.

Jim McCullough Sr. was the director, instead, his second feature effort following Charge of the Model T's and once again working from a script by his boy Jim Jr. These were filmmakers more of the Charles B. Pierce mould, as Jim Sr. produced (and Jim Jr. wrote) the Boggy Creek-style Creature from the Black Lake around the time Hooper was making Eaten Alive. But compared to not only Pierce, who kept a more active resume and worked with recognizable actors (Ben Johnson, Michael Parks, Jessica Harper), but even Don (Nightbeast) Dohler, the McCulloughs never amassed much of a wide-reaching legacy, although Vinegar Syndrome are seeking to at least give Mountaintop Motel Massacre a new lease on life.

A lack of ambition is likely more of a nuisance than the slasher they have concocted for this particular massacre movie. She is Evelyn Chambers (Anna Chappell), a former inmate of the Arkansas State Mental Hospital from July 1978 to January 1981, and one who obviously didn't receive the best possible rehabilitation as Evelyn carves up both her daughter and a baby rabbit in a fit of madness. With her husband unexplainably dead and her daughter's murder (she was caught holding a séance to communicate with daddy) written off as a gardening accident, Evelyn tends desk at the Mountaintop Motel on a convenient dark, stormy night that brings in all manner of customers/victims.

Aside from the typical young couple looking for a honeymoon suite and the reliable preacher and carpenter types, one of the waylaid travelers is an advertising exec from Memphis named Al (Will Mitchell) who turns out to be the hero. But in the grand tradition of Tom Atkins, horny ole Al picks up two nubile coeds, cousins Tanya and Prissy (Virginia Loridans, Amy Hill), and deceives them into believing he's really the owner of Columbia Records. Tanya is more gullible than Prissy, natch, but they perform a meek rendition of Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" regardless until Prissy catches on for good and is hacked up in the bathroom by Evelyn.

This murder doesn't occur until nearly an hour into the film, as the McCulloughs do the slow burn shuffle by having Evelyn attempt to disorient her tenants with roaches, rats and even a rattler for the newlyweds. It's only after the occupants refuse to go back into the rain that the deranged Evelyn, who is scurrying about in the basement and popping up from beneath trap doors, starts screeching "Away, Satan!" and planting her scythe into the bodies of her guests.

When New World Pictures distributed Mountaintop Motel Massacre at the end of the slasher boom, they hedged their bets fabulously with the very one-sheet pictured atop this review. Dig that tagline, in particular. Sadly, the actual film is less the campy hoot the studio promises and more, all-too-fittingly, garden variety. Joseph Wilcots (Roots) provides slicker cinematography than one would expect from a film that cries out for a grungy treatment, but otherwise he's one of the few people in the crew who distinguishes himself in any regards. The atmosphere is willing, but the plot is weak even by the standards of the genre.

I wish I could give Evelyn the benefit of the doubt as a villain, and to credit Anna Chappell for a committed performance. Her only other film role, surprisingly, was in Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon (1991), famous for introducing a 14-year-old Reese Witherspoon. But there is nothing in the script to give Chappell any depth of character beyond the type of role already owned by Nancy Parsons. It's the usual trite motivations, from voices in the head to religious fanaticism, and they don't add up to a fearsome, let alone pitiable, personality. You never really worry for any of her victims, either, with the possible exception of the black carpenter, Crenshaw (Major Brock), and that's because his dialogue is ripe with jive, especially when he monologues his uneventful escape from the premises. This is the closest the McCulloughs come to humor.

At some point, you'd figure the characters would learn the value of safety in numbers, especially since their antagonist is hardly Pamela let alone Jason Voorhees. But they tend to split up and wander off half-cocked into Evelyn's lair all too predictably, and the reason for their isolation is nothing more than feeble. You also got to hand it to our nominal hero, Al: he's so lasciviously committed to duping the girls that he ignores the value of the working car phone in sending out for and responding to any help in dealing with the mentally ill mass murderer, the fallen tree blocking the road or the snake-bitten honeymooner.

Mountaintop Motel Massacre continues Vinegar Syndrome's tradition of reviving regional horror titles people would have otherwise missed, such as Disconnected or Horror House on Highway 5. I can't recommend it as much as I do either of those other, stranger obscurities, both of which have gone out-of-print following the same Halfway to Black Friday 2019 sale which offered Mountaintop Motel Massacre as an exclusive release. Without the creeping dread and sordid abandon of Tobe Hooper (or even the cornpone playfulness of Motel Hell), this family affair is just another dull saw sans teeth.

Mountaintop Motel Massacre isn't so much raw as it is perpetually dark, a point driven home by Vinegar Syndrome's spanking new 2k transfer from the original 35mm elements. The tacked-on ending sticks out even more after watching this top-notch visual presentation, which brings out the best in its source negative and presents consistent accuracy in terms of color saturation, facial/clothing details and those ever-important black levels. Looking back further in my evaluation, I do also have to credit Drew Edward Hunter's production design for the underground passageways of the motel; like the film, it's nothing original or particularly engaging, but it looks spooky enough to deserve a better film. Wish the DTS-HD MA 2.0 track made me feel more affection for Ron Di Iulio's score, but the best I can say is that the musical-box keyboard tones are as crystal as the dialogue.

Two still galleries, one devoted to behind-the-scenes photos and the other a short gathering of news articles (less extensive than Lust in the Dust, to be true), and the original theatrical trailer are included alongside the usual packaging perks (slipcover, reversible artwork). Other than that, extras are limited to two appealing interviews with Mr. Hunter and assistant cameraman David Akin. Hunter's recollections are carried over from the UK BD release by 88 Films, and it covers childhood influences, getting discovered at a haunted house exhibit, various props and drawings he fashioned from the script, and the eventual reshoot. Akin recalls being plucked from Texas video school by McCullough Sr. and discusses his working relationship with Joe Wilcots and is more candid about the distribution demands of New World. We still don't get to see the original cut of Mountaintop Motel which debuted that night in July 1983 in Opelousas and played the next year in Jackson, Mississippi, which would've certainly boosted my recommendation of this combo-pack release if not the film.

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