“Mountaintop Motel Massacre” (1986)
Studio: New World Pictures
Starring: Bill Thurman, Anna Chappell, Will Mitchell, Major Brock
Directed by: Jim McCullough, Sr.
Running Time: 95 min.
Synopsis: After being released from a mental institution, Evelyn goes off the deep end again and takes out her lunatic rage on the guests at her dilapidated motel.
Ah the 80’s. Was there ever a more glorious time for cheesy movies? It seems like theaters were so hard up for product in those days that almost anyone who could make a film could get it released nationally and then follow up with pay cable and home video distribution. One of those “anyone”s was a filmmaker from Louisiana named Jim McCullough who’s career was brief but prolific. McCullough earned himself a permanent spot in the bad movie hall of fame with the completely incomprehensible sci-fi mess Aurora Encounter but he also turned out a little horror picture around the same time that is pretty bizarre in its own right.
Mountaintop Motel Massacre opens with a placard informing us that Evelyn Chambers was a guest at the Arkansas State Mental Hospital between 1978 and 1981. Exactly why she was there is left up to the viewer’s imagination but as the film opens, presumably in 1983 when it was shot, Evelyn and her equally not quite there daughter Lorie are operating the isolated and rundown Mountaintop Motel. Lori seems to have a thing for animals of all types and all it takes is one bored looking guinea pig in her garden to send Evelyn right back over the sanity cliff she has been teetering on. Apparently Lorie has seen this day coming and does what any equally unbalanced young girl would – try to commune with the spirit of her dead father for advice. The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree in this family!
After mister guinea pig ends up on the wrong end of Evelyn’s trusty sickle, she decides to clean house on her daughter’s motley menagerie (it’s amazing she didn’t open one of those great pathetic roadside zoos). When she catches Lorie right in the middle of séance with dad, Evelyn goes into cyclone mode with the sickle and her daughter is just a little to slow to hit the deck. Fortunately the local law isn’t too quick on the draw either and they decide Lorie’s death was a “gardening accident” and leave the old lady to her devices. This is just the set up though for the carnage to come!
Now that Evelyn has completely lost her marbles again, a convenient storm sends a whole lot of business her way including an alcoholic preacher, aged handyman, young newlyweds, and a traveling salesman who poses as a record producer to have his way with two young aspiring singers he has rescued from a broken down car. After selling her displaced guests rooms and allowing them a little time to settle in, Evelyn’s ready to open up a jumbo sized can of crazy on their butts!
It’s at this point in the film, around the half way mark, that the real star makes its debut. The tunnels under the motel room are some genuinely creepy caverns and these scenes look as though they must have been filmed in a real mineshaft somewhere since the meager budget could not have supported anything this elaborate. As Evelyn stalks through the underground cobwebbed corridors you almost expect to see an old moonshine still or a stash of Confederate rifles indicating what these passages were originally created for. Unfortunately all we get are some off kilter drawings and ephemera indicating that the daughter used there tunnels as some type of play room.
At first Evelyn’s shaky shenanigans don’t amount to more than releasing a few cockroaches, rats, and non-poisonous snakes into the guest’s rooms via trap doors in the floor. While these can be some creepy critters, they are strictly of the harmless variety and not likely to do much more than ruin her hopes of repeat business. Shortly though she ups the ante by tossing a rattlesnake into the newlywed’s room which manages to bite the husband on the face before he dances the tango on it. Realizing that the pests aren’t doing much to the guests, Evelyn picks up her sickle to finally get the body count going.
After Evelyn dispatches the preacher and one of the would be musical starlets, the remaining guests wise up to what’s going on and start to fight back. Thanks to having the handyman with them, they have all they need to seal off the trap doors and slow the old nut case down but she still manages to get in a little slicing and dicing. This leads to a final showdown underground between Evelyn, the handyman, and the phony record exec that actually manages to generate a little suspense, again thanks to those great tunnel settings.
By the film’s conclusion, Evelyn is finally sent to join her husband in the great beyond and the much delayed Sheriff finally arrives just in time to do the paperwork he’s been trying to avoid through the whole movie. In a nod to the 80’s movie directive that all horror films had to have some type of last minute shock no matter how incongruent they were to the rest of the story, Lorie is seen wandering the woods as some type of lobotomized zombie! Friday the 13th this ain’t!
Producer / Director Jim McCullough first came to movie audiences’ attention with his 1974 film adaptation of the classic book Where the Red Fern Grows. Like most of his films throughout his career, Fern has a few recognizable names in the cast, James Whitmore, Beverly Garland as well as Bill Thurman who was in almost everything he did including playing the preacher in MMM. Thurman was a surprisingly good actor who paid his dues working for Texas producer Larry Buchanan in some of the lowest budget films ever to play late night television. Somewhere in between these Buchanan bombs and a whole slew of rural comedies and exploitation films, Thurman found time to turn in some excellent supporting roles in A list films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Last Picture Show!
After this fairly highbrow debut film, which was forced on elementary school children for years as part of “educational” matinees, McCullough jumped into the exploitation genre with both feet when he churned out the Bigfoot snooze fest Creature from Black Lake two years later in 1976. He next tried his hand at comedy with the forgettable Charge of the Model T’s and the embarrassing Soggy Bottom,U.S.A. before he returned to horror with Mountaintop Motel in 1983.
Mountaintop Motel was gathering dust on a shelf unreleased but that didn’t stop McCullough from producing more films. He reached his peak in 1986 with the aforementioned Aurora Encounter, the only sci-fi western ever to star a child actor with Progeria Syndrome and no make-up as an alien! With ET still fresh in audiences minds, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures figured they could make a quick buck releasing Aurora Encounter as a family friendly science fiction picture. They also picked up Mountaintop Motel and wisely tacked the word Massacre onto the title for release to drive-ins and less discriminating multiplex theaters the same year.
Most fans of bad horror movies became acquainted with this film either through repeated airings on pay cable services like Cinemax or from the lurid box cover that tempted customers in the newly blossoming home video rental store industry. Either way, this slow rolling little time killer gave them a few minor chills for their rental dollars and probably a few unintentional laughs as well. Mountaintop Motel Massacre is no classic by any means but it makes the most of what had to be a very low budget and delivers a slightly dull but still watchable film.