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Mountaintop Motel Massacre
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by David Hollands

"A slasher film that is fun, nerve-jangling, and surprisingly well-made."
4 stars

Slasher films are usually poorly made, yet can still be highly enjoyable endeavours that take the audience on lazily constructed rides. They're basically take-it-or-leave-it affairs. Stuff like the Friday the 13th flicks are likable, but are also primarily throwaway items that go down better rented than owned. Among all the trash movies produced, a few did emerge and shine. One of those films is Mountaintop Motel Massacre.

The movie deals with Evelyn -- a woman who had been previously committed to a mental institution -- who runs a small motel off the main highway. Her daughter lives with her, and has the bad habit of attempting to conjure up dark spirits. Upon discovering her daughter in the middle of a sťance, Evelyn is consumed with rage and kills her daughter with a sickle. At the girlís funeral, itís indicated that Evelyn may have been driven off the deep end by the incident. She returns to her motel and continues to run it. She also starts to set up traps in each room by way of an underground tunnel with trapdoors connecting from it into every motel cabin.

An assortment of characters soon turn up at the motel to spend the night: a reverend, a soon-to-be-retired carpenter, newlyweds, two singing cousins, and an advertising agent. They are all at the mercy of Evelyn who, guided by the disembodied voice of her deceased daughter, proceeds to murder the guests one by one. Itís easy to see that Mountaintop Motel Massacre does seem like every other cheap slasher film rip-off made to cash in on the success of Friday the 13th. However, this film does have something many of the others didnít: a good script. The screenwriter is Jim McCullough Jr., who takes a cheap sounding plot and injects it with a general quality and surprisingly smart dialogue. I never thought that a movie about a crazy old lady killing people could possibly be scary, but I was quickly proven wrong.

For one thing, McCullough Jr. creates characters who donít seem like the typical ones normally put into films of this type. The writer doesnít exactly give them extreme depth (which actually helps them appear more believable), yet he does make them extremely likable. There is even a good tragic aspect to many of the characters. You donít want them to die because of this, which, of course, works to increase the suspense and tension. Some examples... The two newlywed characters only seem to be out to enjoy themselves. McCullough gives them a small exchange thatís heartbreaking in its simplicity; it shows true love. So when it becomes apparent that these two could become victims, the audience immediately feels true empathy and sympathy for their situation.

It should be stated that McCullough Jr. never overstates the overly dramatic aspects of the film's characters. In the case of the newlyweds, the writer never actually indicates that they are totally happy. They are ever-so-slightly troubled, something that makes them seem real. The vocalists, likewise, have a chance to become famous and yet they still need fine-tuning. The carpenter and the reverend are both beginning to feel their age, and share some extremely nice exchanges about life in general. These exchanges sound natural, hardly pushed in any way. Plus, the protagonist himself is -- quite wonderfully -- a flawed individual, and actually a little despicable as well. He picks up the vocalists after theyíd driven their car into a ditch during a storm, and immediately devises a plan to get into their pants by pretending he owns a successful record company. Upon hearing that one of them would do anything to become famous, he tries to have sex with her. It's very refreshing that the protagonist is this flawed, because the film suddenly offers some sobering commentary on the disgusting nature of machismo, or the negative aspects of human beings in general. Of course, Mountaintop Motel Massacre doesn't exactly offer any new commentary on these topics, though it is the way the thematic content is handled that makes a difference. Basically, it exists slightly as subtext, so the subject matter is subtly -- rather than bombastically and uncouthly -- addressed.

There is another point that surprisingly helps the film: the lack of sex, and partial lack of nudity. Although I must admit that I do enjoy watching a good sex scene (I'd be a horrible liar and hypocrite if I stated that I didn't), itís always refreshing when filmmakers are aspiring for something slightly more interesting with their work. Mountaintop Motel Massacre never has an overall sleazy feel to it. Most of that comes from one character in the film, rather than the overall content of the film. There are, however, a few minor shots that could be considered gratuitous. The cousin with a wet T-shirt? Yeah, I think so. However, those willing to catch a glimpse of the breasts of long-haired beauty Prissy (Amy Hill) will be disappointed; she has her back to the camera the one time she takes off her shirt. This does display an admirable restraint on the part of the filmmakers. Despite what the film's title suggests, the work clearly is not meant to be a sleazy one. Rather, it's intended to peak one's interest and to terrify. By subverting some of the audience's expectations, the filmmakers are implicitly keeping that same audience slightly off-kilter. It also adds a fascinating subtext to the film; nobody has sex or does drugs, yet that doesn't save them from death. Death, or rather Evelyn, never discriminates -- you're alive, and therefore you must die. This idea of death being a force that almost randomly strikes increases the terror two-fold; anybody could be next, and who actually lives by the film's end may surprise you.

Mountaintop Motel Massacre never attempts to explain its plot devices. We never find out exactly why Evelyn was committed to the institution. Instead, in a display of true storytelling craft, we're given little clues. Such clues include the absence of a father figure, and the way the daughter seems to have an unnatural attachment to his dead spirit. It's also great that the story captures our interest in such a way that we never question how the intricate underground tunnels were constructed. There's something in this film's visual world that is decidedly off -- almost anything is possible, and so we simply sit back and enjoy the roller coaster ride. The film also has a truly creepy supernatural undercurrent. Initially, we're not really sure if Evelyn is crazy or if the voices of her dead daughter are actually driving her mad from beyond the grave. The film answers this question in a brief shot thatís simple, and yet extremely effective and spooky. And although the supernatural aspect isnít exactly necessary, it just adds something more to the film, something freakish and unnatural. This only serves to creep the audience out even more, and keep them constantly -- and wonderfully -- off-balance. I was on my toes throughout, and when the daughter's disembodied voice burst through the speakers for the first time, I nearly jumped through my back wall. This film just has a habit of surprising you, in the way that all good horror pictures should.

Jim McCullough Sr. handled the directorial duties here, and he does an extremely commendable job. McCullough understands that atmosphere is one of the most important elements in a horror film, and so he injects every frame with an extreme amount of visual menace. The colours are all muted earth tones, giving the film a really down to Earth look that just gets under you nerves; it's surprising that something so creepy can happen in a location that looks so normal. Cinematographer Joseph M. Wilcots lights each scene very naturally, which also means that he very faithfully captures the look of darkness. He's not afraid of allowing his characters to be bathed in shadow, and that works to unnerve an audience member so effectively. If everything goes dark, the result of a light source being abruptly removed, the scene is then lit by occasional bursts of moonlight and the occasional lighting flash. There are many scenes that are lit only by candlelight and lanterns. I am especially fond of the moment when McCullough takes us inside Evelyn's daughter's bedroom as the girl is conducting a sťance. It is a room filled with creepy dolls and low-burning candles, and the look of it all almost literally lowers the temperature in one's own viewing room with its eeriness.

Then, of course, come the moments in which Evelyn moves about in the underground tunnels. Lit only by a lantern, we are only ever given glimpses of the appearance of the passages. As characters move through them, we are constantly remaining only with them -- McCullough never cross-cuts when a sequence is unfolding in the tunnels. To make the scene even more tense, McCullough makes sure that we only see exactly what the characters in the tunnel would perceive from their vantage points. This minimalist style not only effectively helps us stay emotionally close to those about to become victims, but also emotionally close to Evelyn in an opposite fashion. McCulloughís rough way of filming her as she walks around produces an immense feeling of unease. The director also creates visual tension in such a fantastic way by framing his shots so that darkness fills the background and most other areas of the frame. Thus, this creates the feeling that Evelyn could pop up at any moment from any location to do away with the characters. She literally does this to nerve-jangling effect in one instant when she rises up behind a victim holding her sickle. The brilliance and utter hopelessness of this moment is that we see her rise up reflected in a mirror behind a character, and the character sadly doesn't notice. Absolutely excellent.

What is interesting is the fact that it seems that the audience is never meant to look upon Evelyn merely as an evil entity. Instead, McCullough appears to be after some pathos in regards to her character and her situation. The director effectively demonstrates her hardships in a brief opening segment that more than makes her a sympathetic character. She goes through so much emotional trauma in these first sections of the film that when she eventually snaps, we know that it isnít her fault -- she seems more to be a victim of circumstance than anything else -- and thus we kind think of her in the same way as the other characters. This adds quite a bit to the film, making it more interesting on many levels. For not only are we having a blast getting the daylights scared out of us, but we are also experiencing an interesting moral dilemma: who exactly should I be rooting for in this film? And more importantly, what does it mean that I am rooting for anyone to live or die in the first place? While these questions are never addressed directly in the film, it's ultimately a good thing that they are not; it gives the picture a more subtle quality, and it allows for some interesting personal reflection on the part of viewers.

Also wonderful is that this picture smartly handles the concept of an old lady going about killing people. Judging by the unfortunately hilarious cover art, I initially thought the filmmakers would have taken the typical route of having Mountaintop Motel Massacre presented as a B-movie comedy with lots of camp. Not so, since the filmmakers have not only made this concept appear quite frightening, but theyíve also come up with intelligent and believable scenarios as to how Evelyn can kill people given her relatively weak physicality and fragility. Many of the characters donít notice her until the final blow is dealt, for she has this creepy habit of rising up behind characters or popping out of shadows while the characters are turned away. One person is killed when she turns around a little too late and is shocked at the sight that awaits her. Another is murdered because he is in a weakened condition from a snakebite. One poor guy gets killed because he canít see Evelynís sickle until it is too late. The filmmakers are constantly aware that a little old lady really canít be the most successful killer when put up against twenty and thirty year olds. That they've still managed to pull off the concept admirably is a cause for celebration.

For a slasher picture, the pacing is pretty slow. McCullough doesnít even get to a murder set piece until about forty-five minutes in. Instead, he devotes a good amount of time to establish and develop the characters. While this has sometimes, in other films, proven to be a bore when the characters turn out to be fatally un-interesting, McCullough's choice is a correct one in Mountaintop Motel Massacre. It also helps that McCullough effectively creates tension out of even the most normal of images and overall situations. We are always aware that Evelyn is creeping around in the tunnels as we watch the other characters' activities. We also see her setting up traps, and are often left wondering exactly what sheís doing. So it is, in fact, quite necessary to have this slow build, since the spatial logistics and the characters are effectively established, and the tension is allowed to build until the frightening and very atmospheric rising action.

The editing of the attack sequences, however, is something of a mixed bag. Those sequences are haphazardly filmed to begin with, as if the director lost control and suddenly didnít really know what he was doing anymore. It seems as if he just started guessing at what would look good. Unfortunately, we never really feel any visceral impact whenever people are killed. Itís all kind of ho-hum, and it is also difficult to except this element in terms of a trashy delight since the film is trying to be taken seriously, and also that it featured such a perfect set-up. To be fair, there are at least two attack moments that the director got right by, it would appear, pure luck. The first comes in the aforementioned mirror reflection attack. McCullough has Evelyn slash down at her victim, and a gruesome sound effect is heard. McCullough then cuts to a very gruesome shot of the victim's slashed face, and the lighting and eerie score make the moment work perfectly. The other good moment occurs when Evelyn stabs a character in the stomach with her sickle. The character turns around with the sickle still stuck in his gut, and he slowly spits out a huge amount of blood. The timing on the blood is perfect, since it comes out a little, stops, and then suddenly just pours out. That gruesome detail, combined with the lighting and the camera angle, makes for an incredibly unpleasant moment. Unfortunately, despite the two above-mentioned sequences, most of the killings look extremely cheap, and that does slightly degrade the overall quality of the film.

Another major problem is that in the third act, utter stupidity starts to infect the production. Two characters reason that they have to go into the tunnels to capture Evelyn. Moments before they had successfully sealed off all her entrances, and they knew absolutely that where they were was her only exit. So, instead of simply sealing her in, they conclude to get her before she gets them, and then head down. What? Why not just trap her down there so she canít hurt anybody else? At that moment, they knew a police officer was on the way, so why would they willingly put themselves in danger? Itís one of the movieís most idiotic scenes. However, once that one's out of the way, McCullough relies on enough atmosphere and tension that we eventually just accept that major cognitive error on the characters' parts. Still, itís definitely a major flaw considering that the rest of the film is put together so well.

The special effects, courtesy of Drew Edward Hunter, are fantastic. Director McCullough makes them look even better, as he frequently chooses to show only quick glimpses of the violence to achieve maximum effect -- and to keep the audience off-balance, he sometimes lingers on the violence to achieve an equally powerful punch. Among the gems on display is a nasty face slashing that shows cut flesh, the blood and the tissue under the skin, plus a tooth that sticks out the side of the victimís ripped open jaw. Thereís the aforementioned ripping into the stomach, and an assortment of dismemberments (including a character who gets his hand sliced off and then his throat slashed). But the real keeper is the person who has her neck completely ripped open by a sharp blade hanging off a wooden beam. The effect is unimaginably gruesome -- it gets even worse when the character starts moving about, allowing the blade to work itself deeper into her flesh. For a no budget film, the effects are surprisingly top notch.

The quality of the performances varies. Bill Thurman is quite affecting as the aging reverend. He delivers his lines with conviction and heart, and seems quite honest in his delivery. He lives in his role, creating a character who is alive in every frame of film heís in. Equally impressive is Major Brock as the old carpenter. This guyís a joy to watch, and his character contributes one of the filmís funniest moments when he says, being African American, that he doesnít want to be killed by a crazy old white lady. Itís a typical joke, but his delivery is side-splitting. On the down side, this guy canít exactly put himself believably into an intense situation with much true emotion. As the hero, Will Mitchel is extremely bland. Somehow though, he is still affecting, since he gives his role a very natural quality that helps us think of him not as a character in a slasher film, but a real person in an intense situation. One scene in which he confesses to a heartbroken Prissy that he isnít a record company executive is brought to life because of Mitchelís sometimes compelling natural approach. Amy Hill and Marion Jones as cousins Prissy and Mary are very good. They give their characters a good grounding in reality, and they donít let themselves fall into the typical-screaming-female-victims trap that so many slasher films cannot seem to resist. Finally, Anna Chappell, as Evelyn, is creepy as Hell. She plays the part very naturally, with hardly any overly cinematic shouts and movements. Her face remains still and almost expressionless during the murder set pieces, which makes the proceedings a lot more terrifying. She deserves kudos; during moments when she must speak to herself in a psychologically disturbed state, she comes off as extremely believable and frightening rather than over the top and silly (I'm looking at you, Anthony Hopkins).

Finally, the one thing that just sells Mountaintop Motel Massacre is the fantastic musical score by Ron Lucio. Lucio creates synthesized compositions that play throughout the picture in a very eerie drone. Sometimes there is constant repetition, which effectively compliments Evelynís descent into madness. A moment when we venture into Evelynís daughterís room features music that is nerve-jangling and haunting, and just plain compliments the unnerving images so well. As a further example of pure musical ingenuity, just check out the moments in which Evelyn wanders around the underground tunnels, or any moments in which characters are creeping about in darkness. They are absolutely unnerving, since Lucio understands that it is often the simplest and most subtle sounds that are the most effective.

In the end, Mountaintop Motel Massacre proves to be quite the surprise: a slasher film that creates truly sympathetic characters, still features some gruesome murder, AND creeps the holy Hell out of us. I highly recommend this film; it gets the job done wonderfully in almost every way. As a result, Mountaintop Motel Massacre has easily become one of the most uncomfortable and unnerving slasher films I've sat through.

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originally posted: 06/01/08 16:33:38
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User Comments

8/06/08 E K Zimmerman I was shocked at how good this was! 4 stars
6/05/08 katmagick Good story,Good creepiness factor,worth a watch! 4 stars
10/14/05 Darren O Slow and amateurish, but has a creepy aura bigger budgeted flicks just gloss over. 3 stars
4/26/04 Samhainfire Classic flick! Excellent review! 5 stars
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  02-May-1986 (R)



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