Color, 1983, 95 mins. 52 secs.
Directed by Jim McCullough, Sr.
Starring Bill Thurman, Anna Chappell, Will Mitchell, Amy Hill
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), 88 Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (2.35:1), Anchor Bay, Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Though it was released around the United States after the slasher craze had already dissipated in 1986, the Louisiana-shot indie horror film Mountaintop Motel Massacre (originally just called Mountaintop Motel) actually qualifies as a golden age entry due to the fact that it was shot much earlier and shown around its home state in 1983, just before the cutoff point. By the time most audiences found the film it had been picked up by New World Pictures and given a campy, Troma-esque poster design ("Please do not disturb Evelyn. She already is."), despite the fact that the film is fairly serious and gritty throughout. The film marked the second directorial effort for former actor Jim McCullough, Sr., following the much more wholesome 1977 comedy Charge of the Model T's and easily the most popular film in his career. Since then this has remained a home video mainstay, a sort of slash-happy Southern potboiler with enough quirky little touches to help it stand out from the pack.
Frumpy, lonely Evelyn (Chappell) lives out in the middle of nowhere and seems to have some issues, even hacking away at innocent rodents who infiltrate her garden. As it turns out Evelyn's been off at the looney bin for a spell and manages to talk her way out of the murder of her witchcraft-practicing young daughter, Lorie. The owner of the Mountaintop Motel, she knows all the ins and outs of the property and, being a homicidal lunatic, has her own private lair where she hangs out with a sickle and a baby doll. One dark and stormy night, several passing travelers end up staying there including a reverend (Creature from Black Lake's Thurman), a newlywed couple, and a pair of naive, pretty cousins who have hooked up with a phony record producer. As everyone gets to know each other and a few of them end up trying to score for the night, Evelyn uses the hidden tunnels on the grounds to pick off the guests one by one, and despite some substantial clues, the authorities may not arrive in time to save anyone by dawn.
Though the plot itself is nothing terribly original, this film gets by on heaps of spooky, dark atmosphere and a memorable setting that puts this in fine company with the likes of Psycho III, Vacancy, and even Bad Times at the El Royale. The whole thing really belongs to Chappell, who gets to cut loose repeatedly during the running time and even makes use of a local snake in one memorable moment. Most of the actors (apart from the seasoned Thurman) were apparently culled from local theater performers and other random people (including a baggage handler), and they all do perfectly well given the parameters of the material with a few moments of black humor scattered here and there.
Following its initial regional screenings, Mountaintop Motel Massacre was outfitted with a new ending that beefed up the final confrontation over what was originally a single, anticlimactic gunshot. That general release version is what we've seen since in almost every iteration including the DVDs from Anchor Bay and Image Entertainment, which didn't offer much in the way of extras apart from the trailer. In 2017, U.K. label 88 Films gave the film its Blu-ray debut (with a simultaneous DVD) as part of its Slasher Classics Collection. Initially sold directly through the company site only, the release sports a surprisingly strong transfer that makes the most of the very dark cinematography and features a substantial new featurette, "Mountaintop Motel Memories" (20m58s) with production designer Drew Edward Hunter. He has a lot to share here about the creation of the tunnels off site, his spookshow experience that led to this project, his own written contribution to the revised ending, the various retitlings, and talents of Chappell, who was apparently very sweet and a little unsettled about some of the grislier demands of her role. The disc also contains a gallery of production and promotional images.
In 2019, Vinegar Syndrome bowed the film on U.S. Blu-ray as a dual format release for its Halfway to Black Friday sale extravaganza. The 2K-sourced transfer from the original negative looks fairly comparable to the excellent U.K. one with identical framing and similar strong detail levels; the major difference is the color timing, which has been tweaked to a more neutral look here (especially flesh tones) versus the warmer look of the 88 Films one. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 stereo audio is quite strong here and features optional English SDH subtitles. The "Mountaintop Motel Memories" featurette is carried over here, and you also get the New World trailer and an image gallery. The big new extra here is "Under the Influence" (12m30s) with assistant cameraman David Akin, who focuses on his director and chats quite a bit about Southern-focused filmmakers at the time including McCullough and Charles B. Pierce. In a nice touch, this one actually comes with not only a limited slipcase and reversible cover but an additional insert sleeve with another pair of cover art options including the familiar New World design.
VINEGAR SYNDROME (Blu-ray)
88 FILMS (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on May 24, 2019