Mountaintop Motel Massacre. 1983. Directed & Written by Jim McCullough.
Starring Anna Chappell, Bill Thurman, Will Mitchell, Virginia Loridans, Major Brock, James Bradford, Amy Hill, Marian Jones, Gregg Brazzel, & Jill King.
New World Pictures
Rated R. 95 minutes.
If ever there were a slasher flick with goals that never quite gets where it needs to be, it’s Mountaintop Motel Massacre— a 1983 horror about an older woman called Evelyn (Anna Chappell) recently released from a psychiatric hospital a bit too early for her own good, and the good of all those around her.
There’s something interesting about slashers from the 1980s with a killer not hidden behind a mask or kept secret behind POV shots. Evelyn’s the murderer from the start, so there’s no mystery surrounding the identity of who’s killing people at her backwoods motel. This leaves the screenplay with a lot of heavy lifting in order to make things interesting, which unfortunately doesn’t happen, as the story’s themes never materialise into anything significant.
Jim McCullough’s movie has lots going for it thematically. We’re given a setup indicating a horror centred on the dangers of ignoring mental health issues, from the opening shot of Evelyn’s psychiatric records to the isolated motel location. There are strong indications she’s a paranoid schizophrenic with biblical obsessions. Instead of working well off a genuinely terrifying premise, Mountaintop Motel Massacre falls flat part of the way through and never recovers. Many elements McCullough sets up throughout his story are admirable. Yet there’s a deeper sense of disappointment because of that.
The image above is our introduction to Evelyn. Before we glean bits of her psychiatric history through brief expository dialogue via her daughter, there’s a clear picture of mental health troubles in this family. It’s also the performance of Chappell— an unnerving presence from the start. The isolation of the motel itself and Evelyn’s home, located in the backwoods of Arkansas, plays a significant role in her mental health and in the way her psychological state’s affected by others in the community.
After Evelyn murders her daughter Lorri in a fit of blind rage she calls the authorities. With the help of a reverend she convinces the police it was an accident. The horrors of mental health collide with old age and psychological decay. While Evelyn has a history of mental illness she’s treated like many elderly people and given the benefit of the doubt rather than given the help she so clearly needs.
It’s the same in real life. Police are terrible dealing with mental health, either ignoring it until too late or treating it with deadly force. There’s an unwillingness in the authorities here to deal with Evelyn’s difficult psychiatric issues. What follows is an embodiment of the terror inherent in ignoring psychosis.
Evelyn’s massacre is not unlike Bruce Blackman, whose family allowed him to descend into madness – also biblical in nature – until he killed them all one night (this was covered in the 1st episode of the amazing true crime podcast, Sword and Scale, available here). Even the reverend, who helps her, is dispatched once she fully unravels. One macabre coincidence the Blackman family massacre occurred in 1982, a year prior to when Mountaintop Motel Massacre was shot. Where Blackman and Evelyn are so similar is in their biblical madness.
“If the Kingdom of Heaven is in my heart, where is the Kingdom of Hell?”
“I guess it’s there also”
Evelyn, like the real life Blackman, displays signs of paranoid schizophrenia. She hears voices— some unidentified, another is her dead daughter. The voices tell her to do things. She’s also driven by the Bible and various passages. Blackman was influenced by the Bible, believing it was a text written only for him. He came to believe the world was ending, doing whatever he thought would halt the process. We see Evelyn falling into end of the world-type scenarios, as well. For instance, during one scene she reads from The Book of Revelation, specifically Revelation 14:17, giving the viewer insight into her religiously-inspired terror: “And another angel came out of a temple of Heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle.” Combined with the paranoid delusions, Evelyn’s obsession with Christianity – and here it seems concentrated on a Christian eschatology – is indicative of schizophrenia especially, because, for whatever reason, religion’s a common thread in many patients with the illness.
There’s more connection to the Bible if we dig deeper. On its face, the fact Evelyn chooses to kill is an act of playing God. In a pre-Vacancy horror landscape, she uses tunnels and trapdoors around the motel grounds to gain access to all the rooms. This is another God-like aspect of her murders: she plays the all-seeing, all-knowing entity by infiltrating spaces meant as private. Then she unleashes vermin – snakes, cockroaches, and rats – on her victims, calling to mind the Book of Exodus and the Plagues of Egypt— she becomes the Angel of Death in Egypt handing out God’s punishment. As she slays the reverend, Evelyn even yells: “Away, Satan!” She’s one holy mass murderer.
“She’s getting sick again”
Bruce Blackman’s family ignored the extreme nature of his delusions, to the extent they suffered fatally. Similarly, the sheriff and reverend both ignore Evelyn’s mental health, allowing many to suffer because of this decision. In the end, the old lady dies, too. Few people survive.
This doesn’t mean people with mental illness are dangerous. Father Gore suffers from clinical, often debilitating anxiety, as well as other fairly serious psychological issues. That being said, an illness like schizophrenia can sometimes devolve into violence, at no fault of the patient. People like Evelyn exist in real life, though they’re few, and the case of Blackman is evidence of that, so much so the man was released just over ten years after he killed his whole family.
Mountaintop Motel Massacre isn’t good enough to have a message, even if director-writer Jim McCullough was able to imbue the screenplay with important themes. Problem is, the end result is much the same as too many other slasher flicks of the ’80s. Ultimately there’s no endgame to the mental health angle, neither is there one for the religious elements. The end’s a confusing pile of tropes thrown together, not making anything any better or easier to suss out. Regardless, this movie has creepy atmosphere, and all the thematic elements present are enjoyable enough to give it a shot.
Don’t expect too much, then maybe you’ll have a bit of morbid fun.