Written by Fraser Heston (who also produced), Mother Load was the second collaboration between father Charlton and son after The Mountain Men (1980), and it was during the making of the latter the younger Heston was convinced he could transpose the major themes and tone of John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) to a modern setting.
Fraser Heston researched the gold mining history of northern Canada and banged out a fairly simple tale where an old miner will do anything to prevent strangers from getting their grubby greedy hands on his claim. The film was expertly produced with a fine crew, and shot on location in British Columbia, plus a handful of sets which were superbly detailed and entirely believable - a dirty dingy mountain cabin, and a series of water-logged, old mining tunnels littered with the remnants of prior operations.
The tone of the early 1980s – the heyday of the slasher film – perhaps influenced Heston’s script, which begins with a murderer, hides the identity of the mystery killer until the end, and features a few shocks (one passingly grisly), but it’s a fairly straightforward story of two city dwellers, Jean Dupre (Nick Mancuso) and Andrea Spalding (Kim Basinger, in her second film), who charter their own flight into an isolated pocket of the B.C. mountains in search of a friend who disappeared during a meteorological survey.
After meeting a local man named Elijah (John Marley, who looks more Brooklyn than native Canadian), they’re warned the terrain they seek is very dangerous, but the couple push on, crash-landing in a small lake. (The twist and flip-flopping blunder was an unexpected accident that occurred during filming, which gave the film a spectacular sequence, and made it easier for Heston to find a reason for the couple to remain trapped in the valley, and push on with their expedition.)
Jean and Andrea quickly meet crazy-man Silas McGee, and both eventually realize the old man has been telling a few lies, and may be responsible for their friend’s death.
Woven into the story are a few explosions, near-death experiences, some hand-to-hand combat, and a sappy albeit satisfying finale.
Heston’s script is essentially a well-produced B-movie benefitting from solid stunt work by Joe Canutt, sharp editing from Eric Boyd-Perkins (The Wicker Man), brooding cinematography from the brilliant Richard Leiterman (Surfacing, And the Sea Will Tell), and production design that captures the claustrophobia of nasty, wet mine shafts.
Ken Wannberg’s use of synths is often at odds with his regal orchestral cues, but it’s a solid score which captures the psychology of obsessive characters willing to forego rational thought in favour of a manic search for an impossible-to-find treasure.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is how well the elder Heston directed the film, and it’s a shame his only other efforts are Antony and Cleopatra (1970), and the TV production of A Man for All Seasons [M] (1988). Dissolves and montages are beautifully constructed, and Heston’s own performance is a perfect blend of gravitas, underscored with a thick Scottish accent and some hokey nattering about ‘breaking his back for 29 or 30 years’ to get the mother load of gold.
Mother Load was among the first films to appear on Canadian pay TV stations, after which it pretty much disappeared, much like more authentic Cancon productions, such as Ticket to Heaven (1981), which also starred Mancuso, and was photographed by Leiterman.
Warner Home Video’s DVD sports a nice anamorphic transfer that finally shows off the superb aerial cinematography that was badly cropped in prior full screen versions, and while the sound mix is flat mono, it’s a good mix with evocative sound effects that transform the network of grimy mining tunnels into a rich character of its own.
Also included is a nearly half-hour making-of featurette, with Fraser Heston essentially going over the film’s entire production history. Interviewed by Laurent Bouzereau, the Q&A featurette is a good substitute for what would’ve been a great commentary track had the elder Heston been alive to contribute his thoughts on the film, as well as his rare foray into directing.
The featurette, which is heavily compressed to fit the DVD, is copyrighted 2009, inferring this release may have been postponed for a while, but the DVD’s a welcome addition for fans of classic eighties B-movies that largely remain unavailable on home video. (Pity no one’s dared to release another Sierra Madre variant, Wet Gold, a 1984 TV production that moved the search for gold from the desert to the ocean.)
Mother Lode was released by WHV in tandem with Antony and Cleopatra [M] (1972), the second of two productions starring and directed by Charlton Heston, and produced by Peter Snell – the latter better known for producing the classic British cult shocker The Wicker Man (1973).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan