A peculiar blend of genres, mixing contemporary Western and horror movie elements, Mother Lode (1982) was Charlton Heston's last theatrical feature as a leading man, and no wonder. At times it's genuinely creepy and deals with the interesting, largely unexplored subject of hermit-like gold miners in remote British Columbia, but it's a career-killer of a movie with zero commercial appeal. One can't help but wonder to whom this movie was targeted. Even the DVD struggles to sell the film, its back cover quoting a memorably delivered line from the picture: "You stay the hell out of my mine, laddie!"
Mother Lode was a family affair. Charlton Heston directed, while among others son Fraser Clarke Heston produced it and wrote the script, and Fraser's actress mother Lydia, Charlton's wife, is credited as still photographer. The family firm, Agamemnon Films, produced the film, and along with several other long-lost titles it's been licensed for distribution through Warner Home Video.
The 16:9 enhanced transfer is excellent, though the mono audio isn't properly mixed, with the music and effects track drowning out all the dialogue. Fraser Clarke Heston appears in an appealing featurette about the making of the movie.
Two unusually ugly one-sheets. They couldn't have helped the movie's chances at the box-office
In the featurette Fraser Heston admits to being heavily influenced by John Huston's masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) though structurally the film is like a Canuck version of Peter Benchley's The Deep: young adventurer becomes obsessed with buried treasure; voluptuous girlfriend wants to pack up and go home; eccentric but experienced treasure hunter manipulates them both.
Loose cannon Cessna pilot Jean Dupre (Nick Mancuso) is hired by Andrea Spalding (Kim Basinger, in only her second movie) to search for her husband, who mysteriously disappeared after looking for gold in northern British Columbia.
Jean, believing Andrea's husband struck it rich and abandoned his wife, himself quickly becomes obsessed with finding this heretofore-untapped mother lode. He sells his house, using the money to buy a broken-down plane and prospecting equipment. The two head north but their plane crashes spectacularly, cartwheeling on the water's surface. (And for real. It was an unplanned crash landing. No one was injured, and luckily it was caught on film.) Jean and Andrea meet an old Indian fisherman, Elijah (John Marley), but don't heed his advice to hightail it back to civilization.
Instead, they encounter Silas McGee (Charlton Heston), a filthy, bearded Scotsman claiming to have spent the past 30 years mining silver. He gives the couple a tour of his private mine, with its claustrophobic tunnels, creaking and rotting support beams, and water from the nearby river slowly leaking in, flooding the mine. Silas is clearly nuts in a Ted Kaczynski sort of way, paranoid about Jean and Andrea muscling in on his claim (though not without good reason, as things turn out). Later that night, Andrea is attacked by someone that, it's explained later, might be Ian McGee (also Heston), Silas's supposedly even crazier look-alike brother.
Mother Lode is a real oddity that's occasionally extremely effective, such as a scene where Silas casually lights a three-minute fuse to some dynamite, calmly playing "chicken" with Jean, seeing who'll first bolt down the tunnel to safety. Heston, with credible if thick Scottish burr, is certainly colorful and imposing but no one seems to have considered that he might also come off as a bit silly, like the haggard "It's" man Michael Palin played on Monty Python's Flying Circus. Silas is clearly crackers the moment he's introduced, a good half-hour into the film; a subtler approach to the character might have worked better.
On the other hand, Heston clearly is having a whale of a time with the character, and this isn't entirely lost on his legions of fans. That said, his fans preferred him playing larger than life historical and biblical characters, and later on as cynical antiheroes in sci-fi and disaster movies. To his credit and unlike many big stars he embraced unlikable but interesting characters, such as the self-involved, aging quarterback he played very well in the underrated Number One (1969). But Silas (and for that matter, Ian) are all color with no shading.
Unexpectedly, the movie works best as a thriller with psychopath Silas (or is it Ian?) stalking Jean and Andrea down dark and dank mine shafts, which impressively never look like sets and are always very realistic, or lying in wait in his even darker backwoods cabin, a hovel overgrown with nature. (The movie must have looked awful at drive-ins and on VHS. Half the picture takes place in the dark.) There are several good shocks and both the forest exteriors and mine interiors maintain an unsettling atmosphere.
Once he became a star Heston was always very actively involved in the development and production of his films, which served him well on the two he helmed himself, this and the unjustly maligned Antony and Cleopatra (1972), both of which are well-directed though not without other problems.
Visually Mother Lode is handsome and makes effective use of the Canadian wilderness. The second unit work of Joe Canutt, another longtime Heston collaborator, is striking, with some terrific aerial footage he supervised.
After Mother Lode Heston top-lined The Colbys, a Dynasty spin-off, starred in several critically lauded TV movies for Ted Turner, then turned his attentions to other things like his long affiliation with the National Rifle Association. He'd occasionally make very welcome guest appearances in films like Tombstone (1993) and Hamlet (1996), but always in brief supporting parts. Of his generation only Paul Newman, who got his start in movies a few years after Heston did, lasted longer as a leading man in movies. It's a shame Heston's run as a leading man ended so ignominiously, and that he wasn't able to continue playing the sorts of movie roles that suited him best. He's missed.
Video & Audio
Filmed in 'scope, Mother Lode features a very nice 16:9 enhanced transfer that's sharp with decent blacks so that the picture's many dark scenes hold up. The Dolby Digital mono (English only) is a problem, though. The music and effects track is mixed way too high to the point where it drowns out the dialogue, often barely spoken above a whisper. This had me constantly adjusting the volume via my remote. The region 1, dual-layered disc includes optional English SDH and French subtitles.
The only supplement is an extended interview with Fraser Clarke Heston, whose shares his warm memories of making the film and of working with his famous father. It's pleasantly informative without being especially introspective or critical.
A must for Charlton Heston fans but a real head-scratcher for everyone else, Mother Lode splits the difference with a Rent It, that is unless treasure hunters vs. psychopathic, axe-swinging mountain men is your cup of tea, laddie.
Kyoto-based film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.