Mother Load is an entertaining modern spin on the gold-seeking adventurer sub-genre directed by and starring Charlton Heston. It blends suspense and horror elements into its plot about modern day gold miners. It makes the most out of its remote British Colombian locations, claustrophobic gold mine settings, and larger than life Heston performance, resulting in a film that is at times a bit stagey and old-fashioned, but is always solidly entertaining. It is presented on DVD with a very good video representation of its very dark cinematography marred only by some occasional instances of contrast banding. The disc includes only one special feature, but it is a good one: an extended interview with writer/producer Fraser Heston, who reminisces about nearly all aspects of the film's production.
Directed By: Charlton Heston
Starring: Charlton Heston, Nick Mancuso, Kim Basinger, John Marley
The Film ***½
Mother Lode tells the story of Gene DuPre (Mancuso) and Andrea Spalding (Basinger), who head into the Canadian wilderness in a rickety sea plane when their friend George Patterson goes missing. The reckless Gene's motivations seem to be as much about locating a source of gold for which George was looking as about finding George himself. After an aviation mishap, Gene and Andrea find themselves stranded in a remote location and somewhat at the mercy of grizzled Scottish miner Silas McGee (Heston) who seems to be keeping a number of secrets from them. Gene becomes convinced that Silas is hiding the fact that his mine is full of gold, and his obsession may be presenting him from realizing some more immediate and dangerous secrets that McGee is keeping from them.
The second theatrical feature to be directed by Charlton Heston, Mother Lode is an underrated blend of adventure, suspense, and horror set in a novel pressure cooker environment. The thought of Charlton Heston circa the early 1980s affecting a thick Scottish brogue for his role as a grizzled miner sounds like a recipe for camp, but for reasons I cannot fully explain, it actually works. The slightly crazed and theatrical nature of the Silas McGee character actually ups the viewer's sense of jeopardy. Heston total commitment to the role certainly helps. He may be laying his brogue on a bit thick, but he is consistent with it from scene to scene, which puts him at least a step ahead of Kim Basinger, appearing in only her second film at the time, who seems to slip in and out of her natural Georgian accent from scene to scene. Nick Mancuso's Gene is relatable and sympathetic without necessary being likable, which is exactly what his role requires. Viewers get the sense that he is heading towards a "Pardoner's Tale"-style self-destruction, but still relate to him enough to want to see if he can pull himself out of his greed-induce tailspin.
The British Columbian locations should almost get a casting credit as they feel like a character in the film. The production design cleverly integrates props and sets with the extensive location photography. The exterior of Silas McGee's house is cleverly integrated with the mountains, mines, and surrounding forest in a style that I would call "sloppy Hobbit". The mine shaft sets were all created in a studio, but are impressively authentic and appropriately claustrophobic. The film probably seemed a bit old-fashioned when it came out, and will certainly seem so today, but I would not consider "old-fashioned" to be a pejorative phrase in this case. Other than a handful of passages of synthesizer score and a couple of crude optical effects, there is nothing in the film that really dates it in a negative way, and it holds up as an underseen gem in the latter part of Charlton Heston's extensive resume.
The Video ****
To quote George Carlin: The forecast for tonight is "dark". The 16:9 enhanced presentation letterboxed to the films original 2.4:1 aspect ratio is dominated by shadows due to the frequent deep woods and mine shaft settings. The tricky cinematography is rendered solidly on video with good detail, light natural film grain, deep blacks and a larger range of contrast than was typical of most early 1980s films. The only unpleasant artifact is the occasional appearance of contrast banding around bright point sources in some of the otherwise very dark scenes.
The Audio ***
Audio comes courtesy of a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. It is a solid if unremarkable mono mix with decent dynamic and a clear presentation of the film's music score which sometime alternates awkwardly between traditional orchestral sounds and 80s-style synthesizer passages. There are no alternate langage dubs.
The Extras **½
The only extra on the disc is an extended interview piece called Behind the Scenes with Fraser C. Heston (29:51). It is presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 16:9 with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound:
Heston, who was a Writer/Producer on the film offers extensive on-camera comments on the making of the film accompanied by extended clips from the movie and occasional archival still images. Topics covered include the origin of the project as an independent production, the approach of the filmmakers, the choice of his father as a Director/Star, his working relatinship with his father, the casting of Mancuso, Basinger, and Marley, his thoughts on the film's ending (spoiler alert - watch the film before this interview), filming in the Canadian wilderness outside of Vancouver, the mine sets, a special movable/rotatable tunnel/shaft, the cabin exterior and interiors set, the Underwater cave, Stunt Coordinator and Second Unit Director Joe Canutt, incorporating an accidental plane crash into the film's plot, the ax fight scene, Editor Eric Boyd-Perkins, Optical effects shots, aptly named Director of Photography Richard Leiterman, the dark look of the film and related tricky lighting set-ups, the traditional and synthesizer elements of the Kenneth Wannberg score, and the melding of suspense and horror elements into the film.
The disc is enclosed in a standard DVD case with die-cut holes to reduce plastic use and no inserts..