A rural horror film and cannibal fable with a sizable cult following, 1980’s MOTEL HELL now sees Blu-ray/DVD treatment from Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory arm, and fits perfectly into their every growing stable of genre titles.
In a backwoods town where the police force seems to be made up of one individual, the aging Farmer Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun, NIGHT OF THE LEPUS) and his plump young sister Ida (Nancy Parsons, PORKY’S) live on a farm and run a stayover called “Motel Hello” (emphasized by a bright neon sign where the “O” in “Hello” perennially flickers). He also runs a business (available only to folks within a 100 mile radius) of smoked meats with his “Farmer Vincent” moniker and likeness all over the product. One night while out and up to no good, Vincent witnesses a motorcycle accident involving pretty young blonde Terry (Nina Axelrod, ROLLER BOOGIE) and her much older boyfriend Boris (stuntman Everett Creach, PROPHECY). Vincent takes a liking to Terry, taking her to his home to recover, but tells her that her man died in the accident and that he’s buried in the nearby cemetery. The truth is, Boris is alive and has been buried up to the neck in Vincent’s and Ida’s secret garden, where other human victims are kept in the same state, all with their vocal chords removed and a sack placed over their heads. This form of livestock provides the secret ingredient in Vincent’s meat products: human flesh!
Using such techniques as bear traps to slash tires and wood-carved cow roadblocks to sucker motorists, Vincent finds ample fodder for his slaughterhouse/smokehouse, and with his little brother Bruce (Paul Linke, “CHIPs”) being the oblivious young sheriff, the term “getting away with murder” has never before rung so true. Adjusting to the loss of her beau, Terry stays on at the Smith motel under Vincent’s and Ida’s dubious custody, while little bro Bruce becomes increasingly smitten with her, even taking her to lover’s lane in his police car (where they eye THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD playing at a drive-in from a far). But Terry is more drawn to Vincent’s fatherly charms and since her elder suitor doesn’t believe in sex before marriage, they end up getting hitched. Of course Bruce objects, but he’s tangled up in his investigations, which may finally cancel out his ignorance and uncover his siblings’ heinous crimes, all in the name of quality meat products and overpopulation!
Produced and written by brothers Robert and Steve-Charles Jaffe, MOTEL HELL was the first American feature from British director Kevin Connor, and it’s much different than the family-friendly fantasy adventures he was known for in the previous decade. It’s a dark comedy played fairly straight, and the thin line between horror and humor actually works well in its favor. The lead demented characters played by Calhoun and Parsons are fleshed out well; disturbing and funny while not overly campy (Parson’s glutinous Ida could have been especially grotesque), and while most of the film’s other characters are cartoonish, it all gels together for a memorable bit of early 1980s exploitation more in the vein of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE rather than FRIDAY THE 13TH. The overalls-wearing Vincent and Ida also spurt great lines like “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters” and “Meat’s meat and man’s got to eat”, which are actually more like slogans in their deranged family (the late grandmother apparently indulged in feasting on the family dog). Although there is some gore about, things never tend to go overboard on the graphic scale, yet the whole concept of the voiceless victims buried up to their necks (with tape covering the slipshod stitch-up job) and force-fed through a tube is hard to forget. There’s also a climatic chainsaw duel where one character wears a pig’s head mask, which accounts for the film’s most familiar imagery, gracing the cover of Fangoria Magazine as well as the newly commissioned artwork for this release (the pig-masked chainsaw character also became a licensed Halloween costume and small-scale action figure).
Legendary radio personality Wolfman Jack (AMERICAN GRAFFITI) makes an amusing cameo as a white-suited reverend constantly preaching on the local TV, and there’s a great bit where he confiscates a dirty men’s magazine from Sheriff Bruce (as director Conner mentions in the commentary, the Wolfman had an opening scene in a church which was cut from the final film, but stills from it can be found in the extras). Actor John Ratzenberger (later an Emmy-nominated member of the ensemble cast of TV’s “Cheers”) appears in a non-speaking role as a drummer in traveling rock band called “Ivan and the Terribles” ( Connecticut-born Ratzenberger had worked with Conner while in England, appearing in WARLORDS OF THE DEEP and ARABIAN ADVENTURE). Broadway bombshell and 1970s TV game show mainstay Elaine Joyce (whose first husband, entertainer Bobby Van, died the same year this film was released) is cast as sexed-up swinger, who along with her cross-dressing partner (Dick Curtis, who also doubles here as a TV evangelist) erroneously end up at Farmer Vincent’s motel for some kinky couple-swapping thrills. A melodic and surprisingly thoughtful score (considering the film's subject matter) is offered by Lance Rubin, who mostly worked in television.
MOTEL HELL was previously available on DVD as part of MGM’s now-defunct “Midnite Movies” line (on a double feature disc with DERANGED, which we hope Scream Factory might consider for a future Blu-ray edition) and last year, Arrow Films in the UK used MGM’s HD master for their own Blu-ray release. Now, Scream Factory does the same for U.S. fans, and the video presentation on this "Collector's Edition" matches the excellence of the extras. MOTEL HELL is presented in full 1080p High Definition, preserving the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This edition is a major improvement over the previous MGM disc, as there’s now an extreme amount of picture detail, and great-looking textures, especially in a lot of the night-time scenes such as the “secret garden” bits, adding a lot of revelation to the presentation on a whole. Flesh tones are distinct and colors have punch, giving the film a comic book appearance not seen in previous home video transfers. Dirt and debris on the source elements are minimal and when filmic grain is on display, it looks nice and natural. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is perfectly serviceable, with clear dialogue, music and effects. The accompanying standard definition DVD (from the same HD transfer) presents the film anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with a Dolby Digital Stereo track. English subtitles are included on both the Blu-ray and DVD.
An audio commentary is included with director Connor, moderated by filmmaker and longtime MOTEL HELL fan Dave Parker (THE HILLS RUN RED). Connor talks about coming to the U.S. from England in 1980, getting the job on this film from the producers who were fans of his first film, Amicus’ FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. Connor reveals how he requested some truly juvenile material from the script be removed (including a bit with a woman in bed with a pig and a dildo), and just do the film as a dark comedy, no doubt the right decision. Connor remembers a lot about the five-week shoot, revealing much information about the production, including that Harry Dean Stanton was wanted for the Farmer Vincent role (which he turned down), but goes on to state that perceived “rebel rouser” Calhoun was cast and that he thought he “pulled it off beautifully”. Connor also mentions how he stepped into the horror genre back in England (briefly touching upon working with Peter Cushing) and his first meeting with Ratzenberger at Pinewood Studios and their consistent working together. Connor has many nice things to say about the cast (Parsons wholeheartedly approached her role and was a serious actress who had fun with the part) and assures us that the intent of the film was not to make a common slasher movie. Parker well moderates the conversation and makes all the essential inquiries, so it’s definitely a good listen.
“It Takes All Kinds: The Making of Motel Hell” (24:32) has interviews with writers/producers Robert Jaffe and Steve-Charles Jaffe (both seasoned fans who grew up watching horror films on “Million Dollar Movie”) who talk about how some dark moments and various fears from their childhood came through in the screenplay for the film. Kevin Connor expresses how glad he was to get the job and how he got on famously with the two brothers, who actually wanted a British director, and his approach when directing. The casting, locations and the fact that United Artists wanted a straight slasher movie, are also discussed. Actor Marc Silver (who plays one of the doomed members of the “Ivan and the Terribles” band) is also interviewed, sharing his experiences on the film. “Shooting Old School” (15:45) is an interview with cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth who starts off by expressing how people gravitate towards horror films, something that will never change. Impressed by MOTEL HELL’s script, he was hired by Connor, who he got on very well with and sadly, his wife passed away during production but he decided to stay on the shoot when he had a chance to exit the production. Among other subjects, Del Ruth tells an anecdote about meeting Calhoun on an earlier occasion, and shooting the famous chainsaw scene.
The last three featurettes were produced for Arrow Films' 2013 UK Blu-ray release. “Another Head on the Chopping Block: Interview with star Paul Linke” (14:51) has the actor telling us that he went to college with Robert Jaffe and says that the part of Bruce was specifically written for him. He recalls how the comedy was toned down a great deal from the original script, and has good things to say about his co-stars and describes the fun he had being the hero in the chainsaw scene. “Ida, Be Thy Name: A look back at Motel Hell’s Frightful Female Protagonist Ida Smith” (18:08) has interviews with critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg, “Scream Queens” Elissa Dowling and Chantelle Albers, and genre commentator Staci Layne Wilson as they examine the unattractive and “asexual” character at hand and other notable female horror villains (clips from BLACK SUNDAY and SPIDER BABY are shown here). “From Glamour to Gore: Rosanne Katon Remembers MOTEL HELL” (11:28) is an interview with the actress who plays a prostitute victim in the film (alongside another former Playboy Playmate, Monique St. Pierre). Katon talks about her start in films, modeling for Playboy, and that she always loved horror films but found little work in the genre during those days, so she was adamant about getting the part in MOTEL HELL (which she appears to have had a ton of fun making). The original United Artists theatrical trailer is included, as are two different still galleries (a behind-the-scenes gallery and poster and production shots gallery) as well as trailers for other Scream Factory releases (THE FOG, TERROR TRAIN, WITHOUT WARNING). The cover inlay slip is reversible, revealing the original U.S. poster art on the opposite side. (George R. Reis)
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