The Film: 4/5
Farmer Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) own and operate the Motel Hello in the small Southern town of Grainsville. They also make and sell the finest smoked meats in the area. The townspeople and visitors to the motel all sing the praises of Vincent's delicious meat products, the taste of which Vincent attributes to a secret ingredient. That ingredient turns out to be the flesh of travelers he and Ida capture with a variety of ingenious traps. Once they're caught the victims have their vocal cords slashed so they can't talk or scream and are buried up to their necks in a secret garden not far from the motel. Vincent and Ida fatten their "animals" up until they're ready for the slaughter, then they break their necks and bring them to the smokehouse for preparation. One night Vincent shoots out the tires of a passing couple on the motorcycle and immediately becomes taken with the unconscious female on the bike, Terry (Nina Axelrod). He takes her back to the motel and despite Ida's suspicions he nurses her back to the health while keeping her in the dark about who he is and how she got there. Soon Terry falls in love with Vincent and the two of them plan on getting married, which immediately arouses the ire of Sheriff Bruce (Paul Linke), Vincent and Ida's jealous younger brother. Bruce begins to suspect the worse about his siblings and investigates their devious practices. Once he and Terry discover the special ingredient that makes Farmer Vincent's fritters such a down home delicacy they may be next on the chopping block.
1980's horror movies rarely come crazier and more inspired than Motel Hell. Born into unsuspecting theaters in 1980 at the height of the slasher movie boom, the brainchild of writers Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe and British journeyman director Kevin Connor surprised gore-hungry moviegoers by lovingly spoofing the backwoods horror genre that had been in vogue since the blockbuster release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre only six years before. Combining horror and comedy was nothing new at the time, and future movies like An American Werewolf in London and Night of the Creeps would follow suit with mostly positive results, but Motel Hell succeeded by luring in viewers with the promise of gruesome thrills and then proceeding to give them a movie that delivered on that promise in spades while running a wicked burn on the very kind of flick they had been expecting all along. The film was bankrolled by United Artists, once one of the most respected studios in Hollywood, at a time when the company was up to its ass in mounting production costs on Michael Cimino's esoteric western Heaven's Gate. Motel Hell not only outgrossed Cimino's epic at the box office but turned a tidy profit for the studio as well, which unfortunately couldn't save UA from being bought out by MGM the next year.
The Jaffes' screenplay for Motel Hell is luridly imaginative and in spots laugh out loud hilarious, and Connor's direction approaches a Southern Gothic style if it had been appropriated temporarily by Dario Argento. The story is mainly focused on Vincent, Ida, Bruce, and Terry, with the remaining characters being an endless freak show of obnoxious tourists and travelers with little in the way of redeeming traits we can't wait to see turned into one of Vincent's sensibly-priced sampler packs. There are times when Motel Hell takes a trip into bizarre territory that would be ideally at home in the movies of Paul Bartel and Russ Meyer. An extended sequence where the Smith sibs go about their nightly routine of chopping up their human cattle into pork by-products straddles a thin line between disturbing horror and offbeat humor. Legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack could be seen from deep space playing the town's flamboyant, pious hypocrite of a reverend for one brief but goofy scene that would be out of place in most horror movies made in any decade but feels just right in Motel Hell. Such grotesqueries give the movie an identity that makes it stand out from the rest of the scare flicks about ravenous rednecks that oozed into theaters at an alarming rate in the wake of the success of Chainsaw Massacre.
What really brings the story to life is the casting. Who would have ever thought to give the role of the murderous country entrepreneur Farmer Vincent to Rory Calhoun, the lean, rawboned icon of silver screen westerns? In his prime Calhoun was Clint Eastwood before Eastwood even existed, but with the collapse of the old-fashioned studio system and the rise of New Hollywood there seemed to be no place for Calhoun in the grand scheme of things. Ironic it is that Motel Hell features one of the best performances the actor ever gave in his stellar career in film and television. On the written page Vincent is already an interesting and multi-layered character; rather than making him another slobbering, blood-crazed hillbilly lunatic you would cross the Salt Lake Flats to avoid, the Jaffes crafted Vincent to be a charming and affable gentleman who is passionate about the things he loves, including the making of his smoked meats. Calhoun is a perfect fit for the role, bringing nearly four decades of acting experience and a quiet charisma honed by his years working in Golden Age Hollywood to Vincent. He makes the farmer an honest and surprisingly moral individual who is quick to defend the practices that define his business in eloquent monologues that make a strange kind of sense if you give them consideration. After all, we are a society that is dedicated to eating itself into oblivion just as long as we go to our final reward after slipping into a carbohydrate coma. Vincent is tender in his interactions with Terry, brotherly and businesslike with Ida, and his tolerance of Bruce has its obvious limits just like any older and responsible brother has with their fuck-up siblings.
And oh yeah is Bruce a major fuck-up. Even though he carries the title of town sheriff Bruce is not above attempting to force himself on Terry (at least he understands that "no" means no) or enjoy a copy of Hustler while sitting in his squad car in broad daylight. Paul Linke's performance makes Bruce a somewhat likeable character despite his overabundance of flaws by bringing his better traits to the forefront and in the process helping us to understand that deep down Bruce is just an average guy. He's just like you and I and not at all the traditional horror movie hero, and that's okay with me. In fact I love that his motivation for uncovering the secret of Vincent's smoked meats is not to see justice done but because he's jealous that Terry prefers his brother to him. When Bruce is forced to chainsaw duel with a pig head-wearing Vincent in the sweaty, intense finale the battle takes on Biblical overtones, the reckless younger man forced to rise up and destroy his beyond redemption older sibling. There are few climatic battles in horror films with the emotional and dramatic weight of the Smith brother's flesh-ripping fight to the death, which Connor and his director of photography Thomas Del Ruth (The Running Man) shoot primarily with extreme close-ups that put us right in the thick of the confrontation.
I would wager that Nancy Parsons' Ida Smith is the more downright evil of Motel Hell's villainous duo, though she thankfully refrains from cackling like a mad witch. Parsons, who is probably best known for playing the vicious gym teacher Balbricker in the Porky's movies, has a natural sweetness about her that shines through in Ida's homespun attitude towards everything she does. At times she reminds me of a few distant relatives in my own family. You can also see through Parsons' wonderful portrayal the innate emotional vulnerability in Ida; her suspicions of Terry and the actions she later takes against the new woman in her brother's life are motivated not just out of a desire to protect the family business but also out of fear that Terry will replace her as the most important person in Vincent's life. To that extent one could almost empathize with if not condone what she does, which adds extra layers of complexity to the story. Nina Axelrod, as the fourth and final of Motel Hell's integral characters Terry, is given little to do but be a damsel in distress. Half of her scenes involve being rescued from events beyond her control, from a motorcycle crash in the beginning that first brings her to Vincent's attention to Ida trying to drown her in a lake on an idyllic sunny afternoon. True to form Terry ends up tied to a conveyor belt slowly approaching a roaring buzz saw while Bruce and Vincent battle it out , just like the helpless heroine of a silent adventure movie. Fortunately Axelrod's combination of pathos and warmth makes her a relatable presence rather than an annoying one, though it is a bit of stretch to have her almost instantly fall in love with a man she barely knows and even marry him despite coming into his life under questionable circumstances.
Speaking of that chainsaw duel I mentioned earlier, Tobe Hooper (who was originally attached to direct Motel Hell when the project was at Universal Pictures) finally got around to making Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 six years after the release of Motel Hell. He inadvertently paid homage to the movie that owed a huge debt to his original masterpiece of sustained terror by closing his comic horror sequel out with a spectacular chainsaw duel.
Motel Hell is presented on this Blu-ray by Arrow Films in a brand new 1080p high-definition remaster of the print restored by current rights holder MGM in its original 1.85:1 theatrical widescreen aspect ratio. The movie was shot in spherical Panavision 35mm. The quality of the transfer is superb if not a vast improvement over the one that was included on Motel Hell's first DVD release from 2002. The garish color scheme prevalent in the night scenes and the grisly finale are amply vibrant and there is very little noticeable print damage. The grain content is reduced from the previous DVD transfer but not too much. Motel Hell has also been given an uncompressed English 2.0 PCM stereo audio track that balances out the volume levels on the dialogue and sound effects mixes but gives too much strength at times to Lance Rubin's blaring, overdramatic music score. English subtitles have also been included.
Arrow has given us another UK-exclusive bounty of informative and entertaining bonus features in collaboration with Calum Waddell, who starts off by moderating a new audio commentary with director Kevin Connor. The director makes for an interesting speaker as he discusses how he became involved with Motel Hell, the making of the movie, and his thoughts on the film today. Waddell peppers him with some choice questions that keeps the commentary fresh and fascinating with little dead air. Solid work and a very enjoyable listen.
Co-star Paul Linke is the focus of "Another Head for the Chopping Block" (15 minutes), a comprehensive interview where he shares stories about how he came to be involved with Motel Hell (the role of Bruce had been written for him), having to lose weight and wear a girdle for the movie, and the extensive work he's done in the theater since. He also briefly touches on being a member of the cast of CHiPS while simultaneously starring in Motel Hell. Linke admits to thinking the movie doesn't always work as well as it should (I respectfully disagree) but he clearly enjoys the adulation he receives from fans he meets everywhere he goes.
Actress and Playboy Playmate Rosanne Katon had a bit role as one of Vincent and Ida's "animals" and she shares her recollections of working on Motel Hell as well as a modest overview of her acting career in "From Glamour to Gore" (11 minutes).
In "Ida, Be Thy Name" (18 minutes), the character played by Nancy Parsons and other notable female villains in horror films are explored and dissected by critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg. genre commentator Staci Layne Wilson, and .... ahem.... "Scream Queens" Elissa Dowling and Chantelle Albers. Clips from Motel Hell and other Arrow releases Black Sunday and Spider Baby (the latter coming to Blu-ray next month) are edited in with the interview segments. This isn't the most engrossing featurette given the relative importance of the subject matter but you might come away from watching it with a more enlightened perspective on women in horror who aren't weeping victims or self-assured heroines.
Dave Parker, the director of The Hills Run Red and The Dead Hate the Living and the screenwriter of Uwe Boll's first video game movie travesty House of the Dead, talks about the impact Motel Hell has had on his life and career in filmmaking in "Back to the Backwoods" (10 minutes). I haven't seen any of this guy's movies so to me this is little more than a fan appreciation video, but Parker makes no bones about his undying love for the movie. You may find that love a little infectious. I didn't, but that's only because I already love Motel Hell.
The original theatrical trailer closes out the supplements on the actual disc. Arrow has also included a collector's booklet featuring a new essay about Motel Hell written by British film writer Kim Newman, archive stills and posters, excerpts from a comic book based on the movie, and an interview with its artist Chris Moreno. The disc comes with a reversible cover sleeve with the original poster art on one side and a newly commissioned piece by Jeff Zornow on the other.
A DVD copy featuring a standard definition presentation of the movie and all of the accompanying bonus features has also been included.
Long overlooked but never undervalued, Motel Hell looks and sounds better than ever before on this excellent new Blu-ray release from Arrow Films. Maybe now this brazen and satirical love poem to the backwoods horror genre can find a wider audience than the majority of its overrated peers.