Directed by Kevin Connor
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Of all the genres in cinema, the two that elicit perhaps the greatest response from audiences are horror and comedy. Fear and laughter are universal, but they can also be two of the most difficult emotions to properly provoke in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, as far as genre mashups go, few complement each other as well as these two. Many of horror’s most celebrated films are darkly humorous – Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987), Re-Animator (1960), Return of the Living Dead (1960), to name but a few.
Some films play it straight, others keep it grim, but the ones that eschew tongue-in-cheek humor usually wind up playing more horrifically. Films that produce those moments of gallows humor so pitch black you aren’t sure whether to be disturbed or delirious with laughter. A perfect example of this would be Tobe Hooper’s seminal landmark of horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), where the comedy is so dark, peppered in between scenes of sheer terror, that for some viewers it simply goes right over their heads. When Drayton is zapping Sally with that cattle prod, he exhibits a wry smile, which should break the tension and allow for a bit of levity, yet it’s done with such subtly we aren’t sure whether to admonish his actions or laugh along with him. Hooper never plays the comedic aspects overtly, a trait that made him the perfect candidate for a similar film being set up at Universal some years later.
Of course, he never wound up directing that film, Motel Hell (1980), mainly due to the fact that Universal backed out after finding the script to be too bizarre and dark; and, also, because the subject matter was very similar to what he’d done just a few years earlier with Chain Saw. The project went into turnaround for a couple of years before being offered to English director Kevin Connor, who took on the job with one stipulation: that it be made as a black comedy. The film’s producers agreed, and Connor delivered a darkly humorous film, played straight, replete with equal parts hilarity and horror. Anchored by two stellar performances, especially the late Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent, the picture has been a strongly supported cult classic for over three decades.
Nobody smokes meat like Farmer Vincent, and it takes all kinds of critters to make his fritters. Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons), run the Motel Hello (the “O” flickers out an awful lot), a quaint little property on a farm, surrounded by trees and nature. It’s a countryside gem, supported by the profits generated from Vincent’s meat smoking business. The secret is in the meat, which happens to be human flesh. In order to keep a steady supply of flesh on hand, Vincent has booby trapped the land around his motel, catching passersby and tourists using various devices. But he doesn’t kill them right away; oh no. Vince has to make sure his meat stays fresh, and he does this by knocking his victims out with chloroform, burying them up to the neck in dirt, and slicing their vocal chords so the only sounds they can make are gurgling & guttural. Out on the hunt one night, he shoots out the tires on a motorcycle and takes out a couple. The man he decides to “plant” for use later, but the woman, Terry (Nina Axelrod), sure is purty. He takes her back home and cares for her, nursing her back to health. When she asks him about her companion, Vince says he died quickly and was buried the next morning, even taking her to his (false) gravesite.
Vincent and Ida’s younger brother, Bruce (Paul Linke), the town sheriff, stops by and immediately takes a liking to Terry, too. It would seem Bruce is in on the family business, but in reality he’s just a complete dimwit who is oblivious to his brother’s actions. Not that you can blame him, since Vincent is the most affable, altruistic old man this side of the Mississippi. Terry, despite seeming completely healed, decides to stay on at the motel a while longer, giving Vincent the idea that she’d be perfect to take over the family business. Bruce, however, also finds Terry to be an ideal mate, leading to a quarrel between the brothers. This should be an easy decision for Terry, however, since her one date with Bruce ended with him attempting to pretty much rape her before leaving to answer a distress call. And then Terry tells him she “had a good time” at the end of the night! Talk about mixed signals. Vincent arranges for him and Terry to get married, but Ida gets jealous, leading to a wild night of double crosses, escaped victims uprising against their captors, and the best damn chainsaw duel ever committed to celluloid.
“Meat’s meat and a man’s gotta eat!” Words to live by; words that Vincent lived by. Each of the film’s principal cast members are perfectly fit for their respective roles, but Calhoun is the one who carries this picture. The loveable ol’ cowboy was best known for his role on CBS’ “The Texan”, which ran from 1958-1960. Calhoun had a recognizable face and minor acclaim, but he never quite rose above the ranks of B-level status. In that respect, it seems fitting he would appear in a string of B-movies during the twilight years of his career, which included roles in the infamous killer rabbit opus Night of the Lepus (1972) and everyone’s second-favorite Roddy Piper film, Hell Comes to Frogtown (1987). As Farmer Vincent, he’s sweet as a peach, approaching every situation with an ever-present smile… even, and especially, when he’s about to off someone. It’d be like if you found out your sweet old grandpa was in reality a deranged maniac. Vincent sets his victims at ease before quietly gassing them out and then it’s off to the garden. The onus of success rests squarely on his broad shoulders, and Calhoun delivers. Speaking of delivery, he unquestionably has the greatest line of the film, delivered just before the credits roll, when he makes a startling confession.
Almost forgot, I’d be remiss not to mention the late, great DJ Wolfman Jack’s appearance as a TV evangelist who dresses to the nines in pure white. He, too, has one of the film’s best moments when he confiscates a copy of Hustler from Bruce, offering to “dispose of it properly” for him. Wolfman’s role is very minor, but certainly memorable.
Director Kevin Connor had already helmed a few notable genre releases in his native England before moving over to America for his stateside debut on Motel Hell. His feature film debut was the well-received Amicus horror anthology, From Beyond the Grave (1974), which was followed by minor cult classics like The Land That Time Forgot (1975), its sequel The People That Time Forgot (1977), and At the Earth’s Core (1976). Surprisingly (or maybe not, if he was looking to avoid being pigeonholed), he only made one other horror film after Motel Hell, 1982’s The House Where Evil Dwells, before dropping off the cinematic radar entirely for a long career in television. His decision to shoot the humor of Motel Hell seriously is a large part of why it has held up so well, because this could have easily been a goofy affair were it not for the deadpan delivery and ambiguous humor. Just as with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the humor runs as an undercurrent through the picture, always present but never directly pandering to audiences, until, perhaps, the very end. In many ways, Motel Hell is the perfect companion film to Hooper’s masterpiece, with an ending no less memorable. Even those who have never seen the film know the one iconic image it produced – Farmer Vincent, wearing an oversized severed pig’s head, wielding a massive chainsaw.
Motel Hell received a solid Blu-ray release just recently, from Arrow Video over in the UK, and this edition looks to be using the same transfer, which is a good thing. The film’s 1.60:1 1080p picture is heads above the previous R1 DVD release. The print used is in great shape, exhibiting only minor white flecks that appear very sporadically. Given the low-budget roots, this is likely the best it could ever hope to look. A moderate sheen of grain covers the image, maintaining the lo-fi aesthetic nicely. Colors are reproduced well, though perhaps they’re a bit muted at times. Black levels look slightly hazy during some scenes, though in others they’re perfectly acceptable and dark. Daylight shots look best, allowing for maximum detail to show through. Definition gets the biggest boost here, from the sharp lines on Vincent’s red pickup truck to a pair of leather boots or the texture on a burlap sack. There is no evidence of DNR or any other post-processing attempt to clean up the image artificially.
Scream Factory makes the most of the English DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track, even if the end result is still a bit thin and flat. While it may lack in presence, the track does offer up good – not great – fidelity, with dialogue presented clean & clear, even if it is a little low in the mix at times. The real treat here is composer Lance Rubin’s score, which is a hodgepodge of sweet ol’ Southern twang, electronic synth cues and frenzied action once the climax has been reached. The source music country tracks are a perfect fit for this deep fried black comedy. What it lacks in range and immersion, it makes up for in style and substance. Subtitles are included in English.
Now, on to the real meat of this package: the supplements. If you’re a current owner of the MGM Midnight Movies double feature DVD, then you will rejoice at the wealth of bonus material here; however, if you went ahead and bought the Arrow BD release then you’re likely wondering if there’s anything new, missing or ported over. And the answer is yes.
This disc brings over all of the bonus materials found on Arrow’s release save for one (maybe two, if you’re picky): a retrospective featurette featuring filmmaker Dave Parker talking about Motel Hell, and a commentary track with director Kevin Connor moderated by Calum Waddell. The latter feature barely counts since this disc also has a commentary with Connor, just with a different moderator. Additionally, there are plenty of interviews, featurettes, trailers, and more included here.
An audio commentary with director Kevin Connor, moderated by Dave Parker, kicks things off. This is a solid track, with Parker asking the right questions to coax a great deal of anecdotal information out of Connor, such as the fact he wanted Harry Dean Stanton for the lead role of Farmer Vincent but he got turned down. Parker is clearly a huge fan of the film, and his infectious enthusiasm for the project imbues the track with a good energy. It Takes All Kinds – The Making of Motel Hell covers all of the requisite behind-the-scenes basics of getting the film made, from the initial start as a very sinister, dark script right up to Connor’s involvement and everything after. Shooting Old School with Thomas del Ruth is an interview with the film’s director of photography, who gets very personal here, starting off with discussing how his wife’s death caused him to just delve deep into his work.
From there, the discussion turns to how he shot this film, lighting decisions, etc. Ida, Be Thy Name – The Frightful Females of Fear features a handful of females who work in the horror industry discussing the roles of women in horror, focused specifically on the personality and appearance of Ida. From Glamour to Gore – Rosanne Katon Remembers Motel Hell is an interview with the actress. Here, she reminisces about how her career got started, what it was like working on the film; typical coverage but still good to hear. Another Head on the Chopping Block – An Interview with Paul Linke features Bruce, the clueless brother, who recalls his time on set. It seems the part was written for him specifically, whereas none of the other parts were written for the actors who got the role. It sounds like he had a fun time based on his stories. The film’s trailer is included, along with image galleries of behind-the-scenes and poster & production shots. The cover artwork is reversible, allowing for display of either newly commissioned art or the original key art. A slipcover of the new art is included on first pressings.
4 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5