Much derided though it often continues to be in some quarters, the lowly horror genre very often provides a major route into the industry for aspiring writers and directors and has an uncommonly high strike rate in that regard. Some who start their careers this way continue thereafter to show a genuine love for such material, and periodically exercise an urge to revisit their horror roots at various junctures; others, of course, merely use it as a springboard and as a means of getting noticed within the industry, at which point they move on to pastures new, pronto. British director Kevin Conner was never what you might call a horror auteur, but his name is destined to forever be associated with the genre, though, because in his case that ‘springboard’, which happened to launch him as a director after six years as a working feature films editor on titles such as Richard Attenborough’s “Oh! What a Lovely War”and the Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr vehicle “The Magic Christian”, also happens to be considered one of the best of the cult British ‘portmanteau’anthology horrors specialised in during the ‘70s by Amicus productions -- the famous rival to Hammer films, headed by the Americans Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky. “From Beyond the Grave” turned out to be the start of a fecund and long-lasting career for Conner, which still continues today. His association with Amicus bore further fruit but quickly veered away from horror and into the adventure end of the fantasy spectrum, with much-loved adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classics “The Land that Time Forgot” and “At the Earth’s Core”featuring heavily in the résumé.
At the same time, TV also proved a reliable job providing mainstay thanks to Lew Grade’s ITC, which furnished Conner with ensuing stints as a director on fantasy and action shows such as Gerry Anderson’s “Space 1999” and “The Return of the Saint”. Come the end of the seventies though, with the British film industry looking in an ever more parlous state, Conner was looking to up sticks and move out to LA, hoping to resume his career by finding directorial work in the states. Faced with starting from scratch, he ended up taking more or less the same career path a second time, getting his first break at the helm of a title which has since become a big cult favourite among fans of ‘80s slashers and backwoods horrors, although it was much overlooked at the time as it got lost among the slew of post-”Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” copycats then filling theatres. Plainly inspired by the success of Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” though it was, “Motel Hell” today stands out among a crowded field of titles from that period because of its completely surreal black humour, and some particularly striking imagery which still lends this oddball comedy shocker a rare frisson.
The film emerged at a time when the big film companies were still willing occasionally to lavish a horror movie with a sizable budget. Thus, despite being passed on at Universal (where it was briefly considered suitable as a screenplay that Tobe Hooper might be interested in as his next project, before being ditched for “The Funhouse”), producer brothers Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe (who also between them co-wrote the script -- Robert having previously penned the equally odd “Demon Seed”, which his brother was an associate producer on) were able to secure funding from United Artists thanks to their uncle, Herb Jaffe, being a top executive with the company in the period just before it was driven to financial ruin by the “Heaven’s Gate”debacle. Both brothers have gone on to be associated, as producers, with several big mainstream hit movies in the years since this unusual comedy-horror hit the screen: “Honey I Blew up the Kid” and “Ghost” being two of their most prominent credits.
The extra largess put at the film’s disposal thanks to the UA association, shows up in this context in the use of slick photography and a big orchestral score by TV soap composer Lance Rubin; but if anything, the mainstream look of the movie only serves to emphasise more acutely the sheer weirdness of what’s going on underneath the surface gloss. “Motel Hell” is a tongue-in-cheek slice of backwoods cannibal action in which the hick brother-and-sister owners of a Californian roadside stop-off known as Motel Hello (the neon sign is permanently on the blink so the ‘O’ keeps cutting out – hence the film’s wry title), feed their townie guests on a selection of Farmer Vincent’s special home brand smoked ‘pork’ delicacies, spiced with special ingredients from the couple’s secret garden, hidden round the bend, farther on down the dirt track road. Though the tastiness of Farmer Vincent’s special meats is renowned right across the county, and clients travel from far and wide to sample his produce, they remain unaware of the recipe’s exclusive choice extras: for while his porkers are hand-reared on-site and dispatched in the converted barn-cum-abattoir at the back of the motel, each night Farmer Vincent takes up his rifle and goes hunting for a rarer form of prey with which to enhance the taste of his renowned fritters. Bear traps are laid along the highway, to that purpose-- which appears to be a route heavily used by hippies, bikers, stoners and other disposable countercultural types. An assortment of such unwitting victims is soon to find itself being gassed into unconsciousness and dragged from overturned vehicles, disposed of (via Farmer Vincent’s pick-up truck) in a nearby lake. Each detainee is to be made a permanent resident in Vincent and Ida’s carefully tended allotment, where they’ll first have their vocal cords slit, then be rendered immobile and ‘planted’ up to their necks in earth with a sack over their heads -- except while being subjected to the couple’s foie gras-style force-feeding regime in preparation for the day when they will be joining the unfortunate home-bred pigs for a date with a meat cleaver and a chainsaw in the barbecue smoking room of the couple’s backyard abattoir!
Key to the film’s overall tonal success is its comic strip elaboration of what is often a deadpan yet surreally outlandish sense of humour, alongside the central casting of the Smith siblings themselves: Farmer Vincent is played by Rory Calhoun, who was better known for appearing as square-jawed all American cowboy types in 1950s and ‘60s TV and film westerns, and who retains his trademark Stetson, here, alongside his farm worker’s denim dungarees and plaid shirt -- a look that’s efficiently geared to his exuding an air of distinguished, silver-haired charm, supplemented by a pearly-toothed smile that’s also to be seen beaming down comfortingly from a roadside billboard advertising Farmer Vincent’s human-pork chops to unsuspecting passers-by. The image projected by Vincent to the world at large suggests the quintessence of a friendly, utterly trustworthy all-American neighbourliness; yet, as the film progresses, it becomes evident that he and his sister are so completely mad that neither of them actually sees anything remotely wrong with their cannibalistic practises. ‘In many ways,’ Vincent explains to a horrified potential victim with chilling sincerity, 'when you consider how the world is today, I'm doing a lot of them a big favour!’
Meanwhile, and largely owning the film for most of its running time in one of the best of her handful of cult roles, is the inimitable Nancy Parsons, later to find widespread recognition as ‘Beulah Ballbreaker’ in the teen sex comedies “Porky’s”, “Porky’s II: The Next Day” and “Porky’s Revenge”, but here cast as a comic grotesque in her role as Farmer Vincent’s fiendishly enthusiastic obese sister, who continues to wear her hair in child-like bunches well into adulthood, nonchalantly skips around blowing bubble-gum rings, lurks behind doors with a meat cleaver to ambush people for a ‘joke’, and enters into the business of cultivating and slaughtering the couple’s human harvest with an uncommon, grinning glee.
Although the basic premise unquestionably hints at an influence from both “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Psycho”, allusions that misleadingly promise a conventional slasher with the prospect of plenty of visceral gore in the offing , the Jaffe brothers’ screenplay actually steers the subject matter into some much weirder, unpredictable areas, while Conner tactfully refrains from splashing the screen with the red stuff at every available opportunity – just a dab of blood here and there in the abattoir, or the murky hint of a dismembered corpse in a dimly lit corner, suffice -- and prefers to play the comedy in a much more subtle and ironic way than was originally envisioned in the script. This probably didn’t help the film’s prospects at the time, but gives it a pleasantly off-kilter vibe today. Rather than a straight-ahead gore-fest, instead we’re presented with a slow-burning creeper which incorporates much off-the-wall absurdist humour and, consequently, often straddles the hazy hinterland that is sometimes all that separates the out-and-out ridiculous from the eerily disturbing.
The setting adds immeasurably to the queasy atmosphere on offer: the Californian countryside around Sable Ranch (even now the number one go-to spot for modern day horror film-makers like Rob Zombie, when they’re looking to bring a certain measure of retro chic to their work) provides a cheerful landscape for the fictitious Grainville County, which seems somehow both reassuringly ordinary and yet utterly unsettling, with the constant niggling background suggestion in the air that unseen horrors are hidden just around the next benign-seeming corner of this isolated, off-the-map backwater. The Motel itself, with the sound of country & western music drifting across its wood-beamed, home-on-the-range porch, and smoky antique interiors that exude ambience reverberating with the fevered rantings of local TV evangelists (including one played by hirsute, white-suited disc jockey legend Wolfman Jack), suggests God-fearing simple folk reside within, offering a restful escape from the unrelenting harshness of city life. Perhaps that’s why the film’s heroine, the girlfriend of one the bikers earlier seen trapped and planted in the Smith siblings’ hidden garden, ends up feeling so at home in this environment, and is soon occupying the role of a surrogate daughter figure for the oddball dungaree-wearing brother and sister duo. Played by the fiancée of producer Robert Jaffe, Nina Axelrod does well to make such an intrinsically naive character like Terry seem sympathetic rather than just stupid. She’s the fly in the ointment that’s being set up by the plot mechanics, eventually to come between Vincent and Ida. As the Farmer sets about trying to woe her into gradual acceptance of the Vincent way of making a living, Terry responds to his fatherly attentions by developing an infatuation with him that soon makes Ida jealous and irks Vincent’s not-very-bright law officer brother Bruce (Paul Linke, later a support player in TV cop show“CHIPS”), whose own furtive attempts to interest her in a relationship have previously been rejected quite resoundingly.
While Terry enjoys the seemingly idyllic Californian farming lifestyle, Vincent and Ida continue to amass a diverse set of victims for their bestselling meat products: a nosey animal health inspection officer who unwittingly stumbles on their secret; a hippie psych rock band (Ivan and the Terribles!) whose Scooby van gets ploughed off the road by one of Vincent’s carefully laid bear traps; a couple of spandex-wearing city girls, ambushed after being confronted with surreal cardboard cut-out cattle positioned in the middle of an empty highway; and an awful pair of swingers who’re visiting the area to look for local pick-up spots (while toting their copy of The Swingers’ Guide to Middle America!) and end up happily volunteering to be hog-tied and gassed because they think it’s some sort of kinky sex play on the Smiths’ part: all these disparate passers-by end up with their heads lined up like cabbages in the siblings’ human vegetable patch. ‘Funny lookin’critters ‘aint they Vincent,’ ponders Ida as the couple survey their handy work, and her brother reminds her: ‘It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!’
Despite the comic silliness of such scenes, Conner brings a bizarre but disturbing edge to proceedings through his uncanny use of sound: with their voice boxes slit, each of the helpless victims can only make horrible squelchy guttural noises if they should attempt to speak or scream – an effect achieved by getting someone who’d actually had a tracheotomy to dub all their vocal noises! Despite such dodgy deeds, Vincent and Ida actually see themselves as environmentalists who are solving over-population and the food shortage problem all in one go. They also take pride in practising a humane form of slaughter, dispatching their stock when the time comes to harvest their acquisitions by first of all spacing them out with spinning disco lights while disorientating ambient sound effects are broadcast over a public speaker system. After this, the prospective human meat jerky is‘flying so high that they think they’ve grown wings’ even as their necks are in the process of being snapped by nooses tied to the end of farmer Vincent’s tractor!
Although it proceeds with a rather relaxed pace and eschews any outright scares in favour of a warped, offbeat satirical humour, accompanied by its genuinely strange atmosphere, the film nonetheless builds to a delightfully grotesque finish which culminates in an effective tribute to “Night of the Living Dead” after some of the couple’s former victims stage a shambling escape attempt; and Bruce’s determination to snatch Terry away from Vincent & Ida’s clutches leads to what is surely the film’s most iconic, visually arresting image when a deranged, cackling Vincent takes up a hollowed-out pigs head as a mask and engages in one of the most outrageously barmy on-screen chainsaw duels in horror cinema -- a scene predating Dennis Hopper’s encounter with Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2” by six years -- while Terry finds herself strapped to a moving bacon slicer in a Grand-Guignol "Perils of Pauline" pastiche.
“Motel Hell” has weathered extremely well after thirty-three years, and has become a vintage cult item that deserves the unexpected attention lavished on it here by Arrow Video, who have delivered the first Blu-ray release anywhere in the world as part of their deluxe Blu-ray/DVD combo edition, and which comes after we in the UK were previously hard-pressed to even get hold of the film as a bare-bones DVD. The HD master has a few grainy moments in the darker scenes but for the most part looks astonishingly good. You wouldn’t ever mistake this for a recently made movie, even if Nina Axelrod hadn’t been wearing those quintessentially 1980s high-waistbanded jeans, but for most of the run time the detail and colour depth is impressive here, and the 2.0 stereo PCM audio track does the business nicely. Arrow Video have gone the extra mile with this one, commissioning High Rising Productions to furnish it with some brand new extras, headed up with a director’s commentary moderated by Calum Waddell, in which Kevin Conner looks back at the film that got him started in the U.S. and led to his forging a second career across the pond as a director for some hugely successful 1980s TV series like “Hart to Hart” and “Moonlighting”. It’s a light-hearted and free flowing chat in which Conner mainly talks about his memories of the cast, but doesn’t recognise the film as being anymore than a quirky light comedy horror ,and rebuts the idea that there was ever any social commentary intended at the time. Ironically, with recent developments in the UK’s processed meat industry, the film feels like it has far more social relevance today than it did in 1980!
Four new featurettes are also included, all by High Rising Productions and all of which start with animated titles by Naomi Holwill, as is the company’s usual style of presentation.“Another Head for the Chopping Block” is a 15 minute interview with Paul Linke, who plays the Smiths’ younger brother Bruce in the film. He relays his memories of the making of the movie, but also conveys his contentious opinion that the movie doesn’t work as well as it should and that the comedy was too underplayed to be properly effective. He also, understandably, talks a lot about his latter-day career as a writer and performer of theatre pieces, which is where his heart has been for most of his subsequent years spent as an actor.
“From Glamour to Gore” is a fascinating 11 minute interview with former Playboy Playmate Rosanne Katon, who appears in the film alongside another playboy model from the time, Monique St. Pierre, both of them playing the two female motorists, waylaid during a night drive home by Farmer Vincent wielding his knock-out gas canister. Katon speaks about the difficulty she experienced, as an African American actress, in finding work in the industry during the 70s and early-80s, and shares her memories about playing the role of Suzie. Although she and Monique only appear in one brief scene together, both roles are nicely written as character pieces which allow viewers to develop an interest in what happens to them within a relatively short space of time – unlike many modern horror movies in which many of the potential victims often come across as dull or unlikable.
“Ida, Be Thy Name” is really a generalised discussion of female ‘monsters’ in horror movies and the recurring tropes which are often to be found featuring heavily in their makeup. All of the participants are from the U.S. and “Motel Hell’s” Nancy Parsons is only one of the female killers discussed by Indie scream queens Elissa Dowling and Chantelle Albers, genre commentator Staci Layne Wilson and critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg; they also mention other titles which are probably due for release by Arrow Video at some point, since clips for all of them are provided.
Finally, director Dave Parker (“The Hills Run Red”) discusses what makes “Motel Hell” such a cult classic and talks about why he personally loves the film so much. Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing are included and the original theatrical trailer also appears on the disc. The packaging features a reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork by artist Jeff Zornow; and the collector’s booklet hosts Kim Newman waxing lyrical alongside original archive stills and posters, and extracts from the Motel Hell comic book. There is also an exclusive interview with comic book artist Chris Moreno included.
“Motel Hell” might’ve disappointed many at the time of its original release who were expecting a traditional slasher or a typical gory backwoods horror, but its macabre humorous take on the genre stands it in good stead, all these years later, as a unique curio that still holds its own among the glut of much gorier but considerably less imaginative modern day fare. This superb UK edition makes an ideal introduction to an unusual and entertaining minor classic, with the nice HD transfer and added extras making it by far the best version currently available anywhere.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!