Ah, Motel Hell; late-night cable staple and one of the first satirical horror films I’d seen back in the 1980s. A b-movie farce elevated by a surprisingly competent cast, Motel Hell didn’t exactly set box-office records upon its release in 1980, but the film ultimately found its audience on VHS and the aforementioned subscription TV services, garnering a well-deserved cult following.
“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”
This is the slogan for Farmer Vincent Smith’s (Rory Calhoun) legendary smoked meat products – a regionally popular item sold out of the offices of the isolated Motel Hello, which he runs alongside his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). The film wastes no time letting us know exactly where Vincent gets his ingredients, as, early on, we see him head off on a morning hunting excursion, which culminates in his collecting two victims from a motorcycle “accident” down the road from the motel. One of the victims – a beautiful naïf named Terry (Nina Axlerod) – catches Vincent’s eye and, ultimately, his heart, and he opts to nurse her back to health while her traveling companion is added to his and Ida’s “stock”.
When Terry awakens, Vincent informs her of her friend’s demise in the accident, but, when she demands to see his body, Vincent says he’s already buried it in the local cemetery. While Terry questions the legality of this, Vincent’s somewhat estranged brother and local sheriff, Bruce (Paul Linke), tells her that it’s the way things are done in this neck of the woods.
As Terry recuperates from her injuries, Vincent lays on the charm, as he hopes to make her his bride and share his secret with her. However, Bruce, too, has feelings for Terry, and the two battle it out for her affections. In the interim, a series of accidents and missing persons reports all point back to Vincent and Ida, and, when Bruce learns the horrifying truth about his kin, he must save Terry before she, too, becomes an ingredient in one of Farmer Vincent’s famous meat stuffs.
Motel Hell is a slightly campy, highly satirical twist on the cannibal/backwoods horror genre that has long been a favorite of horror enthusiasts. The film mixes plentiful amounts of gore and gross-out humor with clever comedic bits and some really impressive and atmospheric cinematography (courtesy of Thomas Del Ruth). Much like Farmer Vincent’s secret recipes, the film features ingredients culled from across the horror spectrum, with nods to everything from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead to the far-out gorefests of H.G. Lewis, but still feels remarkably fresh and unique. I credit much of that to the inspired casting of western legend Rory Calhoun and the great comedic actress, Nancy Parsons (Porky’s), each of whom inhabit their respective roles with charm, charisma, and a genuine likeability –the latter of which is amplified by the fact that the duos’ victims are mostly despicable types ranging from sexual deviants and high-class escorts to an obnoxious punk rock band (featuring a youngish John Ratzenberger). Vincent and Ida believe they’re doing God’s work – bettering humanity by weeding out the less than savory element and making them into foodstuffs to benefit those more deserving.
Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray presents Motel Hell in a 1.85:1 1080p transfer. The image is very vibrant, with the film’s colorful palette well represented, but there’s a bit of a gauzy quality to it overall that softens the picture in spots, masking fine details. It’s not a bad transfer by any means, and is a huge improvement over its standard definition counterpart, but it’s not quite the revelation most of Scream Factory’s offerings have been, so I felt I should point that out.
The accompanying audio track is a somewhat pedestrian 2.0 DTS HD affair that serves its purpose nicely, but won’t win over any audiophiles looking for reference quality sound. It’s basically a front heavy mix with subdued bass and a few brittle highs. Once again, not the quality we’re used to from the venerable studio, but it’s perfectly serviceable.
Scream Factory serves up a smorgasbord of tasty bonus features with this release. First up, we get a feature-length commentary with director Kevin Connor (moderated by director Dave Parker) that’s quite humorous and flows pretty nicely thanks mostly to Parker’s obvious reverence for the film. It Takes All Kinds: The Making of Motel Hell is a great retrospective documentary that features current interviews with the film’s writers and producers, Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe, and director Kevin Connor, that touches upon the film’s 50s B-movie inspirations and what it took to get the film made. The Jaffe brothers obviously had hopes that Motel Hell would be an even more satirical flick, but both the studio and Connor felt that the slapstick humor and broad sight gags the brothers wrote into their script wouldn’t play well to the era’s slasher-hungry demographic, thus a balance was struck between the horror and humor.
Shooting Old School is an excellent short feature focusing on cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth and his approach to filming Motel Hell while Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Fear is a somewhat unpolished looking supplement featuring female horror journalists and a handful of “scream queens” discussing female antagonists in horror. From Glamour to Gore: Rosann Katon Remembers Motel Hell features actress and former Playboy playmate, Rosann Katon, who talks about her experiences as an African American model in the late 70s/early 80s, as well as her role in Motel Hell. Rounding out the featurettes is an extended interview with star Paul Linke, who offers a candid take on his experiences and feelings about the film, as well as his current experiences working in theater.
Other bonus features include the film’s theatrical trailer, a pair of stills galleries, and a standard definition DVD of the film and bonus features.
While this isn’t the best transfer Scream Factory has rolled out, it’s not nearly as bad as some other reviewers would have you believe. I mean, yes, it’s a bit soft and isn’t exactly bubbling over with fine detail, but it’s a marked improvement over standard definition, and this, paired with the abundant bonus goodies (all in HD) easily qualifies the release as a must-buy for this films legion of fans. Recommended!