**/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras B
starring Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons, Wolfman Jack
screenplay by Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe
directed by Kevin Connor
by Bryant Frazer SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. If you give Motel Hell credit for anything, score it full marks for its infamous abattoir-set climax, in which an overalls-clad farmer wearing a grotesque pig mask and wielding a chainsaw battles the local sheriff--also wielding a chainsaw--over the body of a damsel in distress bound to a conveyer belt feeding an industrial meat slicer. Motel Hell wasn't particularly original, even in the annals of American B-movies of the era, and it's not especially scary or creepy--director Kevin Connor doesn't have much of a taste for horror. But he was certainly able to recognize a spectacle. During a long career, Connor directed Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Mickey Rooney in a fantasy called Arabian Adventure, shot on location in Japan another horror film starring Susan George, and even helmed a TV biopic of Elizabeth Taylor starring Sherilyn Fenn. It's the signature image of Farmer Vincent wearing a hog's head and brandishing a power saw, though, that has followed him through the decades.
The cult around Motel Hell began forming on its release, when it was trumpeted as "Beauty and the Beast...with chainsaws!" by no less an authority than FANGORIA magazine. "A toothless Texas Chain Saw" might be more like it. Motel Hell was one of several hicksploitation flicks that took their cues from Tobe Hooper's horror hit, but Connor--a former film editor who had worked with Richard Harris and Richard Attenborough--was uninterested in gruelling terror. Instead, he imposed some changes on a script by brothers Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe, the offspring of executive producer and former UA production honcho Herb Jaffe, and shot a morbid comedy that put its country cannibals in a setting that paid fonder homage to the old-school scares of Psycho and Night of the Living Dead than to the new wave--think Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and Dawn of the Dead--that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had helped usher in.
Where Hooper's film was populated with unpleasant rednecks, Connor's is led by genial hillbillies--Rory Calhoun as farmer Vincent Smith and Nancy Parsons as his sister, Ida--whose delicious but secret recipe for smoked meats favours human flesh. They kidnap unsuspecting travellers by luring them into their dilapidated motel or, when pickings are slim, setting traps out on the highway. It's one of those traps that catches pretty blond Terry (Nina Axelrod), whom Vincent inexplicably decides to bring home. Vincent's frustrated-nice-guy brother Bruce (Paul Linke), who also happens to be the town sheriff but is blissfully ignorant of his brother's homicidal activities, sees an opportunity here and sets out to woo Terry. Meanwhile, Ida is visibly unhappy about the attention Vincent lavishes on her. Matters come to a head when the girl falls in love with Vincent and the crazy old coot decides to marry her.
Those character motivations make very little sense. (Are siblings Vincent and Ida, you know, an item? Is Terry mentally ill? Is Bruce the thickest lunk to ever enjoy a successful career in law enforcement?) Motel Hell gets by on a few good ideas, chief among them the mysterious contents of the eerie secret garden where Vincent and Ida plant their victims (literally) until it's time for the slaughter. Calhoun's casting pays dividends, too, with his line deliveries lending the script's heaping helpings of cornpone some extra flavour. He was a native Angeleno who had grown up poor and spent time in jail before becoming an actor; while he was plenty handsome, his persona had just enough of an edge to support this movie's idea of dementia. Parsons is good, too, especially in a well-edited scene she spends in an inner tube and full-body bathing suit. She can't quite keep up with Calhoun, alas, and the film never really decides whether Ida's an equal partner, nearly as savvy as Vincent, or just his dumber sidekick. Although she's seen perusing an issue of HUSTLER at one point, it seems like a throwaway gag rather than a character note, since her sexuality is a complete non-issue elsewhere in the picture. Anyway, Parsons got more mileage from her role as Beulah Balbricker in the Porky's series than from this. Linke is goofy but ineffectual, save for one broadly-comic scene in which he tries to convince Terry that Vincent is unfit for marriage. For her part, Axelrod is beautiful but adrift in a barely-written role. (She would go on to greater success as a casting director.)
There are bad ideas, too. A sequence featuring the arrival of a pair of swingers bucking for a kinky foursome with Vincent and Ida feels like it was imported from some smarmy Britcom of the period and goes nowhere, and the movie introduces a promising-looking rock band called Ivan and the Terribles (that's John Ratzenberger on drums) before doing absolutely nothing with them. Instead, the story pivots on Vincent's accidental seduction of Terry. When Bruce gets word of their unlikely engagement (from Wolfman Jack, putting in one of those box-around-his-name cameos), he finally turns the suspicious gaze on brother Vincent and arrives in the third act as, at last, the hero of the piece.
As outrageous as it becomes, and as vaguely disturbing as the circumstances of its murders can be, Motel Hell is conservatively made with an aversion to risk-taking. Worse, it gives away its game way too soon, squandering the big reveal a mere 24 minutes in, thus allowing ennui to set in. Connor's direction is by the book and Thomas Del Ruth's cinematography is able but not especially flashy, save the odd interesting lighting effect. It's tempting to see Calhoun's casting and murderous, aw-shucks demeanour as some kind of Ronald Reagan analog, but the film's 1980 release date makes that unlikely and the script doesn't do much to support it. (And anyway, Connor denies it.) You could make a case for Motel Hell as pro-vegan, as it criticizes the cruelty humans routinely visit on creatures farther down the food chain by giving unlucky people the same treatment, though I doubt it has even that much on its mind. Motel Hell is a horror comedy made by people who had no special talent for either horror or comedy. It's not particularly good, but it does have a knowing, tongue-in-cheek tone that, along with that pig's head mask and those overalls, elevates it above footnote status.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Motel Hell receives a generally solid presentation on Scream Factory's Blu-ray. The earthy colour palette is well-preserved without revisionist levels of saturation or tweaking. Black levels aren't entirely consistent, with select shots unnaturally dropping to flat black in the backgrounds while others have a nice corner-to-corner patina of visible grain. Speaking of grain, if you frame-step through some scenes, you can detect blotchy, blocky artifacts in the film grain layer. (A comparison to the previous Arrow Films UK release indicates these artifacts are unique to Scream Factory's encode, and not baked into the HD transfer.) I've noticed these patterns when frame-stepping other Scream Factory titles, but I give them a pass since I don't find them distracting at 24fps. Still, the comparison above suggests the image could and should be a bit sharper than what Scream Factory is presenting. The video bitrate is pretty much pegged in the mid-30 Mbps range, so bandwidth isn't the issue. I hope the artifacts aren't caused by digital dust-busting, since the image remains lightly peppered with white specks that indicate dirt on the camera negative. Less prevalent, but still present, are dark flecks that indicate dirt on a positive element; this is likely a transfer from an interpositive.
The 2.0 DTS-HD MA track seems to reproduce the original matrixed four-track Dolby Stereo audio. Dolby was a fairly new process at the time, and the directional effects are modest, but composer Lance Rubin's score migrates into the lone rear channel along with the occasional ambient effect. The final chainsaw duel takes advantage of the surround presence, spreading the sputtering motor and clacking chain across the soundstage as if the hellish racket were clattering off the slaughterhouse walls. Overall, the sound is bright, clear, and dynamic.
For the commentary, Connor is interviewed by Dave Parker, who announces himself as director of something called The Hills Run Red and a self-described "major Motel Hell fan." Parker does a pretty good job of keeping the proceedings rolling, although the anecdotes get sparser as the track progresses. You'll learn the usual stuff about where the movie was shot, how certain scenes were staged and achieved, who the actors were and how Connor found them, etc. Parker tries to get Connor to describe his revisions to the script, but his memory is fuzzy after all these years.
"It Takes All Kinds: The Making of Motel Hell" (25 mins., HD) wrangles the Jaffes, Connor, and actor Marc Silver (he played the guitarist for the ...Terribles) for separately-recorded talking-headers. The juicier anecdotes from Connor's commentary are repeated, and both Connor and the Jaffes discuss the balance between horror and comedy they favoured, but, again, nobody recounts Connor's changes to the script. (Unless I missed it, Tim Tuchrello and Frank Cotolo, whom IMDb lists as "uncredited" screenwriters, aren't mentioned at all.) Anyway, the whole thing cries out for a fact-check--Steven-Charles Jaffe claims that Parsons was cast after he saw her in Porky's, which would be a neat trick considering Porky's came out a year-and-a-half after Motel Hell.
In "Shooting Old School with Thomas Del Ruth" (16 mins., HD), the cinematographer remembers his collaborative effort with Connor, whom he says was "not particularly extremely opinionated" when it came to picking his shots. Del Ruth, who would go on to shoot The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, and various other features, describes an over-the-top, theatricalized approach to Motel Hell, including the "bold and startling and at times garish" colours he deployed. (That may be overstating the case a little--Suspiria this ain't.) "Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Fear" (18 mins., HD) invites three horror-film mavens--critic Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg plus "scream queens" Chantelle Albers and Elissa Dowling--to discuss the qualities that make memorable female villains in horror movies. All three women speak intelligently but briefly about Ida, with Rowan-Legg going full film-crit on her, noting the archetypal female roles of "the virgin, the whore, and the grotesque." As a fan of film-crit, I suggest giving Rowan-Legg a feature-length commentary or maybe a video essay on one of these discs and seeing what she comes up with.
In "Another Head on the Chopping Block: An Interview with Paul Linke" (15 mins., HD), the actor complains that "Bruce was supposed to be a lot funnier than we ultimately played him," adding that "the humour was toned down" I find that hard to believe, given how much mugging Bruce is allowed to do in Motel Hell's back half. (It is interesting how everyone associated with the film gets behind its comic elements, with the Jaffes claiming they made a movie that was funnier than the studio suits wanted, Connor suggesting he made a movie that was lighter and funnier than the Jaffes originally intended, and Linke insisting that he signed up for a movie that would have been funnier still.) Linke remembers the film's notice in the NEW YORK TIMES describing him as "somewhat sexy," and I have to call for another fact-check. The phrase employed by critic Richard F. Shepard was "very sexy." You're welcome, Paul.
In "From Glamour to Gore: Rosanne Katon Remembers Motel Hell" (11 mins., HD), the former PLAYBOY centrefold model (and exploitation-film veteran), who appears in a tiny part as one of Vincent's victims, surveys her career. She talks about her big break and training, the difficulty of being a black actress in Hollywood, and a few memories of the shoot. "I always loved horror movies," she says--and with that, she may be the only person associated with Motel Hell to admit any great affection for the genre. She comes across as warm, funny, and down to earth. No wonder she left show business.
Wrapping up the proceedings are two photo galleries: one mammoth assortment of promo art, posters, lobby cards, and stills, and another, smaller round-up of lovely black-and-white behind-the-scenes shots with credit to Connor, the Jaffes, and Silver. There was definitely a gulf between the team who designed key art with the tagline "You might just die...laughing!" and the folks who cut the straight-up horror trailer included here (2:40, upscaled from SD). Finally, we get trailers for other Scream Factory releases of similar vintage: Terror Train, Without Warning, The Funhouse, and The Fog.