MOTEL HELL (Collector’s Edition) Blu-ray Review
When thinking about Motel Hell, the moments that stand out are the chainsaw duel with the man wearing the bloodied pig-head (that pig-head image gained notoriety when gracing the cover of Fangoria Magazine) and the secret garden with the psychedelic light show thrown in for surreal measure. Revisiting Motel Hell was an interesting experience because there are many things that make watching this movie enjoyable, and just as many that make it a disappointment. In fact, the history behind getting this movie made and how it might have turned out is actually more interesting than the final product that exists today.
Originally a bizarre project that Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) wanted to make, Universal Studios took a pass and Hooper went on to make The Funhouse instead. It became obvious that Hooper never quite got over the project, as many elements of Motel Hell can be found in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which ended up being a much better movie anyways. Word around the campfire is that the original screenplay that had Hooper interested was darker and more disturbing; there were supposedly elements of bestiality and lots of violence as well. You know, a nice family theme.
The project ended up with an English director named Kevin Connor whose idea was to bring some dark Monty Python style humor to embrace it’s bizarre nature, but not in a totally “ironic” way. The movie didn’t make a huge impact on initial release, which I believe was the same weekend as Terror Train. It wasn’t a splash with critics either, but Roger Ebert gave it a favorable review and really took to the humor and restrained approach when tackling violence. Friday The 13th came out the same year and it bacame obvious that audiences at the time were drawn to brutality and gore in their horror movies, which Motlel Hell doesn’t really deliver. Like most cult movies, second life was given on television with programs like USA’s Up All Night and MonsterVision. Of course the VHS horror movie boom of the eighties certainly played a hand as well. This movie seems to be a big embarrassment to MGM, who dumped it on a double bill DVD in 2002 with Deranged: Confessions of a Necrophile.
Farmer Vincent Smith and his younger sister Ida are actually perfectly cast by Rory Calhoun, best known for his Westerns, and Nancy Parsons, who will mostly be remembered for her role in Porky’s. There’s a great balance with the crude and flamboyant persona that Parsons breathes into Ida, and the old cowboy charisma that Calhoun channels into Farmer Vincent to give him a solid presence.
Vincent smokes meats that are the talk of the town and if you don’t know what the secret ingredient is, it won’t be hard for you to guess. Vincent has a passion for using booby traps to catch their victims and one such scene involving a pair of swingers played by former Playboy bunnies that are stopped in the road by some fake cows is one of the moments where this movie really shines, mostly in part to the EC Comics-inspired atmosphere captured by cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth (Stand By Me).
Another moment that evokes a nostalgic trip to old school monster movie fun involves idiot brother Sheriff Bruce Smith played by Paul Linke, who attempts to win the heart of Terry (Nina Axelrod) at a drive-in movie theater. Being that this entire movie was shot in five weeks, I’d say they managed to utilize their locations rather well. Unfortunately, the rushed production wouldn’t allow them to compensate for pacing problems in the script. Kevin Connor doesn’t seem to completely obtain the tone that he was aiming for, leaving an inconsistent balance between achieving humor and suspense.
You can see that what they attempted went on to influence later films that were more successful in achieving the right balance. For example, there’s a fun scene with some delinquents, one of them played by John Ratzenberger, that are in a punk band goofing off in their van who fall into the Smith’s evil trap and I’m reminded of how characters like those were less wasted in Return Of The Living Dead. Flaws and all, Motel Hell is fun enough to perhaps revisit another time but I’ll probably get more enjoyment looking at Nathan Thomas Milliner’s awesome cover art instead.
Scream Factory’s generous slate of awesome special features would be worth revisiting as well. I can’t decide if I enjoyed “Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Fear” featurette — a panel discussing women as horror villains — or “From Glamour to Gore: Rosanne Katon Remembers Motel Hell.” Both were both fantastic. The audio commentary by director Kevin Connor came off dry and cynical but informative, he clearly doesn’t brag about this movie much at parties. All in all, this package lives up to the great standard we expect from Scream Factory. If you’re already a fan of Motel Hell, I don’t need to tell you to add this to your collection.