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Motel Hell

Shout Factory // R // August 12, 2014
List Price: $29.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 8, 2014 | E-mail the Author
Yeah, yeah, everybody knows that you don't have to trek all the way down to Texas for a chainsaw massacre. What you didn't know is that you can get the Sawyers' same flavor of cannibalistic finger food closer to home too.

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Meat's meat, and we gotta eat. Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) has carved out a name for himself in the smoked meat racket, and I'm guessing you have a pretty good idea by now what his secret ingredient is. He mixes in just the right amount of long-pig for seasoning, and he's had decades to refine his hunting technique on a pretty much abandoned stretch of road. He's out doing his usual early morning routine, landing a porky biker for another round of jerky and sausage, when he scores an unexpected bonus: a twentysomething year old blonde bombshell (Nina Axelrod). Sure, Farmer Vincent may be looking at her with hungry eyes, but Terry here isn't on the menu. As she recuperates from the motorcycle wreck, Terry's taken in by Farmer Vincent and his slovenly sister Ida (Nancy Parsons). After a while, she's practically one of the family: close enough for Farmer Vincent to consider letting her in on the secret recipe behind his famous fritters. You'd think it'd be serial murder and cannibalism that'd get the attention of the local authorities, but no, Sheriff Bruce (Paul Linke) doesn't start poking around until he gets ensnared in a love triangle. ...or maybe a love quadrilateral. (It's complicated.) Vincent's been able to put one over on his sheriff kid brother for a lifetime now, but Bruce's all-consuming infatuation with Terry finally opens his eyes, and he's even starting to clue into what exactly it is that Vinny and Ida are growing in that secret garden of theirs... Audible gulp!

I mean, there's a guy on the cover with an AARP card, a bloodied chainsaw, and a hollowed-out hog's head mask; you don't really need me to tell you that Motel Hell is more than a little left of center. Much like Farmer Vincent and his fritters, the movie gets how to balance all these tasty but uncomfortably different ingredients. On one level, yeah, it's a horror flick. Vincent and Ida gleefully stalk their prey. Who knows how many hundreds of poor bastards have been carved apart, cooked, and distributed to dozens of gas stations and supermarkets in the tri-county area. There's no shortage of creepy, disturbing imagery, and on the sound design end of things, the movie delivers some gurgling that you won't be able to shake out of your head for years. While Scream Factory's shiny, new cover art does make it look as if there's some masked psychopath hunting down nubile young women, that's not at all what Motel Hell is like. It's not a slasher going for visceral thrills like clockwork every 8 minutes. There are blood and guts for sure, but you tend to see the aftermaths rather than the unflinchingly gruesome attacks themselves. Motel Hell is less interested in splatter and scares than in establishing a strange, eerie, EC Comics-inspired atmosphere. The mayhem is blended in with a gloriously twisted sense of humor. The imagery can get straight-up surreal at times, particularly in the 'secret garden', although I'll leave some of those surprises for the uninitiated to discover. My eyes quadrupled in size the first time I got a good look at what Farmer Vincent was growing back there, and Motel Hell still has that same effect on me all these years later. That was before any trippy hypnolovewheels were rolled out too!

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If Motel Hell were being made by pretty much any other filmmakers at any other time, it'd be a misfire for sure. It'd either overindulge itself and be impenetrably bizarre, or, more likely, it'd get shoved into a straightahead slasher mold. Director Kevin Connor and writers Steven-Charles and Robert Jaffe strike an impossibly perfect balance. They do a brilliant job easing the audience into this strange, surreal world, with nothing but teases at the extent of the dementia until nearly a half hour in. From there, you get Wolfman Jack playing a preacher, fake cows spelling doom for slutty ski bunnies, and even swingers serving themselves up on a silver platter. I can't say enough good things about Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons, taking a pair of cannibalistic, murderous siblings and infusing them with enough charm an' personality that they're likeable. I'm over here rooting for these nutjobs! Motel Hell is overflowing with imagination. There's not a whole hell of a lot else like it out there. It's not afraid to get batshit insane and surreal in a genre that often prefers to stick to established formulas. It's no surprise that Motel Hell has amassed such a sprawling cult following in the thirty-plus years since it first hacked its way into theaters, and I can't tell you how much of a thrill it is to finally have a longtime favorite like this on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.

Motel Hell first started making the rounds in high-def on Monsters HD all the way back in 2005, and I wouldn't be even a little bit surprised if this Blu-ray disc were minted from that same creaky, old master. This presentation is heavily peppered with white specks, something you don't see nearly to this extent on more recent transfers/remasters. The reproduction of textures, intricate patterns, and especially environmental detail in very distant shots certainly set this disc apart from anything DVD could ever hope to match, but it still strikes me as a touch softer and less richly detailed than usual. Despite being backed by solid black levels, contrast often looks somewhat muddy. Cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth chats about Motel Hell's "bold, startling, garish" palette in an interview on this disc, and I can't say I'd use any of those words to describe the colors I'm seeing here. A handful of scenes are fairly hazy, but I'm sure most of that dates back to when those 35mm cameras were whirring away three and a half decades ago. Don't get me wrong: even with a quick glance, no one with passable eyesight is gonna mistake Motel Hell for a regular old DVD. Clarity, definition, and detail are respectable enough, but they still fall short of the likes of, say, Curtains.

There's something distinctly digital about the way Motel Hell looks in motion, again making me think that this presentation has been culled from an older HD master. It doesn't help that the compression struggles so much with the movie's coarse, filmic texture, despite the disc's respectable bitrate. Pop this case-in-point open to full size and look...well, anywhere, really. This excessive artifacting has been a nuisance throughout many of Scream Factory's releases, and it's a drag that Motel Hell is another in that long line of victims. Chunks of grain also have a nasty tendency to appear/disappear in motion, and you can spot some of that here as well:

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Knowing that this Blu-ray disc was on the horizon, I traded in my MGM double feature of Motel Hell and Deranged, so I don't have that old release handy anymore to do a direct comparison. I'm sure that Scream Factory's take on Motel Hell is a significant upgrade over that twelve-year-old DVD, but I'm just as convinced that this is nowhere near the best that Motel Hell could possibly look in high-def. Lackluster authoring and what I strongly suspect is an aging master aren't the combination I've been aching for, so much. Still good but definitely not great.

Motel Hell's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack is no great shakes. The levels are a good bit lower than usual, so I really had to crank up my receiver to get it to a more traditional volume. Dialogue tends to sound boxy and lightly clipped, struggling the most during screams and shouting matches. Most of the effects scattered throughout Motel Hell are limp and lifeless. The score fares better but is still kinda unremarkable. Don't expect much in the way of the usual horror dynamics; nothing's all that much louder than anything else. I know, I know, Motel Hell is a 34 year old, modestly budgeted genre flick, so maybe I'm supposed to go easy on it. Still an indifferent shrug of a lossless soundtrack, tho'.

Riding shotgun is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.

  • Audio Commentary: The Hills Run Red's Dave Parker doesn't get a chance to gush about Motel Hell on-camera like he did on Arrow's Blu-ray release, but he does moderate a commentary track with director Kevin Connor. It's a decent enough conversation, though it struggles to fill Motel Hell's 100 minute-ish runtime, and the two of 'em do occasionally fall into the trap of watching the movie rather than talking about it. The standout for me is Connor pointing out a background gag that I'd somehow overlooked the five or six times I've attacked the flick. The two of them cover quite a bit of ground, including Connor gutting the more juvenile stuff out of the screenplay, how he wrangled in John Ratzenberger for a small role, how the stuffed shirts at UA reacted to producing something this downmarket, and even the remake that's lurking in the wings. Comments about editing, cinematography, and the score tend to be kind of cursory. I appreciate the more personal details of how Connor put his stamp on Motel Hell, such as his first encounters with American television inspiring all the public access / religious programming, but I wish there were more of 'em. There's also a lot of overlap with Connor's interview elsewhere on this disc, and that also dims my enthusiasm a bit. I enjoyed this commentary well enough but wouldn't call it an essential listen or anything.

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  • Interviews (84 min.; HD): I know! Motel Hell heaps on a feature-length assortment of interviews, beginning with "It Takes All Kinds" (24 min.) with writers/producers Steven-Charles Jaffe and Robert Jaffe, director Kevin Connor, and actor Mark Silver. I love hearing about some of the crazier moments from the Jaffes' childhoods inspiring Motel Hell, and among the other highlights are how Harry Dean Stanton turned down the lead role, a post-apocalyptic sounding story about a secret munitions factory near the set, unidentified flying torsos that UA scowled at being in the movie, and how you get those wonderfully creepy gurgling sounds in the garden.

    Cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth is on a less familiar side of the camera in "Shooting Old School" (16 min.), chatting about classic techniques that wouldn't be used if Motel Hell were being made today, the challenges of shooting a chainsaw duel, catching Rory Calhoun off-guard by reminding him of their embarrassing and less-than-seaworthy first encounter decades earlier, and the appeal of tackling such a surreal premise for his first feature film.

    "Ida, Be Thy Name" (18 min.) has a gaggle of scream queens and female film critics commenting on gender conventions in horror. They dive into a long list of different genre flicks -- everything from Sexy Killer to Black Sunday to Carrie to Friday the 13th to...errr, Basic Instinct? -- but they primarily use Motel Hell to illustrate their points. There's some discussion about virginal Final Girls and slutty red shirts, but with Ida getting top billing, the conversation naturally revolves most heavily around movie murderesses.

    Chats with a couple of actors round out the interviews. Actress and Playboy Playmate Rosanne Katon takes center stage in "From Glamour to Gore" (11 min.), touching on breaking into the industry at a very young age but struggling to find work because of her race. Motel Hell isn't the central topic of discussion, but she does talk about its demented sense of humor and what it was like to work with folks on both sides of the camera. Of the three actors interviewed on this disc, Paul Linke is far and away the one with the most screentime in Motel Hell, and it follows that his interview is the longest of the bunch too. Linke talks about spending sixty hours sucking in toxic bee smoke while slinging around a chainsaw, grousing at an underlit sex scene, noting how the role of the sheriff was written for him, and how Motel Hell might've had a different leading lady if he and his wife didn't do the whole home birth thing.

  • Still Galleries (HD): Between them, Motel Hell's pair of galleries pile on close to 150 images! They're all really terrific, high-res scans too. Featuring around twenty photos, the behind the scenes gallery is the smaller of the two. The Posters and Production Gallery, though, is staggeringly huge, delivering somewhere in the neighborhood of 125 posters, alternate poster concepts, lobby cards, and production stills.

  • Trailer (3 min.; SD): Last up is a standard-def trailer.

Motel Hell scores a bunch of the traditional Scream Factory bells and whistles. This is a combo pack with an anamorphic widescreen DVD along for the ride, the cover art is reversible, and, yup, there's a slipcover.

The Final Word
With its cacklingly dark sense of humor and some unforgettably twisted visuals, Motel Hell still feels fresh and wildly unique even all these decades later. I can't say I'm bowled over by the presentation, but there's no question that it's still a sizeable upgrade over MGM's twelve year old DVD double feature, and the slew of extras make this Blu-ray disc that much easier to recommend. Highly Recommended.
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