Motel Hell Review
The horror-comedy film is a difficult balancing act to carry off. Horror films which are unintentionally funny are, of course, two-a-penny but many comic films which try to scare the audience don’t have the basic ruthlessness to fulfill the task. Alternatively, an intense horror film which has comic asides risks losing viewers who want to be frightened or, if the brutality is too gruelling, may simply come off as flip. There are however a few movies which successful balance the two and one of the most enjoyable is Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell, a genuinely funny film which is often remarkably tense and occasionally even alarming.
Farmer Vincent (Calhoun) is a motel owner who has a profitable side-line as a purveyor of smoked meats. Living with his sister Ida (Parsons), his avuncular nature hides a sinister secret; the meat comes from unwary travellers whose cars have been ambushed. They are buried in a secret garden, their voices quietened with a quick slit to the vocal cords, and prepared for harvesting. But Vincent sees himself as a prophet, anticipating a revolutionary way of producing food for the new Millennium. This derangement doesn’t particularly affect his good nature and he is generous to his victims, soothing them with New Age music and hypnotising them before breaking their necks. But the arrival in the family set-up of Terry (Axelrod), a beautiful passenger that Vincent couldn’t bear to kill, causes tension with Ida, who is jealous, and Vincent’s brother Bruce (Linke), the local sheriff who has lustful intentions of his own.
For fans of black comedy, this should be more than enough to place the film at the top of their must-see list. But the film has several other notable aspects. For a start, it’s extremely well directed by Kevin Connor, a perhaps surprising choice given that his most recent work had been on family films such as Warlords of Atlantis and Arabian Adventure. But Connor began his career with the British company Amicus and his first theatrical film was From Beyond the Grave, one of the best anthology horror films which has a couple of episodes which are a beautifully judged mixture of humour and terror. He knows when to play for laughs and when to get serious with the final confrontation being a particularly well handled sequence. There are even some slightly disturbing moments - the noises made by the victims tend to linger in the mind. He makes the most of a script by Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe which has some memorable dialogue and creates deliciously quirky situations like a hilarious swingers party attended by a TV evangelist and his pneumatic girlfriend. A word too for the moody cinematography by Thomas Del Ruth who is otherwise best known for Stand By Me.
The greatest delight in a film full of unexpected treats is the cast, headed by Rory Calhoun. Sometimes an actor who has been reliable but unremarkable finds a part which he was born to play, and in the case of Calhoun that part turned out to be Farmer Vincent. Years of playing the lead in cowboy movies has given him an aura of solid reliability and he uses this to brilliant effect, making the fundamentally crazy Vincent seem strangely reasonable and even heroic. He also has a wonderful way with a good line – shortly after breaking the necks of an appalling heavy metal band called “Ivan and the Terribles” he muses, “I wonder about the Karmic implications of these acts.” Partnering him to good effect are Nancy Parsons, one of those reliable character players who occasionally got a leading role, and Paul Linke, a TV regular who is very funny as the horny law-enforcer who turns out to be braver than expected. There’s also a nice bit from Wolfman Jack as a self-righteous preacher.
If there’s a disappointment to be had in this tremendously enjoyable film, it’s the role of Terry. Nina Axelrod does her best and she’s certainly very attractive. But the role as written is so idiotic and inconsistently characterised that it’s impossible to become involved with her and she’s side-lined in the finale so that she never even gets the chance to become an archetypal Final Girl.
Motel Hell looked awful on previous DVD releases, particularly the UK one from ILC Prime which was a dingy, smeary mess. To say that Arrow’s Blu-Ray is an improvement is a vast understatement.
The film is presented at an aspect ratio of 1.85 with an MPEG-4 ACV encoding. It’s a very nice image throughout despite occasional very minor damage. Colours are fairly muted but that’s characteristic of the film which only occasionally indulges in vivid splashes of bright primary red. The frequent night exteriors are rendered very nicely with visible film grain but no obtrusive noise and plenty of and detail. Indeed, clarity throughout is the watchword along with an obvious reluctance to meddle with what was originally filmed.
Not much to say about the soundtrack which is a good example of a lossless stereo LPCM mix. Not an especially eventful track but it's clear of extraneous noise, the dialogue sounds natural and the sound effects are particularly effective.
A number of useful extra features are provided. The best of them is an excellent audio commentary from Kevin Connor and Calum Waddell which goes through the making of the film in a relaxed and jovial fashion. There are also a number of featurettes; interviews with cast members Paul Linke and Roseanne Katon; a tribute from the director of The Hills Run Red, Dave Parker; and an overview of “slasher sirens” from critics and actresses. Of these, the best is the brief interview with Paul Linke, a familiar TV face who turns out to have surprising depths and is quite critical of this film. The other two interviewees are likeable but have nothing much of interest to say. The featurette about female horror villains is marred by a lot of very obvious comments but gets extra marks for including some good clips. Finally, there’s the original theatrical trailer which is in rather poor condition and demonstrates the quality of the restoration of the finished film. Optional English subtitles are available on the film.
The Arrow Blu-Ray comes with a booklet which wasn’t available to this reviewer but which promises a new essay from the excellent Kim Newman and the usual reversible cover with new art by Jeff Zornow.