Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Blu-ray Review: MOTEL HELL (1980)

MOTEL HELL (1980) 

Dual Format Blu-ray + DVD
Label: Arrow Video
Region Code: 2/B
Rating: 18 Certificate 
Duration: 101 Minutes 
Audio: English LPCM Audio with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Kevin Connor
Cast: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons

Synopsis: “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters!” cackle the brother-and-sister team behind the finest smoked meats in the county. They also run the friendly Motel Hello (the ‘o’ in the neon sign sometimes goes on the blink), and no matter how many times you've seen Psycho or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you can be sure that everything will be perfectly above board here as Vincent’s brother Bruce is the local sheriff.

Motel Hell stands alone as one of the strangest slasher entries of all time, a cannibal farmer named Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his portly sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) run the welcoming Motel Hello just off a country road in Bumblefuck, USA, the neon sign "O" flickers on and off, too cute. The duo sell a branded variety of smoked sausage and dried meat to the tourist under the name of Farmer Vincent's Fritters. Anyone who's seen the film certainly knows that "It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters!", indeed. What kind of critters you may be wondering, well the two-legged human variety, of course.  

That premise alone would be just odd enough to catch your interest, right? Sure, but the producers of Motel Hell take it to even weirder places. Farmer Vincent, played to straight-faced comedic perfection by Western-actor Rory Calhoun, sets up elaborate traps on the roadways to ensnare fresh meat, the best involving luring would-be swingers to the hotel under false pretense and a series of  wooden stand-up cows to block the road, it's great stuff. But wait, it gets weirder! Vincent doesn't put his meat to death right away, nope, he plants them in a secret garden buried up to their necks with burlap sacks over their heads, he then cuts their vocal chords, there they are fed cream corn through a series of funnels until they are deemed ready for slaughter, at which point they are entranced by a psychedelic translucent pinwheel and their necks are broken with nooses tied to the back of tractor! He does this with the help of his ever-hungry and demented sister Ida played by Porky's Nancy Parsons, she's exquisite in the part, it's a shame we didn't to see more of her in these types of nutty roles, she's a blast. 

Apparently not all tourists are destined for the smokehouse, Farmer Vincent has a soft spot for a pretty young gal named Terry (Nina Axelrod), bringing her back to the motel after planting her boyfriends in the garden. When she wakes up Vincent explains that her boyfriend Bo (Everett Creach) was killed following a motorcycle accident (which he caused), with nowhere else to go Terry decides to stay on at the motel. Vincent and Ida set about teaching Terry how to properly smoke a sausage... if you know what I mean. Over time Terry quite improbably agrees to marry the much older Vincent, much to the dismay of his distrusting sister and Vincent's dimwitted brother Bruce (Paul Linke, TV's CHiPS) who has his own amorous feelings for Terry. Nice guy Bruce turns out to be the Sheriff and has no idea his brother is turning tourists into breakfast sausages. 

Soon enough it is revealed to Bruce that his demented brother Vincent is stuffing his
sausage with more than just pork and we get a truly excellent chainsaw vs. chainsaw battle that pre-dates Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) with farmer Vincent wearing the iconic pig's head! Motel Hell is a strange and wonderful slasher with lots of quirk and black humor, Calhoun totally makes the films as the folksy cannibal farmer, the wit is wry and the on goings are bizarre. The film has definitely left it's mark on slasher cinema, from indie horrors  like 2010's Porkchop with it's pig-headed killer to Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror which I think gives this film a nod, Vincent's last words are to lament that he used preservatives in his sausage, the whole scenario brought to mind J.T's secret BBQ sauce recipe from PT. Motel Hell is a classic horror-comedy and it only gets better with subsequent viewings, this is an annual watch for me! Tobe Hooper was originally slated to direct this film, he skipped it to direct The Funhouse (1981) which I certainly love, it's interesting to note that aside from the dueling chainsaws Hooper's  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) shares a similar sense of humor and tonal quality   

Blu-ray: Arrow Video present Motel Hell in it's original widescreen (1.85:1) aspect ratio and it greatly benefits from the new 1080p transfer! I just watched the 2002  Deranged/Motel DVD from MGM and the upgrade is quite significant with improved colors, contrast and way more detail in the image, also added depth and clarity. The English LPCM Audio is nice if unremarkable, dialogue, score and effects come through crisp and clean with no distortion, it has a bit more depth and oomph to it. Keep in mind that the disc is region 'B' locked, and does include an English SDH subtitle option. 

Motel Hell is long overdue for a special edition having languished for years with only a bare bones DVD edition bereft of features. Arrow Video have done the film a proper service with a director's commentary track and four brand-new interviews courtesy of High Rising Productionss! 

The Audio commentary with director Kevin Connor is moderated by Calum Waddell and it's a good listen as Connor talks about his TV career and not wanting to make a gory slasher with Motel Hell, focusing more on the dark comedy of the material. He goes into production notes, scene specific musings and recollections of working with Rory Calhoun, Nancy Parsons and Paul Linke. 

Reversible Artwork 
Co-star Paul Linke gets a video interview with Another Head on the Chopping Block (14:50) as does former Playboy Playmate, Rosanne Katon with From Glamour to Gore (11:26). Porky's alum Nancy Parsons gets her own retrospective in Ida, Be Thy Name (18:07) with interviews from Scream Queens Elissa Dowling and Chantelle Albers, genre commentator Staci Layne Wilson and critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg. The last featurette is Back to the Backwoods (10:09) an appreciation of the bizarre slasher with the director of The Hills Run Red Dave Parker who talks a bit about the film's prescient social commentary and influence on slasher cinema  Also included is the Trailer (2:36) 

Special Features:
- Audio commentary with director Kevin Connor moderated by Calum Waddell
- Another Head on the Chopping Block: Interview with star Paul Linke (14:50)
- From Glamour to Gore: Interview with co-star, and former Playboy Playmate, Rosanne Katon (11:26)
- Ida, Be Thy Name: A look back at Motel Hell’s frightful female protagonist Ida Smith – and the secrets of creating a convincing slasher siren, with Scream Queens Elissa Dowling and Chantelle Albers, genre commentator Staci Layne Wilson and critic Shelagh Rowan-Legg (18:07)
- Back to the Backwoods: Director Dave Parker (The Hills Run Red) speaks about the importance of Motel Hell (10:09)
- Original Trailer (2:36)
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Jeff Zornow
- Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kim Newman, illustrated with original archive stills and posters

Verdict: A strange and quirky early slasher entry, the dark humor was ahead of it's time by a few years, an essential must-own for slasher fan. Arrow Video's edition looks fantastic and is loaded with great features, sure to be the definitive edition for quite some time, slasher fans should rejoice. 4 Outta 5