THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
It's time for Motel Hell to claim its rightful place as one of the premier midnight movies. The 1980 horror-comedy has amassed a following since its release, but never one of the proportion it deserves. Far funnier and more perverse than, say, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Motel Hell really needs to march right to the head of the cult movie class. Scream Factory has just released it in a Blu-Ray collector's edition that will hopefully help the cause.
The story takes place at the rural Motel Hello. (The “o” is burned out on the neon sign.) The seemingly benevolent owner, Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun), is always happy to have new guests. That's because he and sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) bury them up to their necks out in the “secret garden,” until they're ready to be turned into the smoked meats they sell. “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters!” their slogan reads. Their practice is threatened with the arrival of Terry (Nina Axelrod), a young woman Farmer Vincent chooses to spare. She stays with Vincent and Ida, not aware that they have killed her boyfriend. Both Vincent and Sheriff Bruce (Paul Linke) end up fighting for her affections.
Motel Hell is, as I said earlier, a perverse film, both in its humor and its horror. The whole concept of cannibalism is appropriately icky here. The sight of innocent people buried like heads of lettuce in a garden feels creepy, while the much-beloved finale – involving a chainsaw-wielding Farmer Vincent wearing a pig's head – achieves an aura of genuine dementedness. Meanwhile, as sick as some of the story's events are, you often can't help but laugh at them. Motel Hell goes just far enough over the top to avoid being offensive. There's a tongue-in-cheek spirit to the movie (in addition to an admirable restraint when it comes to gore) that is, dare I say, kind of charming. In one particularly amusing scene, Vincent brings in a spinning wheel with blinking lights to hypnotize the people buried out back.
The two central performances go a long way toward enhancing the outrageous material. Rory Calhoun is perfection as Farmer Vincent, achieving a nice balance between outward down-to-earth normality and inner psychosis. We totally believe people would see Vincent as a nice guy, possibly even a rube, yet we also believe him as a nut case with a penchant for eating others. Nancy Parsons is great, too, as the more visibly unstable Ida. Parsons gives her line readings a very subtle, but enormously effective, twinge of insanity, so that we know Ida is crazy but we never know how crazy. (Until it pays off to reveal the depth of her craziness, that is.) Both leads understand the tone of Motel Hell, and their efforts make it both funny and ghoulish.
I remember seeing this film when I was a kid. Something about its off-kilter sensibility and dark humor appealed to me. That allure remains as strong as ever. If you've never seen Motel Hell, you'll never have a better opportunity. If you've seen it before, check it out again on this terrific-looking Blu-Ray to rediscover its sick, twisted pleasures.
As is usually the case, Scream Factory has loaded up their collector's edition Blu-Ray with an outstanding assortment of supplementary materials, starting off with audio commentary from director Kevin Connor.
“It Takes All Kinds: The Making of Motel Hell” is a 24-minute retrospective documentary looking at the film's origins. Connor, writers/producers Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe, and actor Mark Silver are all on hand to offer reminiscences about the movie. Most interesting tidbit: Harry Dean Stanton was approached to play Farmer Vincent, but he turned the role down.
“Shooting Old School” focuses on cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth. He points out that, in this age of CGI, Motel Hell wouldn't be filmed the same way today. He also shares a story about his prior collaboration with Calhoun. “Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Horror” is a superb 18-minute feature in which several female horror experts – including actresses and film critics – weigh in on various women villains in the genre. It's insightful and entertaining.
“From Glamour to Gore” is an interview with former Playboy playmate Rosann Katon, who talks about her role as a victim in Motel Hell and the small number of parts available to African-American women at the time. She's got some worthy insights. Paul Linke gets an individual interview segment too, entitled “Another Head on the Chopping Block.” He discusses his role and other memories of making the film.
A couple of still galleries and the original theatrical trailer round out the package.
Motel Hell is nicely celebrated on this lovingly prepared Scream Factory edition. It's one of their best releases to date. For more information, please visit the Scream Factory website.
Motel Hell is rated R for sequences of violence and gore, sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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