Motel Hell (1980) d. Kevin Connor (USA)
“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s Fritters.” So runs the tagline for this oddball combo of black humor and horror, featuring veteran character actor Rory Calhoun as Vincent, the proprietor of the titular establishment (the “O” on the “Motel Hello” neon sign keeps going on the blink) He and equally wacky sibling Ida (a pre-Porky’s Nancy Parsons) make their living by snaring unsuspecting passing motorists to fill up the skins of their famous, delight-of-the-county sausages. When Vincent takes a shine to potential tasty treat Terry (bland blonde Nina Axelrod), tensions rise between the killer siblings, not to mention goofy brother Bruce (Paul Linke) who serves as the local badge.
For his first American feature, Connor took a break from directing Amicus’ Doug McClure-starring fantasy epics (The Land that Time Forgot, Warlords of Atlantis, etc.) to helm the madness, and does a smashing job balancing the chainsaws and chuckles. Calhoun and Parsons are simply terrific, and the spirited set-up and multitude of off-the-wall vignettes have earned Motel Hell a lasting cult reputation.
There’s an inspired sense of creativity throughout, from its cannibalistic premise to the creepy images of the “secret garden” behind the smokehouse to the delightfully quotable lines by sibling producing & screenwriting team of Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe. As for Axelrod, well, she does take her top off from time to time, so there’s that.
Among the planted victims, watch for future Cheers standout John Ratzenberger and Playboy centerfolds Monique St. Pierre and Rosanne Katon, while famed rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack appears as local TV preacher Reverend Billy. The film also marks an early credit for famed cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth, who went on to lens The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me, and The Mighty Ducks.
Formerly paired with Alan Ormsby’s thinly veiled Ed Gein biography Deranged on MGM’s Midnite Movies imprint, Shout! Factory gives Connor’s class-sick a marvelous hi-def upgrade, chock-full of featurettes and trivia aplenty. With “It Takes All Kinds,” we learn that Harry Dean Stanton was Connor’s first choice, and that the actor playing our first televangelist (Dick Curtis) also plays the wacky male swinger opposite Elaine Joyce’s whip-cracking hedonist.
Del Ruth gets his own segment, “Shooting Old School,” chatting amiably about the shooting process, the deliberately garish color palette, and recalling a funny childhood incident meeting an un-sail worthy Calhoun.
“Ida Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Fear” is a well-intentioned but meandering celebration of women horror icons, with horror journalists (Staci Layne Wilson, Shelagh Rowan-Legg) and “scream queens” (Chantelle Albers, Elissa Dowling) waxing philosophical. Unfortunately, alongside Aine Leicht’s more polished and focused pieces, Calum Waddell’s offering feels a little undercooked and out of place.
One wishes the featurette would had focused exclusively on Parsons’ character’s status in the horror pantheon instead of attempting to cover such a complex topic in such scant time. (Waddell does a much better job chatting with the enthusiastic and articulate Katon for “From Glamour to Gore” and the garrulous Linke on “Another Head on the Chopping Block.”)
For the newly recorded commentary track, The Hills Run Red director and card-carrying Motel Hell fan David Parker shares the microphone with Connor, who reveals that his biggest contributions were to trim out the Jaffe boys’ juvenilia – their original script apparently opened with “INTERIOR: Motel Bedroom. A fat woman is in bed with a dildo and a pig.” – and not to mock the material, but to play it straight. (We also learn that Axelrod was engaged to Robert Jaffe, which answers a lot of questions.)
About halfway through, most of the prepared questions are exhausted, so we end up basically just watching the movie along with the pair, though Parker keeps asking enjoyably fanboyish queries on the fly, with Connor’s memory and wit still sharp 34 years on.
Motel Hell arrives on DVD/BR August 12 from Shout! Factory and can be pre-ordered HERE:
SPECIAL OFFER: Order directly from ShoutFactory.com and receive an exclusive 18"x24" poster featuring Nathan Thomas Milliner’s newly commissioned artwork! (Available while supplies last.)
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine