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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Blu-ray Review
Motel Hell  (1980)
Reviewed by Dustin Putman

The Film
2 Stars
(Release Date: August 12, 2014) – Perhaps because "Motel Hell" is such an odd duck, it has attained an affectionate cult following in the decades since it first came to theaters. The film arrived in 1980, smack-dab in the middle of the post-"Halloween" slasher craze, but it doesn't quite fit into the conventions of this stalk-and-slash subgenre. Director Kevin Connor also touches upon non-traditional gardening, lobotomized zombies, a chainsaw-wielding farmer wearing a pig's head, and an undercurrent of humor so burnt-black it practically sizzles. That the movie is set at a backwoods inn called Motel Hello is practically an afterthought. There is so much going on that the narrative never properly focuses on any one thing, leaving no characters to care about and connect with despite there being a number of fine performances.

As brother and sister motel owners Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida Vincent (Nancy Parsons) set about planting human vegetables and grinding them into their delicious smoked fritters, their sleepy town barely notices when there is an uptick in motorist disappearances. Indeed, it takes Vincent's police officer brother, Bruce (Paul Linke), quite some time to figure out something suspicious is going on. Meanwhile, Terry (Nina Axelrod) survives a booby-trapped motorcycle accident that kills her boyfriend, not realizing that her significant other has been slaughtered by the very siblings who allow her to move in with them at their motel. Terry falls head over heels for the past-middle-aged Vincent, and easily forgives Ida after the daffy woman attempts to drown her in the nearby lake. Suffice it to say, the character motivations in "Motel Hell" are on the confused-verging-on-insane side, but there are a number of weirdly original visuals throughout, not the least of them being the sight of human heads sprouting up from the dirt in what can only be labeled the world's most perverse garden.

"Motel Hell" was not a favorite of mine growing up, and seeing it again as an adult it remains an emotionally chilly experience with a story and characters so out-there that it is difficult to connect to anything or anyone on the screen. There is a lot to at least admire, though, starting with the late, great Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons, both actors giving uniquely uninhibited performances as Farmer Vincent and sister Ida. They may be mentally ill murderers, but they are also kind of amicable. The sweaty, swampy setting is certainly memorable, as are the tonal shifts that take the movie from satire to horror to soap opera, sometimes in the same scene. By the end credits, however, the lumbering "Motel Hell" has proven to be more curiosity than full-fledged success.

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"Motel Hell" has never been the sleekest, shiniest of films, but its 1080p transfer is leaps and bounds better than the visual presentations seen during its VHS and standard-def DVD days. There are sparse instances of age-related print damage, a couple moments of fluctuating black levels and the occasional specks and dirt. When stacked up against everything that is so very good about the movie's U.S. Blu-ray premiere, the minor debits start to fade away. The fine layer of grain over the image is natural and beautiful (insomuch that something so grimy can be beautiful), and the increase in detail and clarity is eye-opening. For the most part, this is a pleasingly clean transfer, far fresher and more dynamic that what one expects from a low-budget horror flick from 1980. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio is front-heavy, of course, but looks to be an accurate, full-bodied representation of exactly how the track was intended to sound.

Blu-ray Features
  • Audio Commentary with director Kevin Connor, moderated by filmmaker Dave Parker
  • "It Takes All Kinds: The Making of Motel Hell" (24:33, HD) - featuring interviews with writer/producer Robert Jaffe, writer/producer Steven-Charles Jaffe, director Kevin Connor, and actor Marc Silver
  • "Shooting Old School" - an interview with cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth (15:45, HD)
  • "From Glamour to Gore" - an interview with actress Roseanne Katon (11:28, HD)
  • "Another Head on the Chopping Block" - an interview with actor Paul Linke (14:52, HD)
  • "Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Fear" Featurette (18:09, HD)
  • Theatrical Trailer (2:40, HD)
  • Behind the Scenes Gallery (2:33, HD)
  • Posters and Production Gallery (17:38, HD)
Bottom Line
For genre fans of the offbeat, horrific and tongue-in-cheek, Scream Factory's impressively packed Collector's Edition Blu-ray release of "Motel Hell" is worth seeking out. Kudos, too, for the awesome new cover artwork from artist Nathan Thomas Milliner. There are plenty of better pictures in the company's illustrious genre line, but I am thrilled that films like this have been freshened up and given a chance at a second life thirty-plus years removed from when they were made. Recommended.

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© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman