Color, 1980, 101m.
Directed by Kevin Connor
Starring Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Wolfman Jack, John Ratzenberger
Arrow (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), MGM (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), CMV Laservision (DVD) (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

Motel Hell

A real surprise at the dawn of the slasher era in the early '80s, Motel Hell grabbed Motel Hellhorror fans' attention when a disturbing image featuring a maniac in a bloody pig mask wielding a chainsaw landed on the cover of Fangoria, causing the issue to get pulled from stands. Many assumed it was another variation on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the actual film turned out to be something much stranger: one of the most twisted black comedy horror films in mainstream American cinema. It's closest in spirit to fare like Private Parts, Parents, and Eating Raoul, but the often grotesque visuals made it difficult for some to figure out what was really going on.

Farmer Vincent (western star Calhoun) and his sister Ida (Parsons, aka Miss Balbricker from Porky's) own some property where they grow crops and run a little place called Motel Hello. Vincent produces a popular line of smoked meat products complete with the catchy tagline, "It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters." Of course, said critters include people unlucky enough to run afoul of him at night, be it in vehicle crashes or just turning up at the wrong time. Vincent and Ida bury folks up to their necks, remove their vocal chords, and fatten them up until they're prime sausage material. Meanwhile Vincent's lawman brother, Bruce (Linke), tends to turn a blind eye to some of his family's stranger behavior since he's distracted by a pretty blonde girlfriend (Axelrod), but when push comes to shove, he might have to descend to their level to restore law and order.

Complete with an infamous dueling chainsaw showdown, an early role for future Pixar voice artist and Cheers regular John Ratzenberger in the sausage garden, and an appearance by popular scratchy-voiced DJ Wolfman Jack, Motel Hell remains an engaging cult oddity with a Motel Hellgoofy vibe that requires a little adjustment to appreciate. The deliberately disjointed story hops and skips between characters every few minutes or so and changes tone almost as often, but the clear comedic intentions keep the whole thing anchored along with an excellent central performance from Calhoun (whose curtain-dropping line is a real keeper).

A familiar presence on home video dating way back to the early VHS days in one of those oversized MGM/UA boxes, Motel HellMotel Hell has never been the most visually dazzling specimen due to the intentionally dark, gritty photography, which is wholly appropriate in setting up the tricky mood of macabre humor. The first DVD edition came from MGM as a double feature with Deranged, while a hi-def transfer aired occasionally on the MGMHD channel. In a nice surprise, this turned out to be one of the first MGM titles released on Blu-Ray in the UK by Arrow as part of a licensing deal, complete with one of their great, lurid cover art designs (plus a reversible design with the original poster art on the other side). The transfer looks great, all things considered, as it not only blows the old DVD out of the water (and features more image info in the bargain) but also sails past the HD broadcast version with tighter, more natural grain and better detail. The red-saturated opening also finally looks crisp and legible, with past NTSC and PAL versions struggling mightily to make sense out of it at all. The LPCM stereo audio sounds very robust as well, with optional SDH English subtitles included.

The plentiful extras start with an enjoyable audio commentary with English director Kevin Connor, who's still very busy today. He had made an auspicious feature film debut with the last and one of the Amicus horror anthologies, 1974's From Beyond the Grave, followed by adventure films like At the Earth's Core, The People That Time Forgot, and Warlords of the Deep. Joined by moderator Callum Waddell, he goes into detail about juggling the balance of horror and comedy, the process of financing and shooting the film, the critical reception at the time, and much of the cast, with Calhoun giving it his all and grateful for a juicy role this late in his career. The 14-minute featurette "Another Motel HellHead on the Chopping Block" features Linke talking about the production including his memories of Calhoun and especially Axelrod, for whom the part was written after she fell in love with co-writer Robert Jaffe whom she met during the birth of Linke's child. "From Glamour to Gore" spends a fun 11 minutes with actress Rosanne Katon Motel Hell(who plays Suzi), who covers her colorful career including her early "hippie" days in which she became a Playboy Playmate. She describes that experience as "weird" and remembers getting fan letters from inmates, and she covers a few of her other titles including the drive-in favorite Ebony, Ivory and Jade. The longest but least substantial extra, the 18-minute "Ida, Be Thy Name" starts off as a look at strong women in horror with clips of Parsons in this film, but it quickly veers off and features more general comments from scream queens Chantelle Albers and Elissa Dowling as well as writers Shelagh Rowan-Legg and Staci Layne Wilson. It's mostly broad discussions of notable female heroines and villains in horror ranging from Black Sunday to Friday the 13th, with a few sage observations along the way. Don't look for much material pertinent to Motel Hell, but there's a brief HD clip from the terrific The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, another MGM property that's hopefully on Arrow's list of future releases. The 10-minute "Back to the Backwoods" is saved for last of the featurettes but might actually be the best, with horror director Dave Parker (The Hills Run Red and The Dead Hate the Living) showing off his Motel Hell Halloween costume (it's pretty cool) and sketching out the history of the film, from the initial offer to director Tobe Hooper through its production history and place in the horror genre. Finally you get the theatrical trailer and an insert booklet with liner notes by Kim Newman, and you've got the recipe for a very tasty release.

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Reviewed on May 18, 2013.