Release Date(s)1980 (June 27, 2023)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
With a tagline like “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters,” you know you’re in for something special. Motel Hell was pretty much a cult classic right from the get-go. It hit the genre scene and never really left, thanks mostly to its quirky, satirical edge and long-lasting horror appeal. After all, where else are you going to see a chainsaw duel between a cop and a maniacal, cackling farmer wearing a pig’s head?
Directed by Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave), Motel Hell stars an amazingly off-the-wall Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent, a home-spun, apple pie character on the surface hiding a monster underneath who treats murder like an every day activity, doing anything and everything to protect his secret recipe. He and his wife Ida run an out-of-the-way motel where they harvest the guests for meat, planting them in their hidden gardens and severing their vocal chords to keep them quiet. Also among the cast are Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Paul Linke, Wolfman Jack, and a pre-Cheers John Ratzenberger in a non-speaking role as one of the latest victims.
Motel Hell feels like an ironic answer to something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And in many ways, it feels like a Tobe Hooper production, especially since he had made a film with a similar premise four years prior (Eaten Alive, aka Horror Hotel), not to mention The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 six years later, which has even stronger similarities. Whether TCM2 was influenced by Motel Hell or not isn’t clear, but like that film, Motel Hell has its tongue planted firmly in cheek with a mix of the bizarre and the outlandish alongside some truly horrific moments. You’d be hard-pressed to get the gurgling sounds of Vincent and Ida’s garden-laden victims out of your head. In other words, it’s as wonderfully psychotic as it is laugh-out-loud funny. However, it wasn’t well-looked upon critically or commercially at the time of its original release in 1980 (the year of Friday the 13th, The Fog, and The Shining), but it continues to thrive in the horror community.
Motel Hell was shot by director of photography Thomas Del Ruth on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras and Panavision lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Scream Factory originally released the film on Blu-ray in 2014 (and a subsequent Steelbook release in 2020), and they’ve returned once again for its Ultra HD debut with a new 2023 4K scan of the original camera negative, graded for High Dynamic Range (HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are included). Motel Hell has always been a complicated film visually, especially in the pre-optical disc days, but each new format has allowed its sometimes soft and murky cinematography more and more fine detail. Scream Factory’s UHD upgrade tops out with the strongest presentation to date. A much tighter and more even field of grain is on display, as well as a healthy bitrate, allowing for crisper textures. Backgrounds and objects found within some of the darker scenes have vastly improved definition. The HDR10 grade enriches the detail in the rural-based color palette, while the Dolby Vision pass allows further nuances in the darker areas of the frame. Blacks are deep with perfect contrast, and the overall image is stable and clean. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal presentation of Motel Hell than what’s presented here. It’s satisfyingly organic and film-like in a way that doesn’t appear scrubbed or made to appear like a more modern film. It still looks like a film that was released in 1980, in the best way possible.
Audio is included in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. The film was released in Dolby Stereo, meaning this is a two channel stereo fold-down. It’s also a restored track that was previously included on Scream Factory’s 2020 Steelbook Blu-ray release. It’s certainly a more accurate stereo experience, though the soundtrack lacks any major dynamics. Dialogue is usually clean and clear, with plenty of support for sound effects and score. It’s hard to say whether a multi-channel remix would improve upon it at all.
Motel Hell on Collector’s Edition 4K Ultra HD sits in a black amaray case alongside a 1080p Blu-ray, with reversible artwork featuring the film’s theatrical poster variants on each side, as well as a slipcover. The following extras are included, all in HD:
DISC ONE (UHD)
- Audio Commentary with Kevin Connor and Dave Parker
DISC TWO (BD)
- Audio Commentary with Kevin Connor and Dave Parker
- It Takes All Kinds: The Making of Motel Hell (24:33)
- Shooting Old School with Thomas Del Ruth (15:45)
- Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Females of Fear (18:09)
- From Glamour to Gore: Rosanne Katon Remembers Motel Hell (11:28)
- Another Head on the Chopping Block: An Interview with Paul Linke (14:52)
- Trailers & TV Spots (5:15)
- Behind the Scenes Gallery (17 in all – 2:33)
- Posters and Production Gallery (127 in all – 17:38)
The audio commentary between director Kevin Connor and moderator Dave Parker is a pleasant if imperfect companion to the film, acting more as a Q&A than anything else. Connor is game to answer questions, though both he and Parker fall into the trap of going silent while watching the film. Still, it’s a decent track that manages to stay mostly on the rails. It Takes All Kinds is a retrospective look at the making of the film with producer Robert Jaffe, writer and producer Steven-Charles Jaffe, director Kevin Connor, and actor Marc Silver. Shooting Old School speaks to cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth, From Glamour to Gore features an interview with actress Rosanne Katon, and Another Head on the Chopping Block talks to actor Paul Linke. Ida, Be Thy Name discusses female-inhabited roles in various horror films with film critic Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg, actresses Chantelle Albers, Elissa Dowling, and author and critic Staci Layne Wilson. Last are a series of two trailers and three TV spots, as well as a pair of still galleries featuring a total of 144 behind-the-scenes photos, posters, lobby cards, and other pieces of artwork for the film.
Motel Hell’s UHD debut will certainly please long-time fans, and welcome new ones into the fold with a beautiful presentation and a nice of set of vintage bonus materials. You can experience the film in all of its people-eating, chainsaw-dueling, neck-breaking, preservative-containing glory. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons