Kevin Connor started off his film making career with classic Amicus Anthology ‘From Beyond The Grave’ (1974). From there he went into Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy fare and put Doug McClure well and truly on the map with the likes of ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ (1975) through to Warlords Of Atlantis (1978) and Arabian Adventure (1979). During that time he got in a couple of episodes of Space 1999. These were the things I grew up on basically (well too young for the Amicus) and have fond memories of seeing at the cinema at the tender age of almost hitting double figures. From that time it has mainly been TV movies and series that Connor has worked amongst with the likes of Heart To Heart and North And South and certainly not genre titles. He did hit our radar though a couple of times with The House Where Evil Dwells (1982) and for me his best genre offering Motel Hell (1980).
1980 was a year that some of the greatest and most infamous films hit the screen. We had The Shining, Maniac, The Fog, Friday The 13th, Altered States, Cannibal Holocaust and Apocalypse, Zombie Holocaust, Inferno, The Changeling, City Of The Living Dead and loads more. To say it was a defining year in the history of the horror film and one that would pave the way for the video nasty era would be a big understatement. Amongst that plethora of titles was Motel Hell and yes it held its head up very nicely thank you, well until it chopped it off with a chainsaw!
At the age of 12 it was going to be some time before I could do more than stare at wonderment at the lurid sleeves of these features in the local video stores which were popping up everywhere. Motel Hell was originally out via Warner in one of those puffy boxes you might remember sharing space next to Mad Max and The Enforcer. The fantastical sleeve art begged a stack of questions, who were those denim clad figures sinisterly standing over a load of screaming heads in the earth being the prime one? Of course it was some time before these questions were answered and I viewed the film finally as the video disappeared into obscurity too. It may well have been at The Scala cinema in Kings Cross on a double bill with I believe 1989 film Parents (Bob Balaban) another obscure one.
In the vein of films such as American Gothic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive we are in the American heartlands where “meat’s meat and a man’s gotta eat.” The meat in question is lovingly reared by Farmer Vincent Smith (Western icon Rory Calhoun) think loveable Ed Gein (not least as this film was double billed on American DVD with Deranged) and sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) think top dog Bea Smith Prisoner Cell Block H. They look after the hotel of the title and their free range pigs (including the one that visits in the car and is their sibling and local sheriff) but is that all that goes into their award winning jerky? The movie is not to be taken totally seriously and those who were young at the time and had survived the harrowing TCM could breathe a sigh of relief at the large quantity of black humour liberally dosed out here.
The extra ingredients and I am giving nothing more away than the cover art here is that classic ole favourite Soilent Green and the road kill helped along its way by good ole Farmer Vincent keeps on piling up. My favourite are the stoned band Ivan And The Terribles “hey man this red is strong I’m gonna crash” being the prophetic sort of fun line the film is littered with. The good thing is that whilst they could well be prejudiced rednecks they are not as confirmed by the legendary quote “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters. The only survivor is Terry (Nina Axelrod) who survives a plotted Rabid like bike crash and is adopted by the farming clan as surrogate dauhter. As the plot unveils and the body count rises you are fully aware that things cannot last forever and before you can say meat is murder things build up to one of the most classic scenes of deranged cinema ever, a chainsaw duel with one of the fighters wearing a full pigs head, marvellous and done without being at all hammy (sorry). Many films of the era featured chainsaws, “the saw was the law” but this one kind of tops them all for sheer ludicrousness and helped guarantee the film a place in mine and many other’s hearts.
Having said that watching it again, as it has been a while since viewing the MGM Region 1 release, I was surprised by the fact that there is very little actual gore in the film. It really is not a splatter fest at all but a lot of the shocks are more implied again as they were in TCM. It is the humour that shines through though especially in the form of the visitors to the Motel. There are two little girls who get the shock of their lives and seem awfully familiar (hmmm think another film mentioned the same year with two little girls and a corridor of blood) and the swingers are a hoot. I have to admit that the male swinger was ringing the familiarity bell too (and not in any way you might think) and then it struck that his speech and mannerisms were very much like Family Guy favourite Quagmire, now I have to wonder could he be the inspiration?
Of corpse with the pristine work on making the movie look resplendent, the excellent double sided cover art and the extras which the region 1 DVD lacked in completely, Arrow have made this the ultimate way to purchase the film as well as putting out on Blu Ray for the first time ever anywhere in the world. Apart from commentary track there are four insightful features. Nancy and Rory have long since departed for that meat farm in the sky so it is left for sherrif Bruce to reminisce on the feature and the endurance test of spending five days filming those infamous chainsaw scenes. This was Paul Linke’s toughest job at law enforcement even if he did go on to play a similar role in popular TV series CHIPS, damn I wish they had made an episode like this. Also up is one of two victims who shared some scenes together and were actually playmates of the year. Rosanne Katon who is Suzi takes us from glamour to gore and tells of her excitement of finding the part being an African American in a time when parts like this hardly ever cropped up. With the aforementioned Nancy Parsons being no longer with us her part Ida and other women villains within the genre are analytically discussed by female film theorists and scream queens who all get right into the topic and make plenty of good observations. Finally we have Dave Parker director of The Hills Run Red (which I really should see) discussing the legacy of the movie and its place in the “backwoods horror film” subgenre, again providing plenty of points that one cannot help but agree with. So all in all another brilliant package that has plenty of meat in it and one that will have you picking over its bones for a while.
Whilst this review was written by a vegetarian you would have to be a complete turkey not to enjoy Motel Hell and put it in the list of cult films well deserving of its place in the pantheon of grindhouse horror flicks and welcome its resurrection here.