Motel Hell belongs to a tradition of horror comedies that ironically celebrates the enterprising backwoods cannibal as a tarnished icon of America’s conservative can-do gumption. Like a variety of genre films to follow in the wake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (including much of the subsequent work of its director, Tobe Hooper), it derives whatever force it has from the blurring of tonal boundaries. It’s often difficult to sort the attempts at parody from the legitimate stabs at horror in Motel Hell, and this “anything goes” elasticity is indicative of a kind of insurance policy that’s been historically taken out by many fledging horror directors with limited means and experience. Filmmakers can paper over their foul-ups with a consciously cult attitude that encourages the viewer to spin every failed bit into either retrospectively resonant gold, or, more likely, into adequate fodder to get loaded to on a Friday night.
Motel Hell’s sense of genre parody, more accurately billed as strained broad comedy, is never particularly gratifying. The best joke is the title, which refers to the Motel Hello, a backwoods mom-and-pop country establishment that has a rundown neon sign with a letter that’s continually blinkering in and out. (Guess which one.) We’re supposed to find it endlessly amusing that Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun), the motel’s proprietor, is a courtly God-abiding country gentleman who also slaughters innocents and smokes them and serves them up as ham and slim Jims to a devoted fan base. (Renting a room nets you a meat fun pack at a discount.) Actual jokes are on short supply and in their place is a vaguely defined and self-pleased insincerity, which is on particularly irritating display in Wolfman Jack’s meaningless cameo, or in a moment when a couple of swingers drop in on the motel and try to get something going with Vincent and his obviously bonkers sister and partner in crime, Ida (Nancy Parsons). Potentially amusing ideas, but the filmmakers are content to have merely introduced them and allow them to flitter away with no real punchlines landed.
The horror dimension is somewhat more effective. The sight of Vincent’s “secret garden,” where he buries his victims up to their necks alive until he’s ready to butcher them, has the irrational power of a nightmare. And the dueling chainsaw climax, which might’ve inspired a similar scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, is informed by the memorably creepy touch of Vincent’s deranged laughter, which can be subtly heard from underneath the huge and absurd-yet-nevertheless-unsettling pig’s head that he insists on wearing for whatever reason for this singular occasion. Tying the figurative room together, so to speak, is the film’s heightened atmosphere of sleazy, remote, red-light-district woodiness, which is ineffably specific of 1980s horror films and, in this case, suggestive of every weird country burg you’ve ever driven through as quickly as possible. This film’s pleasures are extremely mild, but they’re discernable for the curious fan of retro redneck horror, or, far more likely, for the genre critic looking to finish their dissertation pertaining to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s vast influence on the 1970s and 1980s grindhouse movie’s vision of gleeful small-town Americana hypocrisy.
Colors are vibrant, particularly the reds and blues that memorably establish the film’s seamy neon-infused atmosphere. Clarity fluctuates, however. At times, the image is impressively pristine, but there are frequent blocky compression issues and grain levels are similarly inconsistent. Still, the rich color palette compensates considerably. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track represents another mixed bag. The big, supporting sound effects, such as the whirring of chainsaws or explosions of shotgun blasts, are robust in their own right, but they haven’t been mixed in the right proportion with the dialogue, which is sometimes barely audible. You may find yourself adjusting and readjusting the volume, particularly in the first act.
The audio commentary by director Kevin Connor is dull but revealing: He clearly has little feel or use for the horror genre, and frequently mentions "toning down" the script’s juvenile antics. Considering the antics that remain, Connor may have done us a favor, but his impersonal competency also explains the film’s often interminable indifference to itself. Fans may also find it disappointing to hear the filmmaker shoot down one popular interpreted subtext after another. The other supplements are more conventionally satisfying, particularly the Paul Linke interview, which presents, in brief extremis, a poignant and blunt portrait of the ups and downs of a struggling character actor. "The Making of Motel Hell" is most enjoyable for the interviews with screenwriting brothers Robert and Steven Charles Jaffe, who tell stories of the film’s inspiration that are far more evocative than anything that made it into the finished product (it’s regrettable that they weren’t tapped for their own audio commentary). "Ida, Be Thy Name: The Frightful Female of Fear" and "From Glamour to Gore: Rosanne Katon Remembers Motel Hell" emphasize the women in the film and refreshingly break up the horror sausage party. Rounding out the package are the expected odds and ends such as the trailer and a variety of photo galleries.
Problematic though it may be, the negligible Motel Hell still receives an almost ludicrously affectionate package courtesy of Shout! Factory that should please its cult admirers.