Rory Calhoun, born Francis Timothy McCown, had a difficult childhood that saw him serving time in the Preston School Of Industry, the same reform school that counted Merle Haggard, Eddie Anderson, Neal Cassady, and Eddie Bunker as its graduates. He later served a sentence at San Quentin for car theft, and was released before his 21st birthday. Hollywood erased all that, thanks to agent Henry Willson, who gave Calhoun his stage name, and added him to a client list that eventually included everyone from Rock Hudson to Tab Hunter to Robert Wagner. The handsome Calhoun seldom wanted for work, but at the height of his fame, he probably never imagined his career would twist and turn in such a way to bring him to the part of Farmer Vincent in Motel Hell, a low-budget shocker that’s picked up a sizable cult following over the years. That’s thanks in no small part to Calhoun, whose welcoming smile and aging matinee-idol looks made his turn as a villainous madman fond of human flesh all that more effective.
Calhoun wasn’t the only aging B-list star to change roles in 1980, the year that saw Ronald Reagan elected president after an upbeat campaign that emphasized the need to restore the greatness of an America lost to the tumult and cultural shifts of the preceding decades. While any parallels are surely accidental, they’re also tough to ignore. In Motel Hell, Farmer Vincent and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons, Coach Beulah Balbricker of Porky’s fame) run the quaint Motel Hello (whose neon sign sometimes has trouble illuminating the “O”) on a patch of farmland. They’re famous for their welcoming accommodations and smoked-meat products, which boast no preservatives. Clad in overalls, and with a television always tuned to the religious station, they scream all-American wholesomeness. But the Bible-quoting Vincent and Ida have a secret: They get their meat by trapping, fattening, and slaughtering passing undesirables like bikers, prostitutes, swingers, and dope-smoking rock bands. After all, no one will miss them, their absence would make life better for real Americans, and they taste delicious.
Director Kevin Connor, coming off a string of British horror films and Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations, never turns Motel Hell into an all-out comedy, but humor is always part of the mix, from Parsons’ full-bodied performance as Ida to the shots of victims buried to their necks in the garden, looking like cabbages waiting for harvest. On the special features of the new Blu-ray edition, screenwriter/producers Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe (sons of Herb Jaffe) talk about fighting to get more humor in the film, but that might have spoiled the creepy atmosphere. When a couple of sexual adventurers show up, lured in by an ad in a swingers’ magazine (shades of Eating Raoul), their over-the-top horniness gives way to horror as Vincent and Ida take their bondage fantasies further than they’d anticipated. Exteriors filmed at the oft-used Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita emphasize the motel’s isolation, it all builds to an over-the-top finale involving dueling chainsaws and a mask made out of a pig’s head, and Vincent and Ida preside over it all with a sense of righteous assurance. “Do you think,” she asks him, “in the years to come, people will appreciate us for what we’re doing here?” Sometimes the drive-in doubles as a bellwether.
A typically packed Scream! Factory release, Motel Hell includes a fairly subdued commentary with Connor (who went on to an active, ongoing career in TV movies) and interviews with some surviving players, including the Jaffes, co-stars Paul Linke and Rosanne Katon, and cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth, who deserves special credit for scenes set inside the eerily lit smokehouse. Also included: a tribute to Parsons’ Ida that doubles as a consideration of female horror villains by contemporary female fans, critics, filmmakers, and actors. Plus the usual trailers, posters, and behind-the-scenes images. Nothing here breaks the special-features mold, but it’s a thoughtful assemblage of items sure to be appreciated by the film’s fans.