Motel Hell: The Next Generation

I've been meaning to dip into a few more of these region A vs region B comparisons, especially after that period where it seemed like Arrow was releasing nearly simultaneous UK releases of all the major horror titles US labels were putting out. All of us region free collectors were suddenly faced with a tough choice: which one's the best to get? Now, the releases of today's film, Motel Hell, weren't quite simultaneous; they were a year apart. But if you followed this stuff, you already knew about the second one by the time the first was available. So... which is the best to get?

Update 3/12/16 - 10/13/20: Ah. Well, that question just got a whole lot easier to answer.  This week, Scream Factory is reissuing Motel Hell in a fancy new steelbook.  But more importantly, they've given it a new 4k remaster.

Update 6/27/23: I'm not gonna lie, it is a little annoying to release an upgraded 4k-based BD if you're just going to turn around and release it again as a genuine UHD.  If you can't release 'em simultaneously, I think you're at least obligated to give your customer-base a heads up of your intentions.  But, hey, it's hard to be too bitter when I've got a brand new, upgraded Motel Hell in my hands!
It really surprises me that it took until the blu-ray era for Motel Hell to get a special edition. It always struck me as one of the most beloved modern horror films, but I guess it didn't make it onto quite as many peoples' radars as the major franchises. But Farmer Vincent and Ida were at least as memorable, and twice as fun, as Michael Myers or Jason. Still, sadly, I guess I just can't operate under the assumption that everybody's seen this, so I'll break it down real quick.

Motel Hell came right at the brink of the slasher era, 1980. And because it came so early, it thankfully wasn't so trapped by the established formula, to the point where it's not even quite a slasher, exactly. We find out pretty early on that Farmer Vincent and his sister Ida (surprisingly well played by Rory Calhoun and Porky's Nancy Parsons) are capturing motorists to make his famous meats, Sweeney Todd style. But one beautiful young lady comes along that he just can't bring himself to smoke, so he takes her into his home and everybody gets on surprisingly well. But sooner or later, she's going to find out what's in their secret garden...
This movie's a hoot. It's funny, but except for a few moments (mostly involving a pair of swingers straight out of a Paul Bartel film), never loses its dark, genuinely scary and dramatic plot. In other words, it's a horror film with some humor, not a parody. It keeps you invested by getting weirder and weirder, and has some great horror moments, including a chainsaw duel well before Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 or Phantasm 2. It's genuinely atmospheric with lots of great, creep imagery; and it's got a terrific cast of characters that make you want to revisit the film again and again. Even the swingers are pretty great; they just feel like maybe they're in the wrong movie. This film manages to appeal to all types of horror fans. Even if you don't usually like slashers, horror comedies rub you the wrong way, or you think there hasn't been a good horror film since Hammer Films went bankrupt, you probably make an exception for Motel Hell.
So, Motel Hell first hit DVD in 2002, as a barebones double-bill with Deranged as part of MGM's Midnite Movies line. Deranged [right] was cut, though, so don't bother getting the DVD for that; there are multiple uncut special editions to seek out instead.  But Motel Hell wasn't cut, and it was pretty exciting seeing it for the first time in its OAR. It wouldn't be until 2013 that MH finally got a proper special edition treatment from Arrow, and in HD to boot, as a blu-ray/ DVD combo pack. There was a parallel US release soon to follow: Scream Factory released their special edition blu-ray/ DVD combo pack in 2014. It was a tough call on which was better, but in 2020, Scream Factory took another stab at it, reissuing the film (BD only) in a steelbook with an all new 4k transfer taken from the original camera negative.  And now in 2023, they're through messing around, releasing it one more time, in the latest generation format, as a BD/ UHD combo-pack, with an even newer master from the OCN.  This should really be the definitive end this time, right?
1) 2002 MGM DVD; 2) 2013 Arrow DVD; 3) 2013 Arrow BD;
4) 2014 Scream DVD; 5) 2014 Scream BD; 6) 2020 Scream BD.
MGM's DVD was pretty great for its time, but the new blus are more than just that the same transfer slapped onto an HD disc. Consequently, even the combo pack DVDs are a nice upgrade. The picture's clearer, less contrasty, and even though all six discs letterbox the film to 1.85:1, they new releases have a sliver more picture along the edges. The colors are more natural, too.  Look how green their motel room looks on the MGM DVD compared to the other shots in the first set. Also, yuck, the old DVD was interlaced, a fate which Arrow and Scream both escaped, even on their DVDs. Then, of course, the blu-rays are both sharper and better defined than their DVD counter-parts.
Arrow blu left; 2014 Scream Factory blu right.
And compared to each other? They're nearly identical, both apparently using the same transfer given to them by Universal. Getting in close, though, Scream's blu is a little smoother, and Arrow's grain looks a little more natural, possibly having a minuscule amount of extra detail. Scream Factory may've used a pinch of DNR, or it might even be down to just compression. I also noticed both blus have sporadic white speckling (see the earlier shot I posted of Nina Axelrod mourning at the grave site, it's right there on the cross). You'd think at least one of the labels would've gone in and taken those out, since it's a relatively easy fix. But it's also a very minor flaw. So, as far as the transfers go, I give the win to Arrow, but it's close enough to be a tie to most viewers who likely wouldn't even see the distinction on their televisions. But it is there.

But it's a much more obvious win for Scream Factory now in 2020.  For starters, while it's still matted to 1.85:1, this image pulls back to reveal of the image more around all four sides.  And while Arrow initially beat Scream in terms of grain and fine detail, this new 2020 scan clarifies even more detail and really captures the fine grain from the negative.  It's still a little patchy at points, strictly speaking, but it's about as good as you could reasonably hope for outside of a UHD disc.  The first thing you'll probably notice is now much brighter the highlights are, but overall the colors are bolder and more distinct, while blacks stay black and shadows are keenly rendered.  It pops when it's supposed to, but the suspenseful night scenes are as effectively creepy as ever.
7) 2023 Scream Factory BD; 8) 2023 Scream Factory UHD.
But who cares about whatever you could "reasonably hope for outside of a UHD disc," now that we've got an actual UHD to put our hopes inside of?  Is it just the 2020 transfer slapped onto a proper2160p disc?  No, it's got Dolby Vision HDR and even the 1080p BD has been redone.  It's a pretty subtle improvement, though, if you're already coming from the 2020 disc.  The colors and highlight levels in the bright/ daytime shots look a lot nicer and more natural, even just comparing the two BDs (note how the deputy's silver badge is flares out detail in the 2020 BD that's restored in the 2023 BD), but the darker scenes maybe border on being a bit too dark, even taking into account that these UHD screenshots are meant to be seen on a higher-nit HDR display.  The colors on the UHD are fairly subtle except in a few points where they really stand out, like the neon sign or even the deputy's red handkerchief.  But even the new blu is the best blu yet (just not by a huge margin), and the UHD is even better.  The patchy encode of the 2020 BD is back on the 2023, but the UHD perfects it.  And, how much you'll be able to appreciate it in motion may be up for debate, but tiny detail, like the balls on the tips of the deputy's badge, looks decidedly more real now in genuine 4k.

All the blus and UHD just have one HD audio track: the original stereo 2.0: lossy on the DVDs, LPCM on the Arrow, and DTS-HD on the Scream Factories, and they all provide optional English subtitles.  It sounds like Scream has remastered the audio in 2020, too, though, since their new DTS-HD sounds a bit bolder than before.  The one thing the MGM DVD has over the others is foreign language options, with additional Spanish and French dubs and Spanish and French subs.
Extras are where things get interesting. The old MGM disc had nothing, except for the trailer. But Arrow came up with a lot, including an audio commentary with director Kevin Connor, moderated by Calum Waddell. It's a good and lively discussion, that stays nicely focused on the film on-screen, though a lot of energy gets lost debating whether the film has a political or environmental message (the director says it doesn't, and that's that). Then there's two cheerful on-camera interviews with cast members Paul Linke and Rosanne Katon, which I'd say are the disc's highlights.

Next up [here comes a wee tangent] is a featurette I liked more in concept than execution, called Ida, Be Thy Name where women critics and horror stars talk about Ida's role in horror history. Or maybe it's just about scream queens in general, because a lot of them don't seem to have bothered to see Motel Hell and just start talking about female horror characters in general, which is pretty bland and generic. And one of the critics who does stay on topic, Shelagh M. Rowan-Legg, must've only seen the film years ago and be speaking from memory, because she gets things frustratingly wrong. At one point she says, "the character of Ida in Motel Hell is the typical grotesque female you often see in horror films. She is not attractive, and therefor she is 'grotesque.' She's overweight, her hair is dirty and greasy, um, she has no redeeming features either physically or in her personality. And because of that, she's completely asexual and therefor she's a monster."
Now, to be fair, she's saying that filmmakers and audiences in general see her as grotesque; she's not calling Nancy Parsons grotesque personally. But what she's saying is still so off-base about Ida. Her hair isn't dirty and greasy; she actually puts a lot of care into her hair in this movie. Seriously, re-watch the film, she's got a whole separate plot-line going with her hair: she has pig-tails, then she braids them, then she gets fancy curls... but that's detail. The point is more that she has a LOT of redeeming features in her personality. The whole movie hangs on how charming she and Farmer Vincent are; that's the movie's whole appeal. How can you watch her do the "hypno-high" scene with Calhoun, and then their talk about how they'll be remembered for bettering the world, and think she has no redeeming features to her personality?

Anyway, you've got that, and the actresses not talking about Ida, it may not be their fault, since I don't get the impression Arrow even told them they were being interviewed for Motel Hell. For a while there, Arrow was doing that cheap thing where they were taking one interview and cutting it up for multiple discs - how many times did we see Luigi Cozzi in front of that same part of his store/ museum on every Italian horror title they released? So, Ida Be Thy Name is a nice concept, but ultimately more frustrating than unrewarding.

Anyway, that's still not all there is. Arrow also has an interview with younger horror director Dave Parker, who's a very enthusiastic fan and talks about the film's place in the genre. It's kind of interesting, and nice and short, so good to have, though I can't say I'd ever heard of Parker before. Then they've also got the trailer, plus a nice booklet with notes by Kim Newman and a look at a Motel Hell comic book, which apparently exists. Arrow's release also has reversible artwork and one of their postcards for another title.
And finally we come to Scream Factory's extras. First of all, they ported over some, but not all, of Arrow's extras. They got the Linke and Katon interviews, which I think were the best and most important to carry over, so that's good news. Yes, they also brought over Ida Be Thy Name, so you can at least sate your curiosity. They didn't use Arrow's commentary because they recorded their own, also with Connor, but this time moderated by that filmmaker again, Dave Parker.

Who the heck is this guy and why does everyone keep bringing him onto Motel Hell blu-rays? Well [tangent #2!], the film both discs keep promoting is The Hills Run Red, so I decided to check it out. It's too juvenile to really recommend, but it actually has some surprisingly good qualities and was perfectly watchable for a modern, low budget slasher, with a good concept by David J Schow and a cool performance by William Sadler. But yeah, it winds up being kinda dumb and about on par with most direct-to-video horrors. It's also nothing like Motel Hell.

Anyway, the new commentary is pretty good. Obviously, a lot of details are the same on both. Parker asks a lot of interesting questions, but unfortunately Connor's memory comes up a bit short at times and he sometimes gets quiet, leaving Parker audibly struggling to draw more out of him. I could see Scream thinking they were going to make a better commentary than Arrow's, and that's probably why they made this; but at the end of the day, I'm not sure they pulled it off. Both are fine, and neither are fantastic; it's basically a draw.

Scream comes through, though, with a new almost half-hour documentary featuring the film's writers and producers. A few anecdotes get repeated, but ultimately it's a fun and informative piece, up to Scream Factory's high 'making of' standards. And they've got another new on-camera interview, too, with Thomas del Ruth, the film's DP, who's quite interesting. Scream's releases also have the trailer, plus reversible artwork and a slipcover for the 2014 set, and of course a steelbook for their new 2020 disc.

The UHD again keeps the same set of Scream Factory extras, with no new additions or subtractions.  It includes reversible cover art and comes in a slipcover.  If you ordered it direct from Shout's website, it also came with an 18"x24" rolled poster.
It was no landslide victory, but Scream's original blu proved more satisfactory than Arrow's. While owning them both, I'd pick Arrow's blu off the shelf just to watch the movie; but the distinction in transfers is so slim, I wouldn't go out of my way to import or double-dip for it. And adding it all up, Scream had the best features, thanks to them importing the best of Arrow's and creating their own. Now, in 2023, Scream's UHD doubles as both the best transfer and the best extras package, making it the easily definitive release.  And yes, sometimes it's still fun to buy both releases to have all the extras; but in this case I don't think there's any call for that.  The UHD should close the book on Motel Hell upgrades for... at least another three years.  😛


  1. Please change the colour background - its difficult to read

    1. Dang, really? Is anyone else having issues with this? I took this basic color palette from a basic google template, so thought it was "safe."

      This is definitely a comment that would've been a lot more helpful back in 2014 when I started this site. I've really committed to this color scheme now, with the logo art, off-site stuff, etc. I don't think there isn't a single post that wouldn't have to have at least one graphic remade to fit a new color scheme, it would be a lot of work and take me a long time. Is it really bothersome?

  2. It's not for me, I find it easy to read.

    1. Thanks. I'll guess I'll just leave it until if/when I ever do a big site redesign, and then I'll take the idea of a new color scheme into account.

  3. Thanks for your work, I was just wondering wich one to buy. I see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel now. Cheers!