Hotel Fear Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: June 14, 2022 (standard edition release, following a March 24 Limited Edition version)
Audio: Italian and Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 99:11 minutes
Director: Francesco Barilli
Rosa (Leonora Fani) is a teenage girl who works with her mother, Marta, trying to keep a run-down, Italian lakeside hotel functioning towards the end of the second World War. Due to frequent bombing raids, the hotel is on its last legs and even finding food for the guests is a major problem. When Marta dies unexpectedly, Rosa finds herself at the mercy of the sexually rapacious and insane hotel guests. After a vicious rape, Rosa despairs. She calls on her absent father to avenge her. And it seems her call is answered when the guests die violently at the hands of a masked, gloved killer. But who really is this mystery assassin? And is Rosa losing her grip on reality? (From Mondo Macabro’s official synopsis)
Initially known as an actor, writer, and assistant director, Francesco Barilli made his feature directing debut with the superb Mimsy Farmer classic, The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Italian: Il profumo della signora in nero, 1974), immediately putting his stamp on the giallo genre (he was also a co-writer on Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? [Italian: Chi l'ha vista morire?] a couple years prior). Soon after, he moved on to documentaries and television, but not before making one more stylish, Italian-style thriller called Hotel Fear (Italian: Pensione paura, 1978) that never really made its way out of Italy. While not exactly another giallo or a film that can really fit under any specific genre banner – it’s a little giallo, it’s a little melodrama, it’s a little Gothic horror, and depending on your point-of-view, it’s even a little satirical – Hotel Fear does share themes and characteristics with Perfume of the Lady in Black. Both films feature vulnerable young women with recently deceased mothers who struggle with nervous breakdowns in the midst of violence perpetrated by men.
Perfume of the Lady in Black creates disorder by trapping its audience in its protagonist’s disturbed headspace, but ultimately lets us in on the game pretty early in the film. Hotel Fear is a more disorienting experience, in part because it doesn’t adhere to precise genre markers and doesn’t really even become a horror movie until its third act. It does, however, confine its story to a single claustrophobic location and, eventually, delves deeper into Surrealism than its predecessor. This puts it in line with psychothrillers about emotionally deranged, sexually repressed women, like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Robert Altman’s Images (1972), and other non-Italian films that certainly inspired Barilli’s thrillers. In addition to its genre-based allusions, Hotel Fear has an absurdist streak that recalls the often political-minded, usually French-made Surrealist comedies of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s not funny, but it is definitely making fun of macabre tropes and melodramatic clichés as much as it’s playing with them.
The fact that the film explores grotesque decadence and is set in a fascist country during the final days of WWII might be a reference to Italy’s short-lived, but wildly offensive Nazisploitation/sadiconazisti movies – a movement that peaked a year earlier with Cesare Canevari’s similarly absurd The Gestapo’s Last Orgy (Italian: L'ultima orgia del III Reich, 1977). Barilli doesn’t limit himself to base shock value, but certainly enjoys indulging in a bit of sensationalism alongside convoluted metaphors. Speaking of Polanski, Hotel Fear’s frank, caustic, and cruel handling of sex and nudity also reminded me of his 1972 comedy, What? (Italian: Che?), and other fairytale-themed erotic films, such as Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales (French: Contes Immoraux, 1974) and Claude Pierson’s Justine de Sade (1972). And yet, it’s also its own thing and not really that similar to any of these movies. According to interviews collected in Roberto Curti’s Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1970-1979 (2017, McFarland & Company), not to mention the interview included on this very Blu-ray disc, Barilli wanted to do a pseudo-remake of Julien Duvivier’s 1937 crime drama Pépé le Moko about an Algerian gangster on the run from French police, but kept getting horror scripts following Perfume of the Lady in Black’s success. After a second film entitled L’occhio collapsed, he took some aspects of that script and worked them into Hotel Fear, which he made largely as a paycheck gig. The final film was censored for sexual content and sold to a dying studio, who barely released it. Between this and its bleak subject matter, Hotel Fear was a flop. Barilli never made another theatrical release, devoting himself instead to painting, documentaries, and occasional TV work.
Hotel Fear was basically unreleased outside of Italy and Spain (perhaps other parts of Europe), so it has been almost impossible to see the film for decades here in North America. A DVD edition was released by Italian company Mondo Home Entertainment in 2007, but it did not include an English dub or subtitle options. Fansubbed versions of that transfer ended up for sale on questionably legal DVDr websites and could be bootlegged, alternately. This Mondo Digital disc is the first official English-friendly release as well as the film’s HD debut. The box art refers to this as a new 2K restoration of the original negative, though, visually, this is a case of the company doing their best with limited means. In motion, the 1080p, 1.66:1 image looks pretty good with strong image separation, minor wear & tear, and especially impressive details during close-ups. That said, I’m sure you can tell by the still frames I’ve included on this page that the scan itself has fallen victim to the telecine noise issues that used to plague just about every single Italian-born HD master. This gives the grain a noisy appearance and causes minor posterization in wide shot textures. It’s not a deal-breaker, as, again, this is the first real availability of this unique film and the overall clarity/color quality still outweighs the telecine issue.
Hotel Fear comes with Italian and Spanish language dub options, both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. As per usual, these types of Italian productions (and Spanish ones, for that matter) were shot without sound, sometimes with actors speaking different languages to each other on set. There is no official language dub. In this case, the two tracks are similar in terms of sound quality. The Spanish track is richer and louder where Adolfo Waitzman’s intensely dramatic score and the rumble of overhead air raids are concerned, while the Italian track has cleaner dialogue that more closely resembles what the actors are actually saying. The bigger difference is in actual content. The Spanish dub skips Rosa’s occasional narration, specifically the bit at the beginning and end where she is ‘speaking’ to her missing father, and the Italian dub doesn’t include some incidental dialogue during dream sequences. The special features on this disc go into a bit more explanation as to why this has occurred, but the short version is that some of these scenes were simply missing from one or the other release.
Commentary with Peter Jilmstad and Rachael Nisbet – The cohosts of the giallo-themed podcast Fragments of Fear explore the careers of the cast & crew, the film’s politics and themes, Barilli’s influences, and compare/contrast Hotel Fear and Perfume of the Lady in Black.
Madness in the Time of War (30:07, HD) – Director Francesco Barilli speaks very critically about Hotel Fear, a film he isn’t particularly proud of, and shares behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the impossibly frustrating production. His kindest words are reserved for the cast and locations. He’s also proud of the photography, but refers to the experience as an exhibition, not a film.
Francesco Barilli at Cine-Excess 2015 (28:19, HD) – In this archive interview, the director discusses his larger career, working his way up the ladder, the success of The Perfume of the Lady in Black, losing interest in filmmaking, disliking Italian cinema’s focus on trends, taking on Hotel Fear for something to do, and the influence painting and painters had on his movies.
I'm Not That Guy (29:09, HD) – Actor Luc Merenda recalls his success starring in poliziotteschi, some of the filmmakers he worked with, shooting Hotel Fear, playing against type, and his castmates.
Italian and Spanish version comparison (6:47, HD) – A breakdown and explanation for the differences between the two cuts of the film, which affected the audio tracks of this disc.
Mondo Macabro trailer reel
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.