A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the folks behind Return to Horror Hotel asking if I could review their indie horror anthology film. I agreed but warned them that — for better or worse — I’d be honest. They readily accepted my terms and sent me the Amazon Prime link to their movie.
Then, I caught a cold, immediately followed by getting hit by the nastiest bout of the flu ever. My immune system sucks.
Anyway, this review has been a long time coming. Thank you for your patience. For better or worse, here’s my review of Return to Horror Hotel:
Return to Horror Hotel as a Whole
One of the first things you’ll notice about Return to Horror Hotel is that, unlike most horror anthology movies, there’s no wraparound story. However, eagle-eyed viewers will notice a few recurring characters and props.
Right off the bat, that was an unusual choice. Nothing “wrong” with it exactly, but a bit jarring if you were expecting something more “traditional” (like I was). It wasn’t until much later that I found out that Return to Horror Hotel was actually a movie comprised of several “fan favorite” episodes of the Horror Hotel webseries. At which point I went “Ohhhhhh… okay. That makes sense then, I guess.”
You might also think “that looks more like a motel than a hotel.” I did. Then I realized, as someone who never travels, I didn’t actually know the differences between a hotel and a motel. Apparently the biggest difference is that hotels are for extended stays, whereas motels are for one or two nights. So… I guess the Horror Hotel really is a hotel since most of the characters have clearly been residing there for a good long while. Ya learn something new every day, y’know?
You’ll also notice an enormous lack of dialogue. Return to Horror Hotel is almost like watching a silent film. Which, honestly, might really work to their advantage for future endeavors! The acting is over-the-top and nearly everything is “said” via extreme facial expressions.
With sound, it’s incredibly campy; but if they’d gone “all in” and embraced the silent era ala The Call of Cthulhu I think viewers would be much more forgiving and, perhaps, lauding this film instead of quibbling about the cringe-factor.
Going off my last sentence there: Yep, I read some of the other reviews for this film floating around online. They’re very mixed, with most (that I found) leaning towards negative marks. Which I “get” — I noticed the same “flaws” other folks did — but I don’t think the bad reviews are entirely fair.
Straight up, casual viewers are going to be disappointed. Not going to lie. The general public has come to expect high production values from their movie-watching experiences. But what about genre fans? Or indie film connoisseurs?
As horror fans, we’ve all seen (and enjoyed) our fair share of no-to-low budget films! Why judge Return to Horror Hotel so harshly? Have we become jaded? A lack of funds is still a lack of funds whether it’s 1980’s dollars or 2000’s-era dollars. You know what you’re getting into: somewhat nonsensical writing, absurd acting choices, and special effects that make ya giggle.
Did I enjoy Return to Horror Hotel? Parts of it, yeah. I’ll get into that more in my “Final Thoughts” section. For now… let’s look at the “parts” of this horror anthology movie!
Return to Horror Hotel Segments
As I said earlier, there’s no wraparound story, so you’re immediately thrust into the first story…
“Sleep Tight” follows three characters/sets of characters. There’s a steroid-using bodybuilder, a duo of drug dealers, and a mean ol’ aunt with her unfortunate niece and nephew. They’re all staying at the title hotel… which is infested with bed bugs.
There’s a lot going on here due to the number of players involved and it takes a while for it all to come together.
Without too many spoilers, the basic premise is… The hotel is nasty and has bed bugs, the drug dealers discover that ground-up bed bugs can be smoked to get high and begin feeding/breeding the bugs to increase their sales stock, but then the bed bugs start eating the bodybuilder’s ‘roid stash and become MEGA bed bugs.
And, of course, bed bugs bite. So having enormous ‘roided-up bed bugs (played by Creepshow-variety cockroaches) is a recipe for a ton of gory deaths.
Which of the icky characters gets an even more icky demise? Will the kiddos make it out alive? Will the hotel manager ever stop eating fried chicken long enough to call an exterminator?!
This segment takes a while to get into its groove (and for anyone to utter any lines!) but, in a way, it kinda works. If you’re like I was, you might be like “Huhhhhh? What’s happening? Is… is this the movie?” when the segment starts without an intro/wraparound — so having a little extra time to collect yourself might be appreciated.
Overall, it helps “set the tone” for what’s to come and the gore effects were a lot of fun.
“Guillotine” follows a beauty pageant contestant (Doreen Gray — hah! Cute) and her nerdy/ugly pal (you can tell because she wears glasses…ewwwwww haha. Side note: we’re selling stylish eyeglasses in our Store) as they meet up with a shady fella staying at the Horror Hotel.
Al Sharko (the shady fella) is willing to make a trade with Doreen: her car in exchange for a chunk of wood from the chopping block used when Marie Antoinette was beheaded. A piece of the guillotine, if you will.
The way everyone pronounced “guillotine” in this segment really irked me. To the point that I had to pause the film. Was I being irrational? Probably. Just to be sure, I looked it up. And… yeah. Their pronunciation is very much a “bastardization” of the French word; however, it’s one that’s so common these days that it’s now an “accepted” pronunciation of the word. So, I set my grumbles aside and resumed viewing.
The chunk of wood, when tied around a woman’s neck, makes them irresistibly sexy/beautiful. You know that that means! It’s time for classic movie makeovers!! And, yes, the nerdy pal gets to ditch her (lens-less hahaha) glasses ala She’s All That for her “transformation” into a bombshell. Good silly fun.
But, as expected, that kind of power/temptation is just too much. Someone’s gotta die.
No Time for Love
“No Time for Love” lightens things up and the filmmakers’ Twilight Zone influences come into play. This segment has a very “classic” feel to it — a refreshing innocence after the scummy plots/characters we had to deal with in the previous segments.
A female bookstore employee is sent to deliver a copy of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to a hermit living at the Horror Hotel.
Our heroine is intrigued by the fact that no one has ever seen this book-loving hermit and devises a hair-brained scheme to meet him. Which works and becomes a rom-com “meet-cute.”
The fact that the two leads’ romance moves insanely fast might seem weird at first… Until you notice that everything is moving insanely fast.
Turns out Davie Jonas (Hah! Cute) is actually a WWII submarine officer who’d managed to stall time by staying away from the outside world. Well, thanks to the overly-curious heroine, the outside world — and time — has finally caught up to him.
Lots of fun effects in this one and nice little moments. I’d actually love to see this one trimmed-down and turned into a music video. I think it’d be awesome. Maybe that could be done as an “extra” on the DVD/Blu-Ray version? Or something for Ricky Hess and company’s YouTube channel if they get one…?
Side note: I really enjoyed the music in Return to Horror Hotel. I might have to buy a couple of the tracks as MP3s if they’re available.
Most reviewers who gave Return to Horror Hotel kind marks noted this segment as the “standout.” I definitely preferred it over the first two segments, but it was a bit of a downer. The final segment on the other (Hah!) hand…
“Houdini’s Hand” throws “serious” horror out the window and fully embraces its ridiculousness.
Whereas the previous segments felt like the actors were really trying — and, therefore, I felt obligated to watch/appreciate their efforts — the stars of “Houdini’s Hand” were clearly just having a goof-filled blast and I had fun watching them. Their enjoyment increased my enjoyment.
A pair of knucklehead burglars rob a fellow burglar, a one-handed man named Stumpy Nixon. The item they steal? The mummified hand of Harry Houdini!
Apparently Stumpy Nixon uses Houdini’s hand to give him an edge — it, somehow, helps him get in and out of locked doors and tight situations. Quite the prize for our bumbling burglars!
The duo calls up Al Sharko (the shady fella/fence from the second segment) who absolutely does not want to buy the hand and warns them that Stumpy Nixon’s gonna be pissed. And, indeed, Stumpy is mega pissed.
Comical hijinks ensue when Houdini’s hand has a mind of its own and pissed-off Stumpy keeps threatening our “heroes” on the Hotel’s rotary(!) phone.
Super goofy with a low-key EC Comics vibe. It was great for a 3am giggle.
As I get older, I’ve come to realize that I enjoy the idea of horror anthologies more than the actual executions. In theory, having a bunch of horror-related stories clumped together sounds amazing. In reality, I’m usually disappointed.
With few exceptions, horror anthology movies typically have me going “Meh. Okay. That one was awesome! Uh, okay…” Then, time passes, nostalgia kicks in, and the one “standout” segment starts to color my view for the movie as a whole (because it’s, usually, the only segment I truly remember). Which gets my hype for horror anthologies up again… and I get hurt again.
So, with that said, Return to Horror Hotel is a typical horror anthology movie in most aspects. With a better budget, it’d be on par with some of the “lesser” (but still beloved by many) anthologies such as Tales from the Darkside, The Vault of Horror, or Creepshow II. Like… it’s no Trick ‘r Treat or Tales from the Hood, but it could get into the featherweight ring and have a good tussle.
That lack of wraparound story though… I definitely think that hindered Return to Horror Hotel‘s efforts to be a “real” horror anthology movie. The webseries/TV episodes format almost certainly worked better for them. This “movie” would be great as a “best of” DVD for fans of the series, rather than viewers coming into it cold…
My husband recently introduced me to Are You Afraid of the Dark? — the original show from 1990-1996. I knew it was a thing, but didn’t watch it when it originally aired. I have zero nostalgia for the show. My husband, on the other hand, had his Nostalgia Goggles on, and raved about how the show was “SO GOOD” and a “MUST WATCH!”
My hubby, who is now a 30-year-old man and not a wee lad anymore, ended up facepalming so hard when rewatching his beloved childhood show that his Goggles flew across the room. Are You Afraid of the Dark? is hokey as all-get-out! The acting is mega cringe, the sets are ultra-cheap, the plots are 99.9% nonsense… But it’s charming. It’s fun.
Return to Horror Hotel is like Are You Afraid of the Dark? for adults. (I’m guessing that’s going to be the “pull quote” from this review! Haha). It’s campy and (often) unbearably cringy, but it has its own special charms. It’s an honest attempt to do something fun within the horror genre. Everyone involved tried to entertain the viewers, and I wholeheartedly commend them for their efforts.
After talking at length with Return to Horror Hotel‘s producer, Debbie Jo Hess (who was also ill with “the crud”), the past few weeks, I almost wanted to backpedal on my 100% honest review. I was this close to not doing the review at all. She’s an absolute sweetheart and it was clear that this film meant a lot to her and to everyone else involved with it. I knew that my review would have to point out the “flaws” with this film and I hated the idea of potentially discouraging the creators (or any indie horror filmmakers!).
I decided to go for it (obviously — you just read 2000+ words of me going for it!) because 1. My honest critique may help them with their next project and, 2. Any exposure for a relatively “unknown” indie film is good exposure, right?
Plus, film reviews/opinions are extremely subjective. Does my opinion really matter in the grand scheme of things? I’ve watched (and absolutely adored!) Streets of Fire more times than I can count and it’s, objectively, a “bad” movie. But I’ve only watched Million Dollar Baby — an Oscar-winning “amazing” movie — once (and I’ll never watch it again).
In the end, I appreciated the attempt and I’m genuinely looking forward to Hess and company’s next horror film. This one had a lot of issues, but it also showed a lot of promise. I’d love to see them follow through on those promises in future ventures. I’m here for it.
And, of course, I’m eternally grateful to them for reaching out to our lil baby website. HorrorFam.com’s only been around for five months! I was absolutely delighted that someone took notice of us and entrusted us (me!) with reviewing their work.
If you’d like to watch it and help support these indie filmmakers (it’ll help give them a bigger/better budget for their next project!), Return to Horror Hotel is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
Lauren Spear (née Tharp) is the owner of LittleZotz Writing, a super-respectable multiple award-winning website for freelance writers. She’s also the HorrorFam.com founder! Lauren grew up in the horror industry (her parents did practical special FX work for many of the horror movies you love from the ’80s and ’90s) and basically created this site so she could freely gas on about creepy stuff and stop having to pretend to be normal.