“Motel Hell” was a horror-comedy (or, you could make a claim that it was a comedy-horror) that came out in 1980, and was a modest hit. But, as you can tell from the title of this post, I don’t think it’s received the acclaim it deserves. Its name is memorable, and sort of known, but I still think it rates a bit more attention.
The movie is about Vincent Smith, who runs a small hotel, and a successful smoked meat business, in partnership with his sister, Ida. Their home is located way out in the country, in an unspecified state. The Smith’s younger brother, Bruce, is the local town policeman. A young woman, Terry, is in a serious motorcycle accident with her boyfriend, who is reported dead. Having few other options, she decides to stay with the Smiths. Things start to get sinister, as it becomes evident that Vincent and Ida aren’t the kindly farmers they seem, and their delicious cured meats might not be 100% USDA pork….
(SPOILERS AHEAD) And now for the spoilerific recap, for those that have seen it, but are hazy on the details. We know fairly quickly in that Vincent and Ida are serial killers and cannibals. Mostly they do this by setting traps along the local highway—secretly shooting tires out, laying out literal (bear) traps, having Ida pretend to be injured by a fake car accident on the side of the road, etc. But they also occasionally get victims at their hotel—they lure swingers in, and then pretend to be into S & M to securely tie up their prey. But, they don’t kill their victims right away—instead they bury them up to their necks in a secret garden, feed them through a funnel, and then periodically kill them off and add them to the cured meat products. The family, we learn, has a long history of doing this, dating back at least to their grandmother. Vincent and Ida’s brother Bruce isn’t in on the crimes, as he ran away when he was young. The pretty Terry resists Bruce’s wooing attempts, and instead falls in love with the much older Vincent. However, love is not blind enough to overcome the revelation that Vincent is a murderous cannibal. Bruce, too, has become suspicious, and his investigation reveals that Vincent and Ida are killers. Bruce arrives in time to (eventually) kill Vincent in a chainsaw duel, while Ida is (presumably) killed by the would-be victims after they dig themselves out of the secret garden.
“Motel Hell” is obviously a parody of horror films. Most notably, of course, of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), which both feature bizarre families, cannibalism, and the chainsaw as a featured weapon. There’s probably also a nod to 1960’s “Psycho,” since both feature crazy murderers who run small, isolated motels. And, in general, the Smith’s hypocritical religious moralizing, and prudish disdain for modern and alternative sexuality, are clearly typical horror themes. Also, when the secret garden victims dig out and go after the Smiths, the imitation of George Romero’s slow zombies is pretty easy to see, as they advance, moaning mindlessly, on their attackers. (You could argue that this is unrealistic, and it probably is, but on the other hand, being buried for days, and fed only through a tube, probably would be physically and psychologically traumatic.)
Several underlying themes and philosophies can be seen, starting with a definite environmental/hippie-type theme. Vincent’s meat is proudly billed as chemical and preservative free. Ida is an herbalist, who heals Terry injuries using these alternative substances. Even though they’re purportedly Christians, as they watch the programs of and attend the church run by Wolfman Jack’s character, Vincent at one point worries about the karmic implications of what they’re doing to the human victims. And this is less hippy-ish, but Vincent seems like a Malthusian in philosophy. His justification for killing and cannibalizing people is that there’s too much overpopulation, and not enough food for everyone. (Kind of an update on Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”) Finally, I was struck by Vincent’s pride in he and Ida’s tricks and traps to acquire victims. He thinks they are creative, and even artistic. Kidnapping as art—don’t think that even the most extreme performance artist has gone that far!
It’s not all (dark) laughs, though. There are several quite disturbing moments. Most notably, the secret garden. Vincent and Ida cut the victims’ vocal cords so that they can’t scream. As a result, they make an unsettling, awkward gurgling sound that’s very chillingly memorable. The scene where the Smiths bizarrely hypnotize the band members and then hang them is messed up, in a good, eerie way, too. The overall idea is nasty as well. The Smiths have implicated their neighbors in their crimes, indirectly, as the innocent customers have been made cannibals, too, have helped destroy the evidence of some murders with their own digestive tracts, like the cops in the cool Roald Dahl story and Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV episode “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
Rory Calhoun’s portrayal of Vincent is very effective. Despite his awful crimes, he’s still charismatic and sympathetic. He’s got serious mental issues, clearly, and richly deserves his eventual fate, but you still sort of root for him. Because he believes in what he’s doing—in his mind he’s not a bad guy. He’s helping solve a problem. One that’s unpleasant, but that needs to be done. And, in his way, he’s not cruel. He doesn’t gratuitously torture his victims, and in fact tries to be humane (in a crazy, psychotic way, granted).
(END SPOILERS) The acting in “Motel Hell” is a cut above the usual low budget horror fare. Rory Calhoun as star Vincent, as noted above, carries the film. Nancy Parsons, as Ida, is suitably odd and creepy. Paul Linke, as Bruce, acquits himself well in a bumbling, sometimes oafish, but ultimately heroic role. Nina Axelrod (Terry)’s role isn’t as challenging, but she does it competently. Most of the supporting cast has one note (mostly victim) roles, but they’re okay, too.
Looking at director Kevin Connor’s career, this appears to be the pinnacle. Most of his movies were of the low budget sci-fi/fantasy type. The only others I’ve seen were “The People That Time Forgot,” and “The Land That Time Forgot.” Alas, both I recall as being horrendous. Dumb stories (even to 13 year old me), and effects that were atrocious, not even so-bad-they’re-good. To be fair, I haven’t seen his other features, and maybe I’d like some of them, but the titles and reviews don’t look too promising. But, like I said, on “Motel Hell” at least he did a good job.
Not to say that the movie was a perfect classic, though. Those looking for a fast paced, straight horror film may be disappointed, for example. Also, the climatic chainsaw battle scene was very poorly lit (or at least on the MGM Midnite Movies edition that I own). I realize the dark can be atmospheric sometimes, but in this case I had a very difficult time seeing what was happening, which was a major problem when you’re watching such an important part of the story.
Star Rory Calhoun had an interesting life. He had serious behavioral problems early on, and served time in both juvenile reformatories and big boy prison like San Quentin. He starred in numerous movies, such as “Adventure Island” (1947), “Way of the Gaucho” (1952), How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953), “Treasure of Pancho Villa” (1955), “Night of the Lepus” (1972) (See my August, 2014 post about rabbits for more info) and the camp classic “Hell Comes to Frogtown” (1987). Not such a great guy to marry, though—one wife claimed he cheated on her with 79 other women. Rory retorted that she didn’t include half of them!
Paul Linke was fairly typecast as a cop, as he played one in various movies and on popular 1970’s-80’s TV show “CHiPs.” Nancy Parsons is best known as Bealah Balbricker in “Porky’s” (1982) and “Porky’s: The Next Day” (1983), and also appeared in “Sudden Impact” (1983), and “Steel Magnolias” (1989). Nina Axelrod did mostly TV—“CHiPs” (with Paul Linke), and “Charlie’s Angels.” She went on to be a casting director. Wolfman Jack (who played the preacher), was a famous 1960’s-70’s DJ, and also had a memorable role in “American Graffiti” (1973). Of the supporting cast, one of the many victims was Monique St. Pierre, best known as a Playboy Playmate, and the punk band drummer of “Ivan and the Terribles” in the film was none other than John Ratzenberger, best known for his work on TV’s “Cheers” as annoying mailman Cliff Clavin.
So if you’re looking for a horror movie with a few laughs, which pokes fun at some of the genre’s clichés, you could do a lot worse.