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  • nickkarner

Motel Hell (1980)


I was taking part in a Q&A for a movie I’d shot and was given a suggestion by an audience member. While the film itself was shot with high-definition cameras, an actor in the film is also meant to be documenting the main character, so there existed a great deal of camcorder footage that looked great from an aesthetic point-of-view but paled in comparison to the real movie look. Still, I used it to break things up but retained the clean audio. The suggestion was to utilize the more tinny, rough sound from the camcorder in order to bump up the realism. Although I’m willing to agree with the logic, my response was that the film featured absolute nobodies and we would already be struggling to maintain some degree of professionalism. I worried that if I abruptly cut to garbage sound, it wouldn’t feel calculated, it would smack of amateurism. There’s a reason small, independent films seek out name-actors to appear, even briefly, in their productions. It lends credibility to their otherwise small-scale endeavor.

Plenty of big-name actors like George Kennedy, Oliver Reed, George C. Scott, Bette Davis, Charlton Heston, Karen Black, and Melvyn Douglas deigned to appear in dubious horror movies either in the doldrums of their career or in a desperate attempt to stay relevant. Even the great Gregory Peck tried his hand at horror, albeit one made by a major studio (The Omen). One of the more notable actors to take part in these weird, cultish flicks was Rory Calhoun, née Francis McCown, an ex-con turned actor who’d been working since the mid-1940's and had found mild success as a second or third lead in features as well as the star of his own TV show, The Texan, in the late 50’s. With his lanky frame and wide, toothy grin, he’d make indelible impressions in such wonderfully entertaining trash like Night of the Lepus (the greatest lady bacteriologist movie of all time), Angel and its subsequent sequel, Avenging Angel, Hell Comes to Frogtown, and his finest hour, Motel Hell (1980).

The production design of Motel Hell is appropriately hellish as the neon-font title credits mirror the flickering red sign for Motel Hello, bathing the establishment with an inferno-like hue. Attached to this humble hideaway is the business place of farmer and entrepreneur Vincent Smith (Calhoun), whose delicious products have made Farmer Vincent’s Smoked Meats a must-visit destination. Along with his boorish, gluttonous sister Ida (the legendary Nancy Parsons, Balbricker in Porky’s), they pride themselves on using the finest ingredients: “all beef, with no chemicals or preservatives,” although I only see hogs, which are heavily scrutinized by the weaselly state health inspector Bob (E. Hampton Beagle, The China Syndrome). Unfortunately for Bob and most of the other unlucky souls who happen to cross the Smith’s path, they end up becoming a part of his thriving trade, whether they like it or not.

1980 was a cinematic turning point and a banner year for horror films. While Friday the 13th became an absolute smash which begat countless numbers of imitators (both good, bad, and bad-good), Sean S. Cunninham’s influential camp slasher was far from the only game in town. William Lustig’s Maniac. Joe D’Amato’s Anthropophagus. Ulli Lommel’s The Boogeyman. Paul Lynch’s Prom Night. John Carpenter’s The Fog. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust and The House at the Edge of the Park. Lewis Teague’s Alligator. Lewis Jackson’s Christmas Evil, Greydon Clark’s Without Warning. Max Kalmanowicz’ The Children. Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train. Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive! and Nightmare City. Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go in the House. Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. Vernon Zimmerman’s Fade to Black. Barbara Peters’ Humanoids from the Deep. Dario Argento’s Inferno. Alvin Rakoff’s Death Ship. Horror even got a few classic treatments, notably from Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), Ken Russell (Altered States), Brian DePalma (Dressed to Kill), Peter Medak (The Changeling), Roy Ward Baker (The Monster Club), and the craptastic Egyption horror The Awakening. Motel Hell doesn’t stand above all of these films, although it’s much stronger than many. Rather, it’s smarter and funnier. In fact, it may be one of the best satirical black comedies of all time. It knows what it’s doing and was way ahead of its time as far as genre self-awareness goes.

Villains are always the most fun to play and Calhoun and Parsons make a gleefully evil pair. Every character around them is as bland as that cheap, imitation meat they sell at the local Piggly Wiggly. Calhoun revels in the “creativity” he’s afforded by setting up elaborate traps to ensnare the “fresh meat.” In a way, the challenge of forcing unsuspecting travelers off the road keeps him feeling young and vital. As Ida points out, it’s “sort of artistic.” Director Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave), who took the job after Tobe Hooper declined, noted that Calhoun “gave it his all” and was “grateful for such a juicy roll.” His latest “catch” is a biker dude and his chick. Vincent takes a shine to Terry (Casting Director Nina Axelrod, Critters 3 & 4), a pretty blonde who survives the crash and gets placed gently in the Smith’s grandmother’s old room, much to the slight chagrin of Ida. She’s a tough cookie, but Ida obviously takes her orders from Vincent and is initially rather sweet to the befuddled Terry, who conveniently remains unconscious for several hours.

Like other macabre cannibal satires Parents and Eating Raoul, Motel Hell has a wicked sense of humor, which endeared it to audiences and even some mainstream critics, including the great Roger Ebert. The lurid cover design gives away a bit too much detail about the way in which Vincent and Ida procure and cultivate their sausage innards, but the lead-up is still quite effective. Nosy Bob manages to discover Vincent’s hidden “garden” behind a hidden wall of shrubbery. Earlier on, a middle-aged couple with inexplicably young twins chat with Vincent while the girls explore the abattoir in a beautifully-constructed dolly shot, lovingly panning over pig heads and bloody butcher knives. We assume that these kids are going to stumble upon something incriminating, but Vincent is smart and doesn’t shit where he eats. Later, when Bob wanders through the garden, he notices odd shapes with sacks draped over them amongst the vegetables. The reveal is very much worth it as he discovers Terry’s biker boyfriend buried up to his neck and his vocal cords slit and stitched up, making it impossible for him to do anything but emit freakish, otherworldly gargle noises. Bob gets a shovel to the head for his trouble, after which a grinning Vincent inquires “Another spot-check, Bob?”

The details of the “harvesting” are absolutely fabulous, with the Smiths utilizing real farm equipment and know-how to “work the land.” They drill huge holes to plop their victims (including a youngish looking John Ratzenberger) into the ground and funnels for keeping them well-fed. Strange, angelic music plays and Vincent even treats a rock band he’s captured to a psychedelic light show before Ida uses a tractor to yank the nooses around their necks, effectively killing them. They’re dragged out and the cycle begins anew. There’s an amazingly ludicrous moment of faux-introspection when Vincent mutters “Sometimes I wonder about the karmic implications of these actions.” Writers Robert Jaffe (Demon Seed) and Steven-Charles Jaffe (producer on Ghost and Near Dark) sprinkle knowing, ironic dialogue that’s played just right by the actors, but none may be more famous than Farmer Vincent’s slogan: “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters.”

The most entertaining and elaborate tactic Vincent applies to entice potential sausage candidates involves a ruse about Motel Hello being a haven for “swingers.” In saunters a Sonny Bono lookalike and his blond floozy, played by Elaine Joyce (Trick or Treat) and Dick Curtis (Support Your Local Gunfighter), who are into some weird shit. They generally act like freaks, with the woman employing a whip while the man gets into some kinky pleather gear. A TV is tuned to a local degenerate preacher played by gravelly-voiced Wolfman Jack requesting money to presumably build a starship to spread the word of Jesus. “Edie! Where’s my jelly?!” Curtis yells. He can always dream as he hopes “they’re into animals” before suggesting they “get greasy.” Things seem to be on the right track when Vincent and Ida not only tie them up “hog style,” but bust out what appears to be nitrous oxide. No such luck and they end up in the garden, which I assume was an easy task to achieve thanks to how oily they were. “We went through three bottles of vegetable oil!”

The movie only suffers when it shifts away from Vincent and Ida. We get one of the worst would-be screen heroes I’ve ever encountered. Vincent’s kid brother Bruce (Paul Linke, CHiPs) is the local lawman and he’s into movies, nudie magazines, and apparently rape. He takes Terry to make-out point and scares the hell out of the locals, who are necking in their cars. He then proceeds to try and have his way with her, even though she’s got eyes for Vincent. Are we supposed to root for this guy? I partially blame the writing, which gives Vincent and Ida the good stuff: “Hey! You could smoke their tongues!” “Well, I tried that. The texture’s all wrong.” Linke can’t do much with the dialogue and comes off as idiotic and pathetic compared to the clever, dapper, and measured Vincent. Terry just shrugs off the whole near-rape thing and focuses on bedding Vincent, which he won’t do unless they’re married. She actually wants to go through with it but very nearly gets drowned by a jealous Ida, who slashes her inner tube with a razor.

The explosive finale, featuring a controversial but very popular image that caused some stores to pull Fangoria off its shelves, features the “meat” rising from the Earth and hobbling toward Ida like the living dead. “Have you been watered?” she asks, before they set upon her. Terry is on a meat grinding conveyor belt and before Bruce can free her, Vincent steps in, wielding a chainsaw and wearing a gigantic pig head mask. Cackling wildly, Vincent lashes out at his kid brother and an epic chainsaw battle/swordfight begins which Panos Cosmatos obviously used as inspiration for a similar scene in Mandy. Vincent is defeated and his final line before expiring is a doozy: “I'm the biggest hypocrite of them all. My meats... I used preservatives.” Even after everything’s happened, his mind is always on the quality of the meat. It’s a fantastic curtain-drop to a ridiculous film.

Motel Hell is loopy and occasionally muddled, but the good stuff far outweighs the weaker aspects that feel obligatory at best. It knows what it is and what it’s doing. The film achieves a rare place amongst the horror pantheon by simultaneously skewering the genre while humbly bowing down to the cliches and expected tropes of the genre by throwing in some minor but effective gore.