One of the cult classics of the early 1980s fails to live up to the promise of its own imagery and outlandishly tasteless premise.
When I first saw Motel Hell, shortly after it’s original video release, I was very disappointed. This was the movie that had promised so much, with the fantastic Fangoria cover image of a chainsaw-wielding pig-masked maniac stoking many a reader’s imagination, but the movie didn’t really live up to that outrageous promise.
Looked at without the weight of unfair expectations, the film is a lot more entertaining than I remembered it as being. It’s still hardly the classic some people claim it to be, but as a lightweight mix of horror and comedy – the emphasis mostly on the latter – it’s good fun. But you can’t help but feel that this film had the potential to be so much more than it finally turned out to be.
Rory Calhoun is Farmer Vincent, who runs Motel Hello (the ‘O’ in Hello constantly blinking on the neon sign) with his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) and also produces the best smoked meat in the area. “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent Fritters” is the marketing slogan, but the main ingredient seems to be human flesh. Vincent is in the habit of waylaying passing vehicles and drugging motel guests and then planting them in his field, vocal cords cut, where they are fattened up for the slaughter.
But the happy lives of Vincent and Ida are disrupted by the arrival of Terry (Nina Axelrod), a survivor of one of Vincent’s road trap who he takes a fancy to, ‘rescues’ from the crash and installs in his home. A highly unlikely relationship develops between the two of them, driving a wedge in his relationship with Ida and brother Bruce (Paul Linke), who happens to be the local sheriff and has developed a crush of his own on Terry.
The film marked a change of direction for director Kevin Connor, who had started his career with From Beyond the Grave but in subsequent years had become known for family entertainment fantasies like The Land that Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core, Warlords of Atlantis and An Arabian Adventure. Here, he has made an altogether less wholesome film, and handles the mix of comedy and horror fairly well, avoiding excessive campiness for the most part (though there are some wildly over-the-top performances). The film is certainly more comedy than horror though, played for laughs more than shocks. The film is far from being the gorefest that the stills and its reputation suggest, though it is certainly gleefully tasteless and deliberately cheesy. Calhoun plays his part with an admirable straight face, while Parsons is impressively horrible as Ida, and the pair of them just about keep the film from veering off into outright comedy at times. Nina Axelrod is pretty disposable though – her character seems to exist simply to provide a ‘girl in peril’ and an excuse for a couple of topless scenes, and it’s hard to believe in her or sympathise with her plight.
The most interesting aspect of the film is the way it foreshadows the rather better Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, with its family of cannibal killers making a living by selling human flesh to unsuspecting customers. TCM2 showed how to take this bad taste idea and run with it, piling on the excess and the bad taste in a way that Motel Hell is too polite to do. And that is really the problem with this film – it’s too restrained for the most part to take advantage of the bad taste inherent in the storyline. Perhaps this is a legacy of the film’s gradual shift from a straight-faced horror movie to black comedy – it doesn’t feel as though Motel Hell really knows what it wants to be.
Motel Hell is also very much of its time. It’s a strange hybrid of 1970s rural horror and the more knowing, tongue in cheek genre films that would come to dominate the 1980s. It’s the latter element that ensures that the film has little real substance to it – it’s entertaining, but not particularly memorable. Stuck somewhere between ghoulish horror and out ‘n’ out comedy, the film doesn’t really succeed as either, despite its best efforts. It’s certainly worth watching if you haven’t seen it before, but hardly essential viewing.
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