Motel Hell (1980) ***
The little respectability alarm inside my brain is going off again— that’s what I get for reviewing The Andromeda Strain, Solaris, and Stalker all in a row. And we all know what that means by now, don’t we? Yup. I’ll be spending the next big chunk of my movie-watching/reviewing time trying to get as far away from respectability as I can. Motel Hell seems like as good a place as any to start. It may not be wallowing in the gutter exactly, but a semi-spoof about hillbillies turning people into smoked sausage is a far fucking cry from sullen Soviet sci-fi!
Somewhere in the countryside of wherever it is in America that people go skiing lies the slightly ramshackle Motel Hello. (Somebody really must do something about that temperamental “o” on the neon sign out front...) Early one morning (like about 4:00 early), the motel’s proprietor, Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun, from Night of the Lepus and Hell Comes to Frogtown), switches on the “No Vacancy” sign, loads up his shotgun, and heads out into the woods for some pre-dawn hunting. This puts him just in time to catch an aging biker named Bo Tulinsky (stuntman Everitt Creach, whose other acting credits include The Dark and Prophecy) and his young-enough-to-be-his-daughter girlfriend, Terry (Nina Axelrod, of Time Walker and Critters 3), riding down Highway 52 on Bo’s motorcycle. That also means Vincent is on hand when the cycle’s front tire blows out, pitching both riders over the embankment beside the road. Vincent pulls his early-50’s F-Series pickup around to the cyclists’ crash site, and loads both Bo and Terry aboard.
Later that morning, Vincent carries Terry into the motel, and tells his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons, from the Porky’s series), to ready Granny’s old room for a visitor. There’s no longer any sign of Bo. Indeed, when Terry wakes up, Vincent tells her that Bo is dead, and that he buried him in the local cemetery just before sunrise. Just as Vincent is informing Terry of her boyfriend’s demise, a third Smith sibling arrives at the motel: little brother Bruce (Paul Linke, of Space Rage and Big Bad Mama). Little brother Sheriff Bruce, in point of fact. This is the first Bruce has heard of the cycle wreck on Route 52, and after reassuring Terry that under “extenuating circumstances,” county law provides for the discoverer of a dead body to bury it without going through the usual channels, he drives Vincent, Ida, and Terry out to the cemetery to take a look. Vincent convinces his brother that the circumstances were indeed extenuating, and offers to put Terry up at the motel until she has fully recovered from her injuries.
It’s at about this point in the movie that we discover the Motel Hello isn’t Vincent’s only means of making a living. He’s also the mastermind behind Farmer Vincent’s Smoked Meats, which are widely regarded in this neck of the woods as the end-all be-all of their kind. As such, his motel sits beside a fully functioning hog farm, and shortly after Terry’s arrival at the motel, Vincent receives a surprise visit from Bob Anderson (The Demon Seed’s H. Hampton Beagle), the neighborhood government health inspector. Anderson pokes and prods the hogs for a while, and while he’s at it, he notices a hedgerow at the other end of the farm that would be just perfect for concealing a marijuana crop or something similarly illicit. With that in mind, Anderson sneaks back onto Vincent’s property late that night to have a look behind the hedgerow. At first, the garden within looks perfectly ordinary, but then Anderson notices a row of plants that have been concealed under burlap sacks. Jackpot! But it’s not what Anderson thinks. One of the bags starts moving when he gets closer to it, and begins making the most unearthly gargling noises. His curiosity really engaged at this point, Anderson lifts up that bag to reveal none other than Bo Tulinsky, buried up to his neck in the soil and with a sinister-looking bandage across the front of his throat. That’s about when Vincent creeps up behind him, and clouts Bob on the head.
More light is shed on the secret of Farmer Vincent’s Smoked Meats the following night, when Ivan and the Terribles, the closest approximation of a punk rock band the filmmakers’ imaginations could come up with, come speeding down Highway 52. This time, Vincent has seeded the road with bear traps, which turn the tires on the Terribles’ van to vulcanized rubber confetti, dropping the van down the same ditch that had claimed Bo and Terry’s motorbike earlier. Vincent then floods the interior of the van with anesthetic gas from a pressurized cylinder, and loads the sleeping reprobates into the bed of his truck. While he and Ida plant the Terribles in their garden, the two conspirators discuss the hows and whys of the whole operation. After burying their anesthetized victims in the ground, Vincent and Ida cut their vocal cords to prevent them from calling for help (thus the bandages we saw on Bo’s throat), and fatten them up with some sort of starch- and protein-heavy vegetable paste. (Dr. Science would like to say a few words about tracheotomies at this point. Any time you want to perform any kind of surgery on the human windpipe, it is necessary to take careful steps to control bleeding and ensure proper airflow. Otherwise, the suction of the patient’s inhalation will pull dangerous quantities of blood down into the lungs, introducing the risk that the patient will literally drown in his or her own blood. Needless to say, Vincent and Ida do nothing of the sort— they just whip out their scalpels and go to town.) As for the underlying reason behind Vincent’s scheme, it’s really pretty ingenious. Not only does human flesh produce a superior grade of sausage when combined with ground pork, cannibalism addresses the problem of world hunger from both directions at once— even as the slaughter of human beings produces more food, each person who gets eaten is one fewer mouth to feed from the Earth’s finite resources. Makes sense to me.
Meanwhile, Bruce has gotten himself stuck on Terry something fierce. He hasn’t got a chance in hell, though, because Terry likes her men old and grizzled, and Bruce is about fifteen years shy of her preferred demographic. Vincent, though— well, that’s another matter. He’s even older than Bo was, and he gets extra points for being the one who saved her from the motorcycle wreck (she remains blissfully unaware that the wily old bastard almost certainly caused the wreck in the first place), and for his extremely generous treatment of her while she’s been staying at the Motel Hello.
Then again, Terry is coming closer and closer to finding out the truth. First, while she and Bruce are out on a date, clandestinely watching The Monster that Challenged the World at the drive-in through binoculars from lover’s lane, Vincent makes the potentially dangerous mistake of trapping a pair of motorists with a CB radio in their car. Vincent snaps up one of the girls without a bit of trouble, but the second takes off in the car, and has just enough time before Vincent catches up to her and runs her off the road to put out a call for help on the CB. (Allow me, once again, to digress for a moment here. The fleeing girl’s car is a 1970 Sedan DeVille. Yeah, it’s a huge, heavy car [just under 5000 pounds, as a matter of fact], but the standard engine in those things was a 7.7-liter, 375hp high-compression V-8, developing an ungodly enormous 525 foot-pounds of torque. You might as well try to overtake that car on a Bigwheel as go after it in Vincent’s ragged-out old pickup.) The only reason Bruce (who is at least professional enough to cut the date short to come to the girl’s rescue) doesn’t catch his brother in the act of pushing his victims’ car into the lake is that he gets one of his wheels stuck in the muddy shoulder while rounding a particularly sharp turn. The second close call comes later that very night, when a pair of swingers stop by the Motel Hello on the mistaken impression that it is the “Vincent’s Motel” advertised in the latest issue of the swinger’s newsletter Hot Spots. Vincent and Ida are forced to gas them in one of the motel cabins, and then sneak them back out to the garden. And finally, Vincent himself has become rather sweet on Terry, and has begun harboring delusions that he’ll be able to bring her into the fold with him and Ida. Vincent even goes so far as to propose marriage to Terry!
Ida, for her part, knows no good can come of that. And so, from a slightly different perspective, does Bruce. The moment Vincent’s two siblings get wise to what’s going on between him and Terry, both start trying to break up the relationship in their own way. Bruce tries to win Terry away from his brother, while Ida just tries to kill her. But despite the siblings’ efforts, Vincent and Terry are soon wed by the local preacher (Wolfman Jack! Really!). What does finally derail Vincent’s plans is a combination of some slick detective work by Bruce (whereby he discovers at long last that his brother is a homicidal maniac) and Bo Tulinsky’s unexpected success in freeing himself and his fellow “livestock” from confinement in the garden. The chainsaw duel between Vincent and his brother that brings the film to a close is enough to make you think somebody put something in your drink.
Once again, we are presented with proof that a worthwhile horror-comedy can, in fact, be made, assuming the filmmakers know what they’re doing. Motel Hell does a good job of striking the difficult balance between the contrary demands of horror and comedy. In fact, it’s so deadpan that it would be easy to mistake its comedy for the accidental variety so common in cheap horror films. The episodes involving the swingers and Ivan and the Terribles would, undeniably, seem deliriously strange in the context of a straight horror flick, but I’ve seen lunacy fully the equal of them in so many totally unironic fright films that they alone would not be enough to tip the movie’s hand. The only reason I know for sure that Motel Hell was supposed to be funny is that I’ve seen the original promo poster, with its dual tag lines, “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters” and “You might just die... laughing!” The secret, I think, is in the casting and direction. Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons ham up a storm, alright, but they do it so earnestly that it’s difficult to be sure they’re kidding. And director Kevin Connor helms the picture as though he were the only one among the creative team who wasn’t in on the joke. It definitely lacks the brilliance of a Dead Alive or an Evil Dead 2, but Motel Hell is still many times more enjoyable than just about anything its subgenre has produced in the last ten years.