MOTEL HELL (1980)
Directed by Kevin Connor
Starring: Rory Calhoun, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Paul Linke, and Wolfman Jack!
God, I love this movie. I mean, really love this movie. I remember as a kid, I would see the previews on Showtime and try my damnedest to stay up late to see it, but I would always fall asleep and miss it. When I did finally see the film, it blew my mind. This is one of those films where you ask your friends if they’ve seen it, praying the answer is no, so that you can sit and watch them experience it for the first time. MOTEL HELL is filled with so many cool ideas: the cannibal farmers, the human head garden, the hypnosis machine, the pig head chainsaw fight. This movie seems like a hodge-podge of good ideas from multiple movies all glommed into one. And the thing is, it works!
The best thing about MOTEL HELL is that it confidently knows that it is a horror film and never apologizes for it. Sure there are comedic elements to it, but most of the comedy in this film is of the blackest kind. The way Ida toys with the heads in the garden. The story Vincent tells at the picnic about grandma cooking and eating the dog. The confused S&M couple who finally realize that it isn’t nitrous gas in the gas mask. These are dark, dark scenes, but at the same time, they make me laugh every time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I have to assume there are some of you who haven’t seen this film. MOTEL HELL is the story of Vincent and Ida Smith, siblings who own the Motel Hello (the O in the sign is burnt out, you see) and Vincent has a side business selling smoked meats. His tag line, “All types of critters go into Farmer Vincent’s Fritters!” has made the farmer a local hero. But right away, the movie lets us know that that friendly smile etched across Rory Calhoun’s face hides the something quite sinister. Turns out the secret ingredient to Farmer Vincent’s Spiced Meats is cattle of the two legged kind. Vincent and Ida keep a secret garden behind their hotel filled with people buried up to their necks. Their vocal chords are severed and they are fed a special vitamin concoction before they are processed and packaged in their barn for wholesale.
Incorporating elements of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, PSYCHO and a ton of other horror films, MOTEL HELL is one of those hokey concepts that shouldn’t have worked but it did. The main reason is due to the solid performances from Rory Calhoun and Nancy (PORKY’S) Parsons. Calhoun especially shows great acting range here, all at once giving off a Mr. Rogers vibe then switching on a dime to go completely Gary Busey on someone. There’s a fantastic scene where two little girls have been scared after wandering too far into Vincent’s barn. The girls run screaming out of the barn, past their parents, and straight to the backseat of their car. Vincent is the perfect salesman, never missing a beat in his pitch to sell a gift set of his famous smoked meats to the children’s’ parents, saying that he will take care of the kids then screaming as loud as he can in their faces to shut them up. This switch from gentle grandpa figure to menacing beast occurs in the blink of an eye, then Calhoun is again smiling at the frozen kids’ parents as if nothing happened. Parsons herself gives a phenomenal performance as Ida, the childish kid sister of Vincent who doesn’t want the careful balance of their twisted world disturbed and will kill to make sure it doesn’t.
The iconic look of Vincent & Ida wearing the pig head is an image that one can’t soon forget. Recently this look has been used in Grant Morrison’s BATMAN & ROBIN comic as well as the torture porn THE BUTCHER (which I’ll delve into in another column), but there’s something about the fiendishly evil simplicity of a chainsaw wielding villain wearing a pig head that hits you on a guttural level. What’s that head like on the inside? How do you see out of it? What’s it smell like? God, just thinking of the answers makes me cringe a bit.
At heart, MOTEL HELL is a romance, focusing on Vincent’s advances toward a plucky blond victim. And though many dismiss this film as a goofy, gory yarn, the film does have an emotional core that is more complex than most horror films of its time. Ahead of the curve in terms of acting, dark comedy, heavy emotional themes, and especially scenes that touch one on a visceral level, MOTEL HELL is one of those classics that I can watch over and over. The chainsaw duel climax alone makes this one worth seeking out. Add that to the fact that it stars John “Cliff Claven” Ratzenberger and a guy who looks a lot like Jurgen Prochnow, but isn’t. And then there’s Wolfman Jack, playing an outspoken televangelist (oxymoron, I know), who lights up the screen for just a small time, but makes every moment he’s in frame fun. There aren’t too many films that equally disgust and entertain the way MOTEL HELL does. It isn’t a mystery why it’s a film that folks want to revisit and remake.