MOTEL HELL (1980) Review

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.

Best in Horror 2011!

Here’s my very first Best in Horror list from October 1, 2010 through October 1, 2011 (I only picked 25 that year for some reason)!

#25: PANIC BUTTON

#24: LONG PIGS

#23: THE SQUAD

#22: ABSENTIA

#21: HUSK

#20: WAKE WOOD

#19: INSIDIOUS

#18: KIDNAPPED

#17: WE ARE WHAT WE ARE

#16: DOGTOOTH

#15: RED, WHITE & BLUE

#14: RABIES

#13: HEARTLESS

#12: MUTANTS

#11: INBRED

#10: THE REEF

#9: OUTCAST

#8: SHIVER

#7: THE TAINT

#6: THE DEAD

#5: A SERBIAN FILM

#4: I SAW THE DEVIL

#3: NATIONAL THEATER LIVE PRESENTS DANNY BOYLE’S FRANKENSTEIN

#2: TROLLHUNTER

#1. THE LAST CIRCUS

Best in Horror 2012!

And here’s the bare bones list of the Best in Horror from October 1, 2011 through October 1, 2012!

#31: SICK BOY

#30: THE AGGRESSION SCALE

#29: THE SLEEPER

#28: THE MOTH DIARIES

#27: SPIRIT STALKERS

#26: SATURDAY MORNING MASSACRE

#25: THE WRONG HOUSE

#24: THE PACT

#23: THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS

#22: THE INNKEEPERS

#21: MOTHER’S DAY

#20: KILL LIST

#19: THE TALL MAN

#18: LITTLE DEATHS

#17: PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3

#16: THE DIVIDE

#15: V/H/S

#14: BLOOD JUNKIE

#13: MIDNIGHT SON

#12: JUAN OF THE DEAD

#11: BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW

#10: CABIN IN THE WOODS

#9: MASKS

#8: RABIES

#7: ENTRANCE

#6: THE SKIN I LIVE IN

#5: THE BUTTERFLY ROOM

#4: HAROLD’S GOING STIFF

#3: LOVELY MOLLY

#2: EXCISION

#1: THE WOMAN

Best in Horror 2013!

Here’s a look back at a bare bones list of my picks for Best in Horror from October 1, 2012 through October 1, 2013!

#31: TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D

#30: DEVIL’S PASS

#29: THE RAMBLER

#28: THE AMERICAN SCREAM

#27: BATH SALT ZOMBIES

#26: MANBORG

#25: ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY

#24: SIGHTSEERS

#23: ABC’S OF DEATH

#22: THE LAST WILL & TESTAMENT OF ROSALIND LEIGH

#21: I DIDN’T COME HERE TO DIE

#20: THE CONJURING

#19: COME OUT AND PLAY

#18: V/H/S/2

#17: CRYSTAL LAKE MEMORIES

#16: CURSE OF CHUCKY

#15: HOME SWEET HOME

#14: YOU’RE NEXT

#13: SIMON KILLER

#12: JUG FACE

#11: KISS OF THE DAMNED

#10: WITHER

#9: WE ARE WHAT WE ARE

#8: RESOLUTION

#7: SLEEP TIGHT

#6: THALE

#5: AMERICAN MARY

#4: THE BATTERY

#3: BEDEVILLED

#2: ANTIVIRAL

#1: MANIAC

Best in Horror 2014!

Looking for my Best in Horror from previous years? It’s right here. Follow the links to by reviews, but here’s the bare bones list from October 1, 2013 through October 1, 2014!
#31: DISCOPATHE

#30: STALLED

#29: RIGOR MORTIS

#28: GHOST TEAM ONE

#27: THANATOMORPHOSE

#26: LIFE AFTER BETH

#25: AT THE DEVIL’S DOOR

#24: CHIMERES

#23: AFFLICTED

#22: TUSK

#21: FOUND

#20: DEVOURED

#19: DELIVERY: THE BEAST WITHIN

#18: THE MACHINE

#17: GRAND PIANO

#16: WILLOW CREEK

#15: ALL CHEERLEADERS DIE

#14: THE SACRAMENT

#13: CRAWL OR DIE

#12: PIECES OF TALENT

#11: PLUS ONE

#10: CHEAP THRILLS

#9: THE GUEST

#8: BLUE RUIN

#7: THE CONSPIRACY

#6: HERE COMES THE DEVIL

#5: HONEYMOON

#4: UNDER THE SKIN

#3: ENEMY

#2: BIG BAD WOLVES

#1: PROXY

Best in Horror 2015!

For those who love lists, here’s mine of the best horror films from October 1, 2014 through October 1, 2015, posted throughout October on Ain’t It Cool. Links will take you directly to my reviews of the films, but here’s the bare bones list for those desiring simplicity!

#31 – AN AMERICAN TERROR

#30 – WE ARE STILL HERE

#29 – FROM THE DARK

#28 – THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN

#27 – DEAD SNOW 2: DEAD VS RED

#26 – THE GREEN INFERNO

#25 – THE EDITOR

#24 – THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN

#23 – WITCHING & BITCHING

#22 – EXTINCTION

#21 – WYRMWOOD: ROAD OF THE DEAD

#20 – BACKCOUNTRY

#19 – POD

#18 – MAGGIE

#17 – A PLAGUE SO PLEASANT

#16 – THE NIGHTMARE

#15 – A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

#14 – STARRY EYES

#13 – CLOSER TO GOD

#12 – THE FINAL GIRLS

#11 – LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU

#10 – THE HOUSE AT THE END OF TIME

#9 – GOODNIGHT MOMMY

#8 – CUB

#7 – IT FOLLOWS

#6 – WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS

#5 – SPRING

#4 – CREEP

#3 – LATE PHASES

#2 – THE BABADOOK

#1 – THE CANAL