Motel Hell (1980)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-08-01 06:05

Written by: Robert Gaffe and Steven-Charles Gaffe
Directed by: Kevin Connor
Starring: Rory Calhoun, Nancy Parsons, and Nina Axelrod

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters."

Plenty of films have trod down the same backwoods paths as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but the truly successful ones (of which there are few) manage to tap into the black-hearted humor rumbling beneath the surface of Hooper’s film. Motel Hell is one such successful imitator because it doesn’t just tap into these comedic implications—it unlooses them like a driller would a fount of oil, as its crude but wicked sense of comedy eventually spews forth, soaking the film’s proceedings with an offbeat vibe that forces audiences to consider just what in the hell is really going on here.

The setup is standard rural cannibal fare: Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his rotund sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) run Motel Hello, a ramshackle backwater haunt off the beaten path in Grainville County. Locally renowned for his smoked meats, Vincent appears to be a loveable old coot, but he’s hoarding an awful secret. Genre adherents will immediately surmise that his secret ingredient is human flesh; what’s more surprising is just how devoted he is to his craft. Vincent doesn’t just lure in and ensnare unsuspecting travelers and toss them right into the smokehouse (any amateur psycho could do that)—instead, he takes the time to curate his meat by planting his victims in a garden and fertilizing them until they’re properly tenderized.

It gets meatier as the absurdities unflinchingly pile up with nary a wink: Vincent’s latest victim Terry (Nina Axelrod) seems like a typical horror ditz who barely questions her all-too-friendly captor when he explains his decision to bury her boyfriend in the local cemetery after their "accident." You assume she’s going to become literal mincemeat soon enough with this kind of oblivious behavior—but no! Ol’ Farmer Vincent takes a liking to the gal—and she to him (!)—thus cultivating a hotbed of greasy domestic turmoil. When both his brother (who is equally oblivious despite his role as town sheriff) and Ida begin to show signs of jealousy, his idyllic meat-smoking existence is suddenly disrupted and twisted into a soap opera. A soap opera with chainsaws.

Incidentally, the film’s most famous and enduring image is that of Farmer Vincent donning a pig’s mask and brandishing a chainsaw, which has likely resulted in some misguided perceptions over the years. While its marketing and reputation suggest Motel Hell to be a two-bit slasher, it’s not really quite one at all. There are some stalking elements in the way Vincent and Idea catch their prey (which range from straight-up shooting out tires to laying bear traps), but the film wallows in the weirdness of the aftermath more than the gore. The unholy garden where these two farm their bizarre crop is a spooky menagerie of heads barely peeking above the ground, gasping and moaning for air (their vocal cords have been slit) like the undead (and when some break loose later on, it leads to one of the film’s best visual gags, as they shuffle like zombies to take revenge on actual flesh-eaters).

Director Kevin Connor’s frequent trips to this secret garden speak to his commitment towards capturing a desolate atmosphere. Consistently shrouded in fog, moonlight, and thick pines, California’s Sable Ranch is transformed into the sort of backwoods nightmare one might find in the deepest recesses of the south. With the exception of a brief glimpse at the local drive-in (which still looks to be swallowed by the surrounding woods), Motel Hell rarely leaves the motel and its surrounding areas. By the time the film reaches the halfway point, you begin to feel like a captive audience caught in the gaze of this runaway redneck freight train, not unlike a deer caught in the headlights. Televangelists dominate the TVs (with Wolfman Jack cameoing as an especially sleazy, hypocritical one), and one quickly gets the feeling that Vincent would mount his victims’ heads on the wall if it weren’t too obviously askew.

Of course, several films have been able to nail this aspect down, including the lesser Chainsaw knock-offs; what sets Motel Hell apart is its especially deranged (and dumb) collection of characters that give the impression of inmates running the asylum. Vincent’s motel is seemingly a magnet for lunatics and weirdoes, from a goofy heavy metal band (featuring John Ratzenberger!) to an S&M-obsessed couple who prove to be the easiest marks in horror movie history. But really, the main attraction here is the quartet of characters circling each other in a twisted, meat-and-mud-spattered dance with death: it’s impossible to tell if Calhoun is oblivious or so deeply in on the joke with his awesomely earnest performance as Vincent, who might be the most genteel cannibal this side of Hannibal Lecter. He might smoke folks to death and punch his sister right in the gut for revealing his secrets, but, otherwise, he’s got a code, dammit.

If he were the only nut roaming around Motel Hell, it’d really be something. Yet, somehow, he’s overshadowed by his blazing pistol of a sister (the type of gal who will drown your ass for moving in on her territory), his idiot brother (the type of guy who remains blissfully unaware of the family business for decades), and the new object of his affection (the type of gal who gets closer to the psycho as the events surrounding her become more unbelievable). Alexrod is terrifically airheaded as the latter as she treads on the line between deserving sympathy and deserving just about everything that happens to her (a quickly-thwarted rape attempt by Vincent’s brother being an exception). Seriously, Terry is one of the most unexpected final girls ever, so much so that you’d think Motel Hell were out to subvert the norm if said norm still weren’t years away from being codified. In a film where a roadside motel manager moonlights as a cannibal and tends a garden of heads, the most unbelievable thing is just how easily Terry falls into and enjoys this hellhole.

With so much strangeness clawing away and threatening to make off with the film, it’s no surprise the climax is an eruption of lunacy: chainsaw duels, pseudo-zombie hordes, assorted smokehouse grisliness, and more await. If you’re still somehow not convinced that Motel Hell knows exactly what it’s up by this point, all of this (plus Vincent’s final shocking revelation) leaves no doubt: this film is a goddamn hoot and a crowning achievement in this particular sub-genre. Only Hooper’s own Chainsaw sequel arguably turned this genre on its ear with more black-witted effectiveness.

Scream Factory has checked into Motel Hell and deemed it a five star resort if their Collector’s Edition treatment is any indication. Gorgeously restored with a high-def transfer that allows its garish palette pop, the film is a candy-colored treat. A buffet of special features also awaits: headlined by a new commentary with Connor (and moderated by Dave Parker), the supplements also include new interviews with the director, writers Robert and Charles Jaffe, actor Marc Silver, and stunt coordinator Gene Hartline as part of “It Takes All Kinds,” the latest in Scream’s signature retrospective documentaries. This one’s a little over twenty minutes long and covers the inspiration behind the film’s script and the decision to tap Englishman Connor for his Brit sensibilities, plus a few anecdotes from the set.

A trio of separate interviews with cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth and actors Roseanne Keaton and Paul Linke allow these contributors to chime in with their own memories, while “Ida Be Thy Name” is a clever retrospective highlighting Motel Hell’s delightfully devious sister and her legacy within the canon of deranged female villains (the true “Scream Queens” if this mini-doc has any say on the matter). Between this and a similar feature on the Ginger Snaps release, Scream has done an excellent job in underlining the feminine side of fear. In addition to this, the disc also provides the expected marketing stuff: a trailer, a behind-the-scenes gallery, posters, production snapshots, and other offerings from Scream Factory. Like a big, sloppy meat tray that runneth over, this release is packed with enough goodness to stuff you—just don’t be surprised if the main course leaves a funny taste in your mouth. Buy it!

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