Motel Hell (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★
Kevin Connor’s eccentric “Motel Hell” is a satire of terrible people—siblings Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida (Nancy Parsons)—who genuinely believe they are doing God’s work by helping out with our planet’s overpopulation problem and food shortages. Their solution: kidnap unsuspecting folks, plant their bodies until neck-deep in the ground, slash their vocal cords so they cannot scream, fatten them up for weeks, then slaughter them when their bodies are good and ready to be cleaned, smoked, and mixed into the pork. Human meat is the secret ingredient of Farmer Vincent’s smoked meat—exclusively sold within a hundred mile radius. This may already sound like plenty of information—but this does not even scratch the surface. Another target to be satirized: American capitalism. Impressive about this film is its level of detail.
For most, the horror may come in the form of something standard or expected like Vincent sabotaging a remote road so that unsuspecting drivers would lose control of their vehicle and then crash into a ditch. Or Ida scrubbing down corpses before limbs are chopped off. But for me, true horror comes in the form of the duo’s precise methods of preparing their “product” (which they’ve perfected over the course of thirty years), how they interact with heads spurting from the ground (which can only make unsettling gurgling noises), their friendly and welcoming demeanor around motel guests and townsfolk. It is the more chilling that Vincent and Ida look so ordinary—for this is their mask. Their real selves are revealed when it is time to do God’s work. It is no accident that Vincent and Ida are always watching or listening to televangelists. Every breath they take is dedicated to the Lord.
There are nifty details peppered throughout the picture’s running time. Screenwriters Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe assume that viewers who choose to watch a movie entitled “Motel Hell” have seen plenty of macabre stories, particularly films surrounding serial killers and cannibalism. And so they play upon certain tropes, from introducing a potential final girl (Nina Axelrod) who lost a lover early on, the cop who has no idea what’s really going on in his own town (Paul Linke), to the hypotheses we make in regards to what should inevitably happen to the story’s antagonists. I enjoyed that we spend more time with Vincent and Ida inside and around the motel compared to anyone else. We grow familiar with the geography of the place. Combining these elements, an argument can be made that we become accomplices to the pair’s crimes.
A bit of time is spent on a sort-of romance between Terry (Axelrod) and Bruce (Linke). I found the forced humor—which borders on slapstick at times—to be ineffective overall because the performers lack basic chemistry, but I appreciated the addition of this subplot since it adds a bit of humanism—and lightness—to the story. I found the angle surrounding Terry having discovered an attraction to Vincent, who is at least twice her age, to be the more intriguing relationship. Vincent’s responses to Terry’s advances are certainly more amusing than Bruce’s lame attempts to get Terry to notice him under a more intimate light. This isn’t to suggest that Terry is interesting on her own. On the contrary, I found her to be tedious outside of her attraction to a murderer. I felt the writers’ struggle in establishing a strong female protagonist.
Regardless, there is plenty to enjoy in “Motel Hell,” from the set decor of the secret garden where humans are planted and fattened, its incredible use of puns no matter the situation, to the consistency of its jovial and enthusiastic energy despite a morbid subject matter. It wears its influences on its sleeve such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” but never parodying them; it honors them by remaining true to its own path. Those with a taste for bizarre and forgotten films are likely to have a campy good time.