Motel Hell (1980)

I don't remember why I finally saw this, though I am researching everything that comes to mind (Maltin's review–a completely typical horror rating of 1.5 stars; Terror in the Aisles–doesn't show any of this movie) and finding nothing. I know my dad had a tape of it and I know that's how I saw it, but why is beyond me. I could have sworn that iconic final scene was what inspired it, but whether I had accidentally fast-forwarded or rewound and caught it or saw it in something like Terror I don't know. Regardless, I was left definitely wanting to pick it up on DVD and it waited on my wishlist for quite some time until recently a few copies of the supposedly out-of-print DVD surfaced for a nice, fairly cheap price (also explaining the viewing of Deranged earlier today).

This movie opens on a couple motorcycling down a highway until something blows the front tire, sending the bike careening out of control into a tree. The male rider is thrown from the vehicle and dies, while the girl who rode behind him is found unconscious by Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)who, with his sister Ida, is the mind and hands behind the "Farmer Vincent" brand meats, including sausages, jerky and everything else. He carries the girl back to the Motel Hello (the "O," of course, is blinking and going out, hence the title) and there enlists Ida to help nurse the girl, Terry (Nina Axelrod), back to health. When she awakes she is confused and frightened, and runs to the policeman who has shown up to visit–Vincent's kid brother Sheriff Bruce Smith (Paul Linke). What happened to the male rider? Well, as the tagline of the movie–and the brother and sister team themselves–says, "It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters!" What follows is a mix of horror (only a bit) and black comedy (tons). Bruce is a bumbling fool of a cop, trying to get into Terry's pants, while Vincent and Ida tend to their duties of smoking meat.

Some friends of mine (sorry boys, I'm calling you out) mistook this for an exploitation flick. It's not. It's almost more comedy than it is horror, but there's enough gore and dark imagery mixed in with a decidedly dark sense of humour that it fits in just fine as horror anyway. Rory is hilariously fun as Vincent, a man who has great religious convictions, despite what his particular product involves. He smiles at everyone with a wonderfully kind-hearted smile all the time, crinkling his eyes and showing nice, white, even teeth, a salesman's smile, but an honest one. Ida is a little less genial, apt to fits of rage, threats and pranks (including a memorable one on two curious girls near the beginning of the film). Of course, Rory manages to gain our trust and sympathy early on, if you can believe it, possibly because the subject matter, dark though it is, is addressed in such an absurd and amusing way. I don't recall noticing some of the other jokes present in the film that are actually relatively subtle (like the song we first see Ida singing, or the comments by the band "Ivan and the Terribles" right before they fall victim to the Smiths), but I do recall the very funny incongruity between Vincent's actions and his philosophizing. Rory does a beautiful job of marrying a down home sort of goodness to a human-butchering cannibal in a way I can't imagine we're going to see ever again (though we might cross our fingers for the contrary). But he ain't as cool as Wolfman Jack.* He plays Reverend Billy (continuing a rather loose element of religious hypocrisy and foolishness, as televisions are often occupied by televangelists), the preacher who Vincent comes to when he has news requiring the use of a man of faith, and whose best scene may be the one where he finds Bruce in his patrol car with…"questionable material."

The "garden" that the Smiths keep is the second most iconic, interesting and half-creepy image from the film–their "animals" kept here to mature until they are ready to be smoked and added to his sausages. It's lit and filmed in a way that keeps the creepiness from being overbearing or overtly disturbing without ruining the fact that, yes, these are people buried up to their necks amongst heads of lettuce, and manages to make it amusingly weird at the same time. The most iconic, though, is the final scene of the film. I don't want to ruin it–though I often use it to highlight the awesomeness of this movie, as well as to clarify it's obvious humorous intent–but let's just say Tobe Hooper (interestingly, originally assigned to direct this film!) came a bit too late with his own final scenes in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2–and lost one of the best elements.

PS: This film includes the funniest dying words ever.

*If you get that reference, you get 10 bonus points.


2 thoughts on “Motel Hell (1980)

    1. I think we just watched it during the “Exploitation Bananza” because I stumbled on the torrent– Chopping Mall too, although we never got to it. – Kyle

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