Cult Movie Retrospective: Motel Hell

Motel Hell Sign
“Motel Hell is a welcome change-of-pace; it’s to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Airplane! is to Airport. It has some great moments, including a duel fought with chainsaws, a hero swinging to the rescue on a meathook, and Farmer Vincent’s dying confession of the shameful secret that he concealed for years. These moments illuminate the movie’s basic and not very profound insight, which is that most of the sleazoids would be a lot more fun if they didn’t take themselves with such gruesome solemnity.”Roger Ebert

What better way is there to discuss 1980’s Motel Hell than by opening with a quote from Roger Ebert? This was a man who unabashedly hated most horror films, even going as far as to consider them dangerous. So what was it about Motel Hell that Ebert found so entertaining? The quick answer seems to be, well, it’s humor.

The successful horror comedy is a rare and elusive find. Not only does it need to be both scary and funny, but it has to blend the two together in almost perfect symmetry. Some of the best films that strike an ideal balance between terror and laughs include Evil Dead II, An American Werewolf In London, The Return Of The Living Dead, Re-Animator, and Fright Night. Motel Hell can undoubtedly be included on this list.

Motel Hell Pig Mask

Motel Hell Garden

In the film, unsuspecting travelers come from near and far to get their hands on some of Farmer Vincent’s (Rory Calhoun) delicious meat products, made from his own special (and quite sinister) blend of ingredients that he and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) create fresh each and every day for all their loyal customers. Of course, it doesn’t take much for viewers to put two and two together – it becomes quite clear that Vincent and Ida are using human flesh for their recipes, keeping a secret garden of victims on a remote part of their property as a way to replenish their inventory. And there are plenty of cannibal-themed shenanigans in store for viewers once a young woman named Terry (Nina Axelrod) is taken in by Vincent and Ida, eventually discovering all their dastardly and delicious secrets.

While the humor of it all is quite effective, the horror dimension is still plentiful. The sight of Vincent’s “secret garden,” where he buries his victims up to their necks alive until he’s ready to butcher them, has the irrational power of a nightmare. And the dueling chainsaw climax, which might have inspired a similar scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, is informed by the memorably creepy touch of Vincent’s deranged laughter, which can be subtly heard from underneath the huge and absurd-yet-nevertheless-unsettling pig’s head that he insists on wearing for whatever reason for this singular occasion. Tying the figurative room together, so to speak, is the film’s heightened atmosphere of sleazy, remote, red-light-district woodiness, which is ineffably specific of ’80s horror films and, in this case, suggestive of every weird country burg you’ve ever driven through as quickly as possible.

Despite the film’s meager budget, the picture quality here is surprising. One might expect that, because director Kevin Connor was still very much new to the industry – with only a few low budget features under his belt – and it being cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth’s debut feature (he would go on to shoot Stand By Me, The Breakfast Club, and The Running Man), that Motel Hell would be riddled with errors. This assumption is, for the most part, incorrect. There are a few glitches here and there, but overall the film is very pleasant to look at.

Nina Axelrod Motel Hell

Rory Calhoun Motel Hell

Nothing that appears in the film is photographed in quite the same manner, leaving the viewer with a distinct feeling associated with the planting and harvesting of humans. In contrast, scenes inside the slaughterhouse are almost underexposed, the grittiness and gain heightened to create a sense of tension. In juxtaposition, the visual make up of these scenes does a lot to push forward the message of the film, to connect the fantastical with the horrific.

All in all, Motel Hell is a hilarious, offensive, inventive and twisted foray into happy go lucky cannibalism land. Although you’ve seen this subject matter tackled in other genre films before; you’ve never witnessed it wrangled in such an off the wall manner.

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