Motel Hell (1980) Review

Motel Hell was on its way to be a great black comedy, about cannibals . . .

As far as sub-sub-subgenres are concerned, I’ve always been of the opinion that there are far too few black comedies about cannibals. What’s frustrating about this (and it has almost nothing to do with my diet) is that those few that do exist, like Eating Raoul and Parents, tend to be very good:  sly and funny and nasty, working both as shockers and as social satire.

Motel Hell doesn’t seem to have much social satire in mind. In fact, it began life as a straight, ugly, little horror film. But thanks to its premise it began evolving into a black comedy during production. Problem is it didn’t evolve quite far enough, leaving the film in a murky no man’s land and coming off, in the end, like a forgotten knockoff subplot from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. And the problem with that is that TCM 2 wouldn’t be made for another six years and when it finally was it was a hell of a lot funnier than this. Maybe that explains why, for a little while there anyway, Tobe Hooper was attached to Motel Hell as director. But when Universal dumped it for being too weird, he dropped out too.

Sad thing in all this is that the film had real comic potential. Kevin Conner was a solid director who’d helmed The Land That Time Forgot. Screenwriters Robert and Steven Charles Jaffe had been behind Demon Seed (which I always considered a comedy until my ex-wife informed me otherwise). It starred the great Rory Calhoun who, like so many stars who made names for themselves in the ‘40s (Ida Lupino, George Sanders, Keenan Wynn, etc.) found himself making exploitation films in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It had an unbeatable tagline (“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters”). But most important of all it had a story that scared the shit out of studio executives. Or confused them, or both. You do that, you know you’re onto something good.

Farmer Vincent (Calhoun) and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) are good-hearted, neighborly Christian folk  who  run a small farm and motel just off the highway. Along with the occasional, legitimate guests, Farmer Vincent is in the habit of rustling up new business by setting traps on the road to blow out the tires of passing motorists. Like the unsuspecting guests, any travelers who don’t die in the ensuing accidents get buried neck deep in the garden (after their vocal chords have been sliced so they can’t scream) and for the next few weeks Vincent and Ida fatten them up until they’re good and plump, then butcher them and turn them into the famous hickory smoked hams and sausages he sells from a little roadside stand.

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See? Now THAT’S a comic premise! Sure there are hints of Sweeny Todd, but with a real down to earth American flavor and gumption. And besides, Sweeny Todd had only played on Broadway by that point, so who the hell had seen it?

(And don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away here. If you didn’t guess this much from the poster art and the tagline maybe it’s time to start prepping for that G.E.D. again. Third time’s the charm.)

Unfortunately, after the premise is laid out Conner didn’t know what to do or where to go with it, and he still had half a film in front of him. Instead of doing the right and proper thing by pushing it toward High Strangeness, he tried to backtrack into standard horror, tossing in whatever contrived plot devices were handy (an unlikely love triangle, the sheriff is Vincent’s younger brother, Wolfman Jack is a local preacher, two Playboy bunnies have car trouble). So the second half of the film has a staggering, ungainly rhythm in which very little happens to take the story anywhere. What few jokes and visual gags remain are weak and flat. Then it all ends with a pointless and improbable chainsaw fight. Love a good chainsaw fight as I do, by that point it’s simply too late. It’s also too late for Vincent’s last line to turn out to be the funniest line in the film, as by then it’s completely out of place.

For its mumbly shortcomings, Motel Hell does contain its share of sharp visual details. The interior of the smokehouse is a combination of one of Francis Bacon’s early paintings and his studio. The most memorable, however, is the garden of gurgling heads (Vincent refers to them as his “animals”) and Vincent and Ida’s interaction with the heads is almost charming. As Vincent and Ida, Calhoun and Nancy Parsons give wonderful performances as a pair of aging, comfortably bickering siblings who grew up as cannibals and no longer see any problem with murdering passersby to keep their customers happy. After all, everyone who stops by the stand says it’s the best sausage they’ve ever had. Without ever saying as much,  Calhoun and Parsons’ characterizations make it clear that guarding the hidden magic of where that sausage comes from is more a matter of protecting an old secret family recipe than of covering up horrible crimes. They’re very comfortable with what they do and see nothing wrong with it.

Those two performances actually punctuate what’s wrong with the rest of the film. The ultimate disappointment isn’t so much that it’s a bad picture. It’s not, it’s competently made, there’s some nice camera work. But it could have and should have been so much more. It might have, too, if Conner and the Jaffes had the courage of their convictions. A reportedly vicious, ugly and shocking original script (complete with bestiality!) was on its way to becoming a black comedy that could have pushed some boundaries at a time when some boundaries needed pushing. In the end we got neither. Instead of one of Farmer Vincent’s famous sausages, it’s like we were handed an empty casing.

Den of Geek Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

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