Horror movies aren’t meant to charm or delight, but usually, even if it’s particularly harrowing, I as a horror fan can get some enjoyment out of it. There are some, however, and especially in the gore-soaked, pathos-free 1980s, that I watch and just say “Well, that was unpleasant. Why did I watch that?” That, sadly, is the case with today’s film, the quirkily-named horror-“comedy” Motel Hell from 1980. I’d heard of this movie before and just expected it to be a regular post-Halloween slasher movie that takes place in a motel, but it’s actually more of a precursor to something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which combined dopiness, black humor, and grotty cannibalism. Interestingly, Tobe Hooper had been involved in early stages of this film’s development. At any rate, the trailer.
The general reason I disliked watching this movie is the tone. Now, unpleasant events are part and parcel to horror movies and I wouldn’t expect them not to be, but tone is of the utmost importance. If you’re going to make a horror-comedy, because of the nature of horror, the comedy part of it has to be at the same level as the horror. It’s very hard to do subtle humor in a movie with heads being chopped off and innards being eaten. Underplayed, maybe; subtle, not so much. This is all by the by, because the attempts at humor in this movie aren’t underplayed but are attempting to be more sinister than they ought to be. The result (and apologies for the convoluted description, but tone is a feeling thing) is that Motel Hell just comes across as skeevy and slimy way more than even moderately funny.
The movie was directed by Kevin Connor, the veteran British director who prior to this had helmed projects like From Beyond the Grave, At the Earth’s Core, and Warlords of the Deep (which based on title alone is one I should track down). From the IMDb trivia (always a font of correct and useful information), it says the original plan for the film was to be a gritty, realistic horror movie but it was changed to be a black comedy much later on in development. This dramatic shift in tone (that darned four-letter word), to me, didn’t do the movie any favors.
The story follows Vincent Smith, played by B-movie legend Rory Calhoun, a farmer and motel owner living somewhere where a farm and a motel would be really strange to have. He spends his evening sitting on the porch of the Hotel Hello (with the O on the neon sign constantly blinking on and off… clever) and waiting to hear people on the roads. When he does, he springs one of a dozen booby traps he has set up around his property to disable vehicles so that he and his creepy and huge little sister Ida (Nancy Parson) can gas the poor victims, cut out their vocal cords, bury them up to their neck in a “garden” and feed them via tube, still alive and conscious, until it’s time for them to be slaughtered and smoked to be come Farmer Vincent’s famous Fritters. (The slogan is “It Takes All Kinds of Critters to Make Farmer Vincent’s Fritters.)
So, this kind of thing permeates most of the film. But let’s move away from that and get to the main plot. At the beginning of the film, Vincent shoots the tires out on a motorcycle and the man driving is thrown off and killed. His female passenger, Terry (Nina Axelrod), is knocked out but not dead. Vincent takes a shine to the pretty blonde thing and decides to take her back to his home, which upsets Ida who definitely has more than fraternal feelings for her older brother. Gross. Their younger brother, Bruce (Paul Lenke) is (somehow) the sheriff of the county but is pretty dim and has no idea about Vincent and Ida’s nocturnal activities, nor that he’s been eating human fritters for most of his life.
When Terry wakes up, she’s saddened to hear about the death of her fiance, whom Vincent says he just up and buried, but for some reason decides to stay and not get taken back to town right away. Both Vincent and Bruce take a shine to Terry and both want to get it on with her, though Bruce makes it a lot more visible (and goofy) and Vincent, being of an old school mentality, wouldn’t dream of being untoward. Initially, Terry is aghast by the Smith family’s ease at talking about having killed and eaten the family dog as youths, but inexplicably afterwards decides she has feelings for the visibly elderly Vincent and not the much more age-appropriate Bruce. It’s not so much a May-December romance as it is a May-The-Following-February romance.
Sure, Ida tries to kill Terry several times, but eventually even she decides if Vincent’s okay with her, and in fact wants to marry her (she accepts; remember your recently-dead fiance? Weird woman), then so will she be. Bruce, on the other hand, tries to sabotage their relationship, which doesn’t work. At any rate, before things can progress to a happy(?) ending, several of the human crops find their way out of the ground and try to get revenge on the farmer and his sister. This leads to Terry discovering the truth, Vincent putting on the pig-head mask you see at the top, and he and Sheriff Suddenly-Heroic Bruce having a chainsaw duel. When the hell did Bruce become the hero of this thing?
All the gags just seem really ill-judged and even for the early-’80s they land with a thud. The murdering of a couple of degenerate swingers (who are laughably bourgeois) is the closes the movie actually gets to the broad comedy it thinks it’s supposed to be, but by then it’s just, again, a lot trashier than than they probably wanted. Or maybe that’s exactly what they wanted and it’s just me who doesn’t go in for it; I have no idea. It’s a suitably effed-up idea, planting people in the ground to be harvested later, but it’s nothing more than a decent horror idea.
All in all, I’d have to say Motel Hell is a hard pass, but it’s recently been released by Scream Factory, so if you’re so inclined, go ahead and give it a try. You might just, as the tagline suggests “die…laughing!” (I doubt you will.)