Motel Hell (1980)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #528

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 18, 1980
Sub-Genre: Exploitation/Black Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $3,000,000
Box Office: $6,342,668
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Kevin Connor
Producers: Robert Jaffe, Steven-Charles Jaffe
Screenplay: Robert Jaffe, Steven-Charles Jaffe, Tim Tuchrello (uncredited)
Special Effects: Adams R. Calvert
Cinematography: Thomas Del Ruth
Score: Lance Rubin
Editing: Bernard Gribble
Studio: Camp Hill
Distributor: United Artists
Stars: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Wolfman Jack, Elaine Joyce, Dick Curtis, Monique St. Pierre, Rosanne Katon, E. Hampton Beagle, Everett Creach, Michael Melvin, John Ratzenberger, Marc Silver, Victoria Hartman

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Suggested Audio Candy:

Kregg Nance You’re Eatin’ Out My Heart and Soul

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When Tobe Hooper’s grindhouse classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre terrified audiences the world over in 1974, it was only ever going to be a matter of time before the inevitable glut of knock-offs and wannabes. However, precious few managed to replicate the same feeling of consternation with any real degree of success and, even forty years later, there’s not a solitary film of its ilk that can hold a candle up to it. Now that is staying power! Nevertheless, he opened a can of worms and a number of movies took their own stab at showcasing Southern hospitality. Of all of them, Kevin Connor’s Motel Hell is perhaps the most notable although recognition has been rather a long time coming.

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Ironically, Hooper himself was set to direct but, when Universal Studios questioned its validity, he promptly removed his name from the project. Eventually the dubious honor fell to Connor and the respected London-born filmmaker did a bang-up job on bringing Motel Hell to fruition. Originally, the screenplay was far more disturbing and violent but he insisted that it opt more for a black comedy approach, presumably to avoid any backlash. By the turn of the eighties, the censors were beginning to grow decidedly twitchy and, with bestiality one of the themes on the table, it would have inevitably ended up in the sin bin.

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Considering it had already spent almost three years in development limbo and nobody seemed willing to back this long shot; something had to give or else it never would have seen the light of day. When it finally arrived for its brief theatrical run-out in 1980, Motel Hell performed reasonably well and consequently doubled its initial investment. However, it was soon consigned to obscurity and there it remained until Arrow Films finally gave it the restoration treatment it so richly deserves. Time has been kind to Connor’s film and the decision to steer away from out-and-out horror now appears fully justified as the jet black humor that runs through its veins hasn’t aged a lick.

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“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”

Ordinarily, I’m the first to scream bloody murder when a light-hearted approach is taken to my beloved horror but kudos to Connor for going about it the right way as the entire cast play it straight and it never once veers towards the dreaded parody. Indeed, it perhaps most closely resembles Hooper’s own Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 for tone and I would argue that it’s a better overall movie. There are a number of reasons for this, but none so definitive as the casting of Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons as the proprietors of said motel.

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The former was a well-respected actor, particularly during the fifties and sixties, while the latter is best known for playing Beulah Balbricker in Bob Clark’s seminal sex comedy Porky’s. Remember Paulie the Penis? Well it was Parsons who almost yanked this playful pecker through the shower wall and later identified the wayward wiener in question on account of its incriminating mole. Clearly this is not the woman to trifle with. They play brother and sister Vincent and Ida Smith and a penile I.D. parade is the very last of the concerns of their ill-fated patrons.

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“Meat’s meat, and a man’s gotta eat.”

If first impressions count for shit in the Deep South, then nary a more hospitable couple you will find to offer shelter during a storm than Vincent and Ida. Congenial in the extreme and seemingly respected by their surrounding community, they run a happy vessel and are sure to always have a smile on-hand for any waifs and strays passing through state. In addition to upkeep of a thriving farm, Vincent is something of a celebrity in these here parts and his smoked meats are legendary on account of his famed hidden recipe. A good cook never reveals his seasoning secrets and Vince remains tight-lipped with sound reasoning. You see, that ain’t no pork rind you’re dislodging from between your teeth.

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“There’s too many people in the world and not enough food. Now this takes care of both problems at the same time.”

While it’s hard for a carnivore like myself to argue with his logic, I’m a little concerned about the cuts that are selected for his nutritious and delicious treats. Moreover, the half-dozen or so joint donors buried up to their necks in his personal patch certainly ain’t free range. Plucked from the most unexpected of places and consisting of road kill that he hand picks using a number of snagging techniques; these hapless halfwits are promptly relieved of their vocal cords and covered with burlap sacks until which point as they’re ripe for the culling. However, not everyone undergoes the same Southern-fried inhospitality and beautiful young thing Tina (Nina Axelrod) is offered a far more plot to rest her purty head.

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Vincent only went and got himself a crush didn’t he? And who can blame him? Business is booming, his future is secure, in lil’ sis he has an able deputy, and a buxom blonde beauty to share his nuptials with would surely be the cherry on the old fella’s trifle. Ida isn’t convinced but, for the sake of her brother’s happiness, is willing to go along with his wishes. It just so happens that the town sheriff Bruce is none other than his baby bro and Tina’s arrival gets his plums twinging also. Admittedly, Bruce is barely more hinged than Vincent but, while he wears the badge, justice will be served if and when necessary. Not quite the full ticket, he possesses two conveniently blind eyes when it comes to spotting spoiled meat.

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Motel Hell instantly rolls out welcome mat and, in Calhoun and Parsons have the perfect personnel to encourage our overnight stay. Axelrod is no less assured as our dazed and confused damsel in distress but it is they who truly make us feel at home. Their chemistry is infectious and Connor suckers us into sliding into those carpet slippers before cranking up the heat when it’s time to knead the loins. As jovial as it appears on the surface, his film shows its black little heart when it sees fit and the fact that he achieves such disquietude is credit to both him, his full-flavored leads, and Thomas Del Ruth, whose cinematography flits between accommodating and suffocating at will.

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“Sometimes I wonder about the karmic implications of these actions.”

For as much as Vince and Ida’s methods are unorthodox, they do have heart (between them mind) and it beats right through the spine of the movie. The eighties were a graveyard for small family run business and large corporations had already started to muscle the little guy out of the equation. They mean no real harm per se and, indeed, their reprisal is both swift and decisive, so it’s impossible not to warn to them. However, with the net closing in around them and Vincent and Tina’s wedding day looming large, something has to give as The Little House on The Prairie this most certainly isn’t. We are reaching shit or get off the pot time and Motel Hello – with a silent “o” – is in danger of losing a whole lot more than its food license if desperate measures aren’t taken.

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Just like Charlie Kaufman’s Mother’s Day of the same year, Motel Hell is a film that stands up decidedly well to repeat performances. The final act goes all out to please, culminating in a rip-roaring chainsaw duel that snuck past the censors largely untouched, advancing pseudo-zombie hordes, and the big reveal of Vincent’s true secret ingredient. By the close, we feel both rested and exhausted and that, right there, is striking the right balance between humor and horror Grueheads. Charming in the extreme, lean enough, and darn tooting mean enough whenever it gets the urge, this is one culinary delight well worth checking in for.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 2/5

 

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Surprisingly slender on the grue front, the scene where our planted space pilots are sent to planet yikes is still unrelenting enough to have you spluttering, regardless of any lack of splatter. There’s a dash of chainsaw incision which was the first involving this toothy tool of dispatch to make it past the censors and a handful of hacked up human surplus but Motel Hell doesn’t need any more than that to make its point. Axelrod’s bare chest is something to sing to the angels about and she gracefully abides to a little show and tell to keep those peckers poised. Just watch out for Balbricker. That cranky bitch can spot a knob blemish from a mile off.

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Read The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Appraisal

Read The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Appraisal

Read Mother’s Day (1980) Appraisal

Read Eaten Alive (1976) Appraisal

 

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