Motel Hell, the 1980 horror flick from director Kevin Connor and screenwriters Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe, is one of the creepier flicks I’ve watched for this year’s Horrorshow. Nothing is going to beat The Green Inferno for gore, or Color Out of Space for dread, but this low-budget, half-satirical take on slashers and cannibalism has some dark stuff going on underneath.
Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons star as Vincent and Ida Smith, sibling (I think) roadside motel owners in rural California (location work was done at the late Sable Ranch, which has 96 IMDb credits to its name). Vincent is a local fixture. Besides owning the motel, he is also the proprietor of Farmer Vincent’s Smoked Meats, serving a 100-mile radius for the past thirty years. Folks come from far and wide for Farmer Vincent’s products. The local sheriff, Vincent’s younger brother by many, many years, Bruce (Paul Linke), attests to its qualities, saying he was practically raised on the stuff. Vincent and Ida have been deceitful, however. The secret ingredient that makes Farmer Vincent’s meats so delish is, of course, human flesh.
The motel is rural enough that Vincent is able to set up traps on the road at night to cause accidents. Should there be survivors, he gathers them up, then buries them up to their necks in a secret garden, and slits their vocal cords to keep them from crying out. Why he does this instead of just dispatching survivors forthwith isn’t explained, but it does provide for some wild visuals before he hauls them out for slaughter.
One night, Vincent is out setting his trap and he snags a motorcyclist and his chick. Vincent plants the man in his garden, but he is bedazzled by the beautiful young lady, Terry (Nina Axelrod), and takes her back to the motel to patch her up. When she awakens the next day, he tells her that her companion was killed when they wrecked, and he’s already been buried. Further, Terry needs to stay at the motel until Vincent decides she is well enough to travel. This raises a lot more red flags for a viewer than it does for either Terry or Bruce, who never question Vincent’s version of events in more than passing. It’s so wild that I wish Connor and company had put more thought into this. They are asking for quite a lot of suspension of disbelief. Anyway, what follows is set piece after set piece (the standout being a swinging romp with Dick Curtis and Elaine Joyce), Terry and Vincent’s developing attachments, denouement, a final one-liner, fin.
For a film that’s over an hour and a half long, there’s not a lot to the plot. What makes the film work are the vignettes where Vincent captures his prey, and the efforts he has to take to avoid being discovered.
Also, Calhoun and Parsons are just precious. Parsons has a pigtailed innocence about her that makes her active participation in such horrors beautifully absurd. As for Calhoun, he’s so homey, folksy, and relentlessly nice, that if he were a real person, he would set off a conflict in the minds of those he meets. Is he for real, or is he putting me on? The victims in the movie never find an answer to that question until it is too late.
Motel Hell is a tight watch, despite the length and limited locations. It’s all about the absurdity, and the performance of the leads. More watchable than it should be, Motel Hell makes it into the top 100 of the Index, displacing Blood Sabbath at #93. Keep an eye out for John Ratzenberger playing a drummer in a rock and roll band, and Wolfman Jack as a TV preacher.