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Review: ‘Motel Hell’ (1980) – Gory, Goofy Gags

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Review: 'Motel Hell' (1980) - Gory, Goofy Gags

In 2020, horror is a very serious, often dour filmgoing experience. The critical praise awarded to solemn, meditative horror movies increases the demand for more solemn, meditative horror movies. Stuff like Hereditary and The Witch. And while it’s important for art to reflect the times, not every horror movie needs to carry with it the weight of the world. You cannot understate how important Get Out is, however, that kind of cultural relevance should not be the only goal of the entire horror filmmaking community. Sometimes, it’s just as vital to have a silly, good time at the movies.

But not a lot of big horror movies feel very silly these days. A Quiet Place, The Lighthouse, Midsommar, and The Invisible Man are some of the biggest examples of wide-release horror movies in the past few years. All of them are great, and all of them are very sensible. While Get Out is lifted by moments of comedy, those moments are there to relieve tension.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon either, really. The critical literati has always favored the uber-serious when it comes to horror. Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, the most formally acclaimed horror movies are all tonally intense. Not a whole lot of laughs in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Do we lose out on terror when we allow for gags? And is the sacrifice worth it if we’re still thoroughly entertained, if not totally scared?

A great argument for the value of silliness is Motel Hell from 1980. It’s somehow light & fun while also being gross & dark all at the same time. It’s such a unique tone that you’ll know if you’re in or out pretty quickly. Because this movie’s not going to be for everyone. It’s got some gags and goofs in it. But it’s also gory enough to warrant the “horror” label. So that could alienate some people. There is a lot of disturbing imagery here, but there are also full-on, well-written jokes. And it’s effective both ways. It confidently walks a very fine line, and it works.

Motel Hell Still

Our heroine here, Terry, is played by Nina Axelrod (she’s also in Critters 3), and she’s the real audience surrogate here. Her story is a descent into the strange and terrible world of Vincent and Ida Smith. Farmer Vincent is the proprietor of a regionally famous smoked meats company, and his sister Ida is his right-hand woman. The only problem is that “It takes all kinds of fritters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters,” emphasis on the all kinds.  It turns out the ‘kinds’ therein include humans. This isn’t a spoiler. It’s right there on the poster, the gape-mouthed victims in their vertically dug graves, face-up, only their heads above-ground. Farmer Vincent and his sister Ida are planting their victims like crops, and then harvesting them when they’re ready to smoke. It’s great.

Rory Calhoun plays Farmer Vincent, and he’s incredible. This guy made his feature film debut way back in the forties, and then for the next two decades he’s doing like three movies each year. The guy worked a lot. And by the time Motel Hell comes along, he can reliably carry the whole thing. Because Vincent is so crucial; if we can’t feel drawn in by his charm, then the picture doesn’t work. Luckily, Calhoun is more than capable, and we really feel Vincent’s charisma. He’s a very effective salesman. It’s still creepy when Terry falls in love with him, but we’re charmed too.

The comedic core of the movie is Vincent’s sister Ida, played here by Nancy Parsons. Parsons was most famously in the Porky’s movies, and eagle-eyed Trekkies might recognize her from the season 3 episode “The Vengeance Factor” of The Next Generation. Ida is at the center of most of Motel Hell’s laughs. Her sibling dynamic with brother Vincent leads to some of the most memorably funny moments in the movie. Paul Linke rounds out the Smith family as Bruce, the youngest sibling and the town’s Sheriff. Initially, his offputting demeanor suggests he will be the source of Terry’s torment, but little does she know the hell that awaits her at the motel.

Motel Hell 1980 Sign

The movie’s called Motel Hell, but it’s really more about a farm and a slaughterhouse. The Smith siblings, Vincent and Ida, do own the cleverly-named “Motel Hello,” however, it’s a front for their meat-smoking business. The motel kind of only exists for the name. The second “O,” the one at the end, flickers on and off, and voila… Motel Hell. It’s amazing.

The director for this picture is named Kevin Connor. Stalwart genre fans may recognize the name from the credits of From Beyond the Grave, an Amicus Productions anthology film from 1974. Amicus made all these films that consisted of smaller stories strung together by a bookend, and usually casted former Hammer horror actors. This history gives Connor a real distinctive direction for Motel Hell, and he nails it. Connor would return to the genre for the final time in 1983 with The House Where Evil Dwells. Safe money bets that you haven’t seen that one, a Japanese-American production about a haunted house in Kyoto.

Look for a fresh-faced John Ratzenberger a full two years before Cliff sat at the bar in Cheers. Here, Ratzenberger is a motorcycle punk who is duped and captured by Vincent. It’s particularly brutal. When farmer Vincent plants his “crops” (i.e. still-alive people), we get these amazing shots of rows and rows of the victims’ heads peeking out above the soil. Vincent and Ida slit their prey’s vocal cords so they can’t scream for help. It’s this kind of detail that really steps the movie up and separates it from other movies that strike a similar tone.

For the most part, horror-comedies tend to favor one over the other. Your Shaun of the Deads and Cabin in the Woodses are always rooted primarily in the world of comedy. Motel Hell, however, provides enough brutal imagery to be a full horror movie. The fact that you’re laughing the whole time is a side effect.

1980’s Motel Hell is available through your Amazon Prime subscription, and is also available for rent or purchase through Fandango and Vudu. Give it a shot, and while you’re at it, be sure to try Farmer Vincent’s famous smoked meats. If it tastes funny, it’s probably a clown.

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