FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 7, 2019

SHOCKtober Day 7: MOTEL HELL (1980)


I first encountered Motel Hell as a youth, in the pages of Fangoria magazine and let me tell you, it got my imagination fired up. I've found that many of my early impressions of films, formed the black-and-white or gore-drenched photos in Fango, are so off the mark as to be ridiculous. The magazine's stock-in-trade, after all, was the violence and its aftermath. Blood, body parts, unseeing eyes–every movie featured in its pages was made to look like the most depraved and disgusting thing you were ever likely to see. Everything felt taboo, the kind of "entertainment" parents worried about, the kind that would have you signing a blood oath to Satan and speaking in tongues before the credits rolled.

So that was my impression of Motel Hell in the (many) years before I actually saw it: that it would absolutely horrify me. It'd give me nightmares, and scare all the daylights out of me, the living ones and the dead ones alike. I had no idea whatsoever that it was a satirical comedy. It's entirely possible that I was secretly a very stupid child. But man, Fangoria! Inside were pictures of the people garden, complete with victims buried up to their slashed throats. And the cover was Farmer Vincent in all his pig head-wearing, chainsaw-wielding glory.


I'm sorry...was I not supposed to be afraid of that?

Watching it now for the third time, I still get li'l Final Girl's reaction. The film is still chock full of horrifying images (see above). The people garden is a bit freaky, in particular the raspy gurgling of those who've had their voice boxes severed.

But make no mistake, Motel Hell is indeed a horror comedy. Farmer Vincent Smith and his sister Ida run a small motel whose gift shop is full of Farmer Vincent's delicious smoked meat products. Unbeknownst to the public, including the Smith's sheriff brother, the deliciousness isn't solely thanks to secret herbs and spices. The real secret is that Vincent mixes human flesh with pork. He and Ida trap all manner o' do-wells and ne'er-do-wells, tenderize 'em in the people garden, then chop 'em, smoke 'em, package 'em, and sell 'em. Not only is this fun, it's their way of taking "responsibility for the planet." There are too many people and not enough food, so hey–two birds, one jerky. Or something like that.

Motel Hell is a takedown of all manner of "conservative values" and a commentary on capitalism and factory farming. The film points to the hypocrisy of meat eaters, law enforcement, or God-fearing "good folk." It's even a satirical take on the horror genre itself, with its stock characters (who often act exactly as nonsensically as the worst horror characters often do) and its Texas Chain Saw Massacre-esque villains.

To be fair, that all makes it sound smarter (or better) than it is. Motel Hell is largely a delight, due in no small part to the performances of Nancy Parsons and Rory Calhoun as Ida and Vincent, especially Calhoun. It's a bit of "Grand Duke Guignol," perhaps, seeing this familiar face from the westerns of the 1950s cackle maniacally beneath a pig's head as he swings around a chainsaw. The hapless victims who fill up the people garden are entertaining as heck–I always love a gang of movie punks, as we get here in the band Ivan and the Terribles (and yes, that's John Ratzenberger of television's Cheers on drums). I adore the ridiculous, shameless, kinky, overly-enthusiastic swingers and the two ski bunny sex workers as well.


The downside is that Motel Hell vastly overstays its welcome. Some judicious editing would have helped in many respects; many scenes go on too long, and some could have been excised entirely. It's got pacing issues that keep it from becoming a "must see," and yet it's also something of a genre classic. Hmm. Motel Hell is a fritter best served amongst friends, methinks. It'd be a fun Halloween party movie, where folks can catch the good bits in between doing, I don't know, Jello body shots or whatever it is they do at parties. My ultimate recommendation, however, is to "watch" it in a series of Fangoria photographs. It'll blow your mind!

4 comments:

we said...

Somehow Motel Hell is one of the few 80s horror films that has eluded my viewing queue over the years. I see that Prime is streaming it, though, so that now it’s in my watchlist. What I really wanted to comment on, though, are your memories of Fangoria — I also remember how much of an impact that magazine had on me when I was in my teens. You’re spot on — i just dug out a few 80s back issues and yeah, it was this “perfect” mix of gory photos, some in color, but mostly in black and white. Pretty much everything was in need of color correction or tonal adjustment, so it all came across as way more seedy, gritty and depraved than it really was within the actual movies. Current issues of Rue Morgue and the Dark Side, as much as I love them, seem like Vanity Fair in comparison.

Stacie Ponder said...

So true! They made everything look like something I just HAD to see but was completely TERRIFIED to see. It was almost always the grossest possible shots from a film, even on the cover. They catered to a different crowd than Famous Monsters (though I ate 'em both up) and made horror feel like it solely belonged to the depraved.

Honestly, the films I've seen since building them up in my mind thanks to Fango have all been disappointing, nowhere near the earth-shattering experiences I expected. But I don't even care!

Riccardo said...

I never looked at Fangoria so my first exposure to a lot of these early-80s horror movies was via Siskel and Ebert on their original TV gig, PBS's "Sneak Previews" and through the magic of the internet that original review of "Motel Hell" is available. Ebert thought it was an effective satire of horror movies. Gene thought it was badly acted but had some funny moments (I remembered him mentioning the dueling chainsaws) but the final score was: Gene: No, Roger: Yes (this was before they left PBS and invented thumbs up or down).

I did eventually see a lot of early 80s horror when we got a movie channel and even without visions of Fangoria pictorials in my head a lot of them were disappointing in one way or another (Sturgeon's Law at work, probably). I haven't seen this one since, though.

Siskel and Ebert review:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddIJAQsmEj4

Stacie Ponder said...

I love that! And I love a Siskel & Ebert shout-out. I know they weren't often kind to horror (especially Gene Siskel) but I loved their show so much. Even at a young age it taught me a bit about looking at movies critically and how to articulate what I liked or didn't like about them. And whether or not I agreed with their judgment, it got me excited for new releases. What do young film buffs have these days? Some ding dongs on YouTube? Or even worse, BLOGGERS