Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Shocktober Review: Motel Hell

 Motel Hell is an odd duck as horror movies go - originally Tobe Hooper was attached to direct, completing a "cannibal" trilogy of sorts with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive, but when Universal studios took issue with original script (which included bestiality and wasn't comedic), they passed and he left. MGM picked up the film after director Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave) crossed the pond from the U.K. to direct the film in five weeks. While the end result doesn't actually resemble Hooper's earlier films, it does feel like some of it directly influenced The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - more on that in a little bit. Motel Hell is comedic in a manner of speaking, but borders more on camp much of the time, and in many ways feels like a spiritual cousin to Jack Hill's Spider Baby. For slasher crowds, I can only imagine that this was not what they had in mind...

 Farmer Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) runs the Motel Hello with his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). He's also the face and proprietor of Farmer Vincent's Meats, which are famous in the countryside surrounding the Motel Hello (if only they could use the profits to fix that pesky "O"). Everything seems to be on the up-and-up: Vincent has regular visits from inspector Bob Anderson (E. Hampton Beagle) and his hogs are in good shape. His customers always leave the motel happy... well, most of them, anyway. If you've seen the original poster (not included here), you already know what the phrase "it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters" means, and it's not like I didn't write "cannibal" in the first paragraph. So, uh, SPOILER if you somehow never came across Motel Hell or read the synopsis. Don't worry, it's not a mystery for long. Even how Vincent and Ida find their prey isn't much of a mystery, and catching their guests is the exception, not the rule.

 Before we really know much about Farmer Vincent's meat, we seem him out "hunting" - out in the woods, at night, with a shotgun, he finds a biker, Bo (Everett Creach) riding with his girl, Terry (Nina Axelrod). They have an "accident" that runs them off the road, and as Vincent is loading up the Bo, he takes a shining to Terry and decides to "keep" her in the motel. Bo goes to the "farm": Vincent and Ida's specially hidden area that is, at least for the early part of the film, a mystery (unless you've seen the poster, that is). While there's a lot more of Vincent setting up traps to catch people (most notably a tour van for "Ivan and the Terribles" featuring John Ratzenberger), much of Motel Hell is concerned with Terry living with and learning about the Smith family.

 It would be tempting to call it "Stockholm Syndrome," but since she doesn't have any family or, apparently, a life elsewhere, Terry adjusts pretty quickly to life at the Motel Hello. Ida doesn't necessarily like her - she tries to drown her, in fact - but Terry is quite smitten with the much older Vincent (Calhoun was only 54 when the film was made, but he looks more aged than that). More upset than Ida is Vincent's kid brother, Sherriff Bruce Smith (Paul Linke), who has eyes for Terry from the moment he meets her and is constantly rebuffed in his advances. The family skirts around the "cannibalism" issue at first, but eventually Vincent feels confident enough in Terry that he promises he'll teach her his "secret recipe." He inadvertently also proposes, and on a trip into town talks Reverend Billy (Wolfman Jack) into performing the ceremony, unless something goes horribly awry back at the motel...

 Motel Hell alternates between victims and family life, and unlike your traditional slasher movies, both are equally unusual. The film is more of a black comedy, with very little suspense - it seems like we're meant to find the eccentricities of the improbable Smith clan more amusing than disturbing, despite the fact that they consider humans to be just another food source. Vincent believes in treating them ethically, although the most disturbing part of the film is easily the "farm." Victims are buried up to their necks, and Vincent surgically cuts their vocal chords so all anyone can hear is them gurgling desperately. The way he kills them is admittedly pretty comical: first Vincent and Ida hypnotize them, and then snap their necks by tying nooses to a tractor. He considers it to be more humane to reduce their "suffering." That the hypnotism sequence is presented mostly for laughs does make it slightly upsetting, but also successful in finding gallows humor.

 I mentioned the possibly unintentional influence of Motel Hell on Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and while it isn't readily apparent early in the film, by the end you can see some uncanny echoes from one film to the next. Farmer Vincent is only a slightly smaller scale version of what the Sawyer family is doing (local "flavor" vs. regional barbeque champions), and it's really hard to argue that a climactic chainsaw fight between a police officer and the villain (wearing a mask) isn't awfully familiar. The tone is more exaggerated in Chainsaw Massacre 2, but it's a similarly comedic approach to what would normally be played for straight horror. Since Hooper left the project when a more serious Motel Hell was abandoned, I have a hard time thinking he didn't see Motel Hell. Perhaps the end result of Connor's version (re?-written by Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe) gave Hooper some ideas, as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is much more like Motel Hell than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This is mostly speculation, but I was strongly reminded of one film while watching the other.

 Motel Hell is a tricky movie to recommend, because it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea. It's a leisurely paced film, a more character oriented film than most of its ilk from the 1980s, but at the same time characters are often barely sketched out. I haven't mentioned Ida or Bruce much because there isn't much to them, and Terry is even less of a character. You get a better sense spending five minutes with a pair of swingers that Vincent and Ida lure in than for most of the main characters, with the exception of Vincent. That's largely due to Rory Calhoun investing an inherent - if bizarre - sense of decency into the role. It's tonally amusing but not often very funny. It can be disturbing but is rarely scary. Like I said at the outset: Motel Hell is an odd duck. I'm tempted to say it's like a toned down John Waters making a Tobe Hooper film, but that doesn't even quite work. I enjoyed it, but you really have to take the film on its own terms and not come in expecting Motel Hell to be like other early 80s horror movies.  With that mindset, there's a good chance you might enjoy it.

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