Motel Hell

Director: Kevin Connor
Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons

Though I have said it plenty of times before in the past, I think it is worth saying again: I really love movies, whether or not after watching them I write a review of them for this web site. However, I can't immediately recall if I have actually said why I love movies so much. There are actually a bunch of reasons why I love movies, but one of them is that there is so much variety out there when it comes to movies; there seems to be a bunch of movies available for any particular taste or mood the potential moviegoer has at the time. My particular movie craving changes day to day. I watch action movies when I want to see stuff like, well, action. I watch comedic movies when I want to laugh. And I watch horror movies when I... well, you are probably thinking I would say when I want to be scared or seriously disturbed or creeped out. Actually, while once upon a time I might have just said that, in recent years I almost never find that the case when I sit down to watch a horror movie, whether it's an older horror movie or a newer example of the genre. I have become so desensitized to horror that I almost never get scared or chilled when watching a horror movie after all of these years watching various examples of the genre. I find nowadays that I watch many horror movies for stuff like gore and blood. Though I don't get scared or creeped out by the sight of the red stuff running down on my television screen, there's a primitive side to my personal self that get satisfied by both the red stuff and the violence that was inflicted in order to get the flow going.

But there is another reason why I watch horror movies even though they almost never scare or creep me out anymore. It happens to be the opposite of the primitive side of me that often finds cinematic blood and gore a pleasing sight. Though I am not scared, I am often find what horror filmmakers do to try and build a feeling of fear and scares to its intended audience to be interesting. One of the things I find interesting after seeing so many horror movies is that horror filmmakers for the most part keep going to the same categories over and over. One such popular sub genre in the horror genre is the "monster" genre. That of course involves a horror threat coming from some kind of fantastic creature, which can range from a vampire to an alien. Then there are more human horror threats, a lot of which involve mad slashers of some kind. The setting of a horror movie is also interesting - how many horror movies have been made that take place in an isolated location far from the safety of civilization? But I would like to talk about a certain kind of horror movie that takes elements from those last two kinds of horror movies, a threat coming from a human that takes place in some isolated location. Certainly, some such films are slasher films, but what I'm really talking about are movies when travelers out on the road find what seems to be a small oasis of civilization in the wilderness, but soon find that the humans at this oasis are quite murderous. This kind of horror film has been popular for ages. For example, one of the classic examples is the 1960 movie Psycho, with the horror that went on at the Bates Motel. Another example, one I reviewed years ago for this web site, was the movie Terror House.

Why has this particular type of horror movie been so popular for ages? Well, I think that there are several reasons. One is that most people are city dwellers, and have grown used to civilization and relative safety in easy reach, so that even the thought of going to an unfamiliar Motel Hellenvironment can provoke feelings of uneasiness. Related to this is the stereotype of people in isolated areas being not only backward in their thinking, but diseased in their minds enough to be potentially homicidal. Anyway, I have seen plenty of such rural horror movies, and to be honest I had grown sort of tired of them. But recently I was going through my collection of DVDs, and I came across one that I had forgotten about. That was of course Motel Hell. I remembered that it was different from the usual type of rural horror, that being it added a heavy dose of comedy along with its horror. That alone made me think it would be a good choice to tell my readers about who might also be tired of the usual execution of this particular horror formula. And it was either review this movie, which I remembered to be fun, or the awful Burt Reynolds rural horror movie The Maddening that I picked up recently in a thrift store. Somewhere in the redneck southern portion of the United States live the Smith siblings. Vincent Smith (Calhoun, Angel) and his sister Ida (Parsons, Prime Time) run their small town's local travel lodgings, the Motel Hello. Their young brother Bruce (Linke, CHiPs) happens to be the town's sheriff, and lately he has been pressed by a large amount of disappearances by various townspeople and travelers passing through the area. What he doesn't know is that Vincent and Ida have been responsible - they have been causing road accidents and making various other traps at night and taking their captives back to their hidden garden on the motel grounds, burying them up to their necks. Then Vincent and Ida fatten their prisoners up, and when they are plump enough, slaughter them and use their flesh to make "Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats", which they sell to unsuspecting customers. All this has been going on successfully for Vincent and Ida for some time, but a potential problem comes up one day when Vincent captures a young woman named Terry (Nina Axelrod, Critters 3), but falls in love with her, much to Ida's displeasure. Vincent fools the young woman to stay at the motel, but a further problem comes up when Bruce comes by one day and finds himself attracted to Terry as well.

With a movie like Motel Hell - which, if you somehow didn't guess by the above plot description, is also a comedy as well as an exercise in horror - there is the temptation to start an analysis by first discussing the "meat" of the movie. That being of course the horror and the comedy. That's what many other reviewers of the movie have done, and I have taken the same action with other horror comedies in the past (like The Convent). But for a change of pace, I think I'll start this review by looking at the technical portion of the movie. While the movie was made independently, it had a three million dollar budget, which was a fairly substantial sum back then. And after completion, it was picked up by a major Hollywood studio. Those facts should give you some idea that Motel Hell was no cheap quickie, but if not, I'll go into further detail. The movie as a whole looks pretty darn good. The look of the movie isn't completely perfect - the seams start to show when it's the daytime, since the southern California locations generally look dried out and unspectacular, even when some set dressing is added (like with the unconvincing graveyard). On the other hand, the Smith family home exterior will put a smile on many viewers' faces, since it's a location that has been used before (and after) countless times in other movies and television shows. And the interiors do feel authentic. There is a real lived-in feeling from the bedrooms to the slaughterhouse; you can almost taste the grit and the grime that's in the air, and there are little details added to the backgrounds by the set dressers that help sell this location, such as containers in the slaughterhouse that are labelled "secret spice".

The ample budget also helps the movie on a technical level. Motel Hell boasts effective lighting - or should I say "effective darkness", since most of the movie takes place after sunset. Whatever you may call it, the filmmakers succeed with their attempts to make the night scenes dim-looking and creepy, but at the same time good looking and easy to follow whatever is happening on the screen. I'll say it again - this movie looks both good and authentic. However, I know that hearing such praise is not the first demand that many horror fans will have for this movie. I know that these particular horror fans want to know how the movie delivers on its horror sequences, most especially blood and gore. Well, I hate to break it to them, but there isn't that much red stuff in the movie. And 95% or so of what there is happens to be what we see of slaughtered pigs in the slaughterhouse. While gorehounds will be let down by the movie's lack of blood, I do think horror fans who can find chills and shocks with other techniques will be satisfied. The movie does have some well staged scenes of flat out horror, such as the climactic sequence that in part seems taken directly from a serious-minded zombie horror movie. However, director Kevin Connor (Goliath Awaits) for the most part uses simple but effective techniques to unnerve viewers, such as keeping the musical score very low or using complete silence as the character creep around in the dark. Also, he mostly keeps actors Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons in check during the horrific sequences. Seeing the two actors act very casual or experiencing a jovial mood (though carefully not too jovial - that would have ruined the mood) as they kidnap and slaughter innocent people gives these scenes a genuinely disturbing tone.

But at the same time, those scenes with Calhoun and Parsons are not completely frightening. What we see of those characters in those scenes and the surrounding material does make clear that we are not supposed to take Motel Hell with complete seriousness. You probably sensed that way back at the point when I revealed the origin of Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats. True, it could have been written and directed to be straight horror, but no one from behind or in front of the camera has that attitude. Though Calhoun and Parsons may hold back a little during the more horrific sequences, the two otherwise give very funny performances, enough that you almost like their characters despite their habit of murder. The screenplay gives the two and the supporting cast a number of humorous situations between the more horrific scenes, and the balance works very well - for the most part. There are a few supposed comic moments that fail to amuse, like some juvenile slapstick. There are some other problems with the screenplay as well. The character of Terry is pretty weak. After her introduction, she is strangely off camera for about a third of the movie. And when she is reintroduced to the narrative, the movie does not give her much depth, such as how she abruptly falls in love with Vincent and accepts his proposal of marriage after just a few days. And the character of Bruce in short notice becomes one of the dumbest (and annoying) police officers in a motion picture, not only making some really stupid decisions, but being mighty slow to investigate the disappearances in his county. Thinking about the movie some more, I think that had the character of Bruce (and possibly Terry as well) been eliminated and the focus been totally on Vincent and Ida and their schemes, the movie might have shaped up to be some kind of minor horror comedy classic. But while there is some unneeded filler in this cinematic meat dish (as well as not enough bloody sauce), Motel Hell still ends up being a fairly tasty meal for those who want to laugh as well as be chilled.

(Posted August 8, 2019)

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See also: The Black Room, Skeletons, Terror House