Farmer Vincent and his sister Ida run a hotel and farm where
he sells his own jerky made from a very special secret ingredient.
Motel Hell (1980)
Directed by Kevin Connor
Written by Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe
Starring Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons,
Nina Axelrod, Wolfman Jack, Elaine Joyce, Dick Curtis
There are all kinds of labels for subgenres within horror: cannibal films, torture porn, zombies, and then there's sleazoid. Did I make that up? No, though I wish I had because the word itself immediately places ideas in your head: disgusting images, vile and depraved characters, the seedy underbelly of normal life...whatever that is. I'm not sure who coined the term sleazoid but Ebert used it to describe Motel Hell back in January of 1980 in his review. He said this: "Sleazoid movies seem to exist on the edge of self-parody, and their ambition is to be to the cinema what the geek show is to the circus." Which is to say that, while these films are most known for their extreme content and outrageous gore there is something else that is a hallmark of pictures like this: humor.
Though not easily identifiable, there are moments of black humor in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that Tobe Hooper prided himself on ("Look what your brother did to the door! He ain't got no pride in his home!" is my favorite funny line from that film) and went for broke in the sequel (I unapologetically love TCM 2) and that is where Motel Hell sits. It is creepy in the idea of what is happening at this hotel but the tone and overall execution allows you to have fun. The story concerns Farmer Vincent Smith (Calhoun) and his sister, Ida (Parsons) as the proprietors of the MOTEL HELLO. That damn 'O' is on the fritz though so as it flickers in the night, we see MOTEL HELL. Their establishment is off the beaten path and allows Vincent to pursue his other passion: making beef jerky to sell to any and all who come to the motel. The parallels here are totally obvious to TCM but done in a way that makes it unique and enjoyable.
The performances of Calhoun and Parsons are the centerpiece of this flick for me. Beginning in westerns in film and TV, Calhoun is charming and an archetypal "Norman Rockwell character", as Ebert calls him, as Farmer Vincent. He comes across as gregarious and welcoming to anyone who happens upon his place but there is a darkness lurking in him. Much like the lyrics in "Hotel California," guests check in but they never check out. You see, while Vincent has pigs on his property, they aren't the secret ingredient to his delicious beef jerky: it's people (cue your impression of Charlton Heston in Soylent Green)! Boasting about not using any preservatives in his process, Vincent is a slick salesman who will say and do anything to keep his business going. And while Vincent is more the brains of the operation, Ida is more definitely the brawn. She also does not hide her contempt for anyone who wanders into their trap and is more up front with her menace than her brother.
Motel Hell is one of the more bonkers flicks to come out of the 80's and this movie is full of so much weird shit that I don't want to spoil any of it as you really have to see this to fully appreciate it. The ending is bananas, complete with a death bed confession from Vincent but not in the way you think. I cannot recommend this movie enough so definitely watch this with friends because you all will laugh and cringe in equal parts. Just remember if you're ever out on the road and stop in to a small gas station or hotel, beware the branding on the owner's jerky..."It takes all kinds of critters..." can mean just about anything is in that meat stick. Buyer beware.