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Gavin Schmitt

Reflections on "Motel Hell" (1980) -- Rough Draft

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A farmer (Rory Calhoun) and his sister (Nancy Parsons) kidnap people to turn them into some very tasty snacks for travelers who stop in at the cozy Motel Hello. As farmer Vincent says, "There's too many people in the world and not enough food. Now this takes care of both problems at the same time."

This film is truly a gem. We have cannibalism, a chainsaw duel, kidnappings, murder and some of the quirkiest characters in horror history. If you like your horror with more than a bit of dark humor, this is one you are not going to want to miss.

Allegedly, Tobe Hooper was set to direct this at one point when it was in the hands of Universal. There is some irony in that, as many consider "Motel Hell" to be something of a satire on "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Psycho". Ironically, of course, the second "Texas" film featured a chainsaw duel, and it is hard to believe this was not inspired (or stolen) from "Motel Hell", especially if Hooper has read the script. However, the duel was reportedly added in late during the filming process, though the connection is still unmistakable. Director Kevin Connor never even heard about Tobe Hooper's possible involvement until around 2010, so perhaps the whole thing is a myth.

Connor came on board simply because he was asked to by United Artists, not because he had any interest in directing or the horror genre. He saw horror (correctly) as a way in, and was not even particularly a fan of Hammer or Amicus, despite having worked with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the past. Connor brought a lot to the project, such as removing the juvenile humor (including pig bestiality) to make it more of a satire, and bringing an editor's eye to the project, which makes for better cuts (important for both humor and scares).

Early on, there is a key scene where a couple on a motorcycle crash into a tree, and only the man's body is taken. The girl is nursed back to health by the Smiths. It is never explained why the girl is spared. Obviously, she makes a great plot device... an innocent becoming a member of the deranged family. But since everyone else is eaten (both men and women of all ages) we would have liked to know why she stood out as special. Why leave any witnesses at all? Probably the best characters were the swingers with the oil and weird costumes. Throw in some bondage ropes and some "nitrous oxide", and you have a foursome ready for some action. (Actor Dick Curtis, the male swinger, also played the TV preacher, and it is a shame he seems to have practically no other credits to his name, save a part in "The Day It Came to Earth", which no one has seen.)

The rock band that falls into Vincent's clutches (Ivan and the Terribles) was alright, though the back of the box played up John Ratzenberger's role too much (he played the drummer, but I do not believe he ever spoke a word). This film is great, and not because of Cliff Claven. The film's only real song is played in this scene, and I'd not mind finding a copy of it (not that's it's good -- it's not! -- but the perfect kind of "heavy metal" tunes for a film of this kind... like Sacrifyx from "The Gate"). Incidentally, Ratzenberger had actually worked with Connor before, in England, which lead to him getting the gig here as sort of a "good luck charm". Did Kevin Connor launch his career?

Ida Smith, the farmer's sister, is an unusual sidekick. She is a larger, uglier redneck version of Nagy from "Cemetery Man" to put it as nicely as I can. Every scene she was on made me very uneasy just from the sight of her. One scene, where she is on an inner tube, makes her not only hideous but also borderline mentally disabled. We could have used a more crafty sidekick, but we will take what we can get. And the main female lead is somewhat attractive by 1980's standards, so this makes up for the mess that is Ida.

The Scream Factory disc actually offers a touching retrospective on Nancy Parsons. One of the film's writers sees her as the predecessor of Melissa McCarthy. Odd, but there is some truth to that. Unfortunately, this segment tends to push into feminist theory a bit, which might be more serious than the average viewer wants. Still great to see the big names in female horror criticism getting some screen time.

Farmer Vincent's brother Bruce is a nice element of the plot. Bruce is the town sheriff, and really enjoys his brother's smoked meats. But we are not made clear until much later on whether or not he knows what the source of the meat is. Is he an accomplice protecting them or just plain stupid? The tension arises when Bruce falls for Vincent's captive, and takes her on a date to see "The Monster That Challenged The World". Expect some bizarre nudity in this scene.

If you like humorous cannibal films, or "Soylent Green" or chainsaws or creepy old men or decapitated pigs, you must see this.

On the Scream Factory disc, Dave Parker ("Hills Run Red") moderates a commentary with director Kevin Connor, who we find had just moved to Hollywood from England (where he was editing for Richard Attenborough) when he got this gig. Some of this commentary is filled with quiet patches, but overall is a good listen for fans. For example, did you know Rory Calhoun was the second choice for Vincent, after Harry Dean Stanton passed on the role?

The disc has so many other interviews with the cast and crew, it is an absolute treasure. We find that the writers (two brothers) were inspired by a bad babysitter they had, and then giving it an Old West spin. They turned to writing after working for a talent agency, reading bad scripts and thinking they could do at least as well.

The real crown jewel is the Thomas DelRuth interview, which allows tales to be told about Hollywood all the way back to 1921. Scream should make every effort to get him on the record more often. He could easily have his own autobiography or documentary.

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Comments

  1. killerklown's Avatar
    The chainsaw duel was classic. I don't know how Farmer Vincent would be able to see through the pig head but, hey, it's fucking Motel Hell.