Tuesday, October 27, 2015

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: Motel Hell

Motel Hell
When I was growing up in Northern Maine we had a local drive-in. I only remember going a few times (with my parents) and I don't really recall the movies (I do recall the snacks - Mike & Ike's, Junior Mints and a candy that was basically caramel balls covered in chocolate - that used to have dinosaurs on the package). Though it used to run all kinds of movies it, at some point, began showing more standard drive-in fare - that is, horror movies and exploitation flicks. It went under not long after that, though the enormous poles supporting the screens were still visible for a decade or more afterwards.

Unfortunately for me it went under before I was old enough to be able to go and SEE any of these movies. So no Tourist Trap, or The Toolbox Murders or Maniac! I was old enough to want to go see these films, however, and was roughly aware of what was playing. One of the last films that the old drive-in ran was Kevin Connor's Motel Hell. I desperately wanted to see this movie for some reason - probably the issue of Fangoria with Rory Calhoun on the cover in, dressed in a pig's head and carrying a chainsaw. It just seemed over-the-top insane. I even concocted a plan with my friend John - he of the Fangoria magazine subscription - to try and climb some trees in the woods near the drive-in and watch it through binoculars.

Ah, Fangoria. "I swear I don't know how that magazine got there, Mom!"
Our plan remained - as most of our plans did - nothing but late-night hot air. The movie went away and eventually the drive-in did too. Somehow, in the intervening time, I have never gotten around to watching Motel Hell. It's now available on Amazon Prime and - despite feeling like I've had preponderance of 80's horror films this year - I figured it was time to finally watch it.

The Medium
The  streaming quality of Motel Hell on Amazon is not great. I've seen worse, but it was no better than watching it on a (non-HD) tv broadcast. There's a blu-ray release that I'm now seriously thinking about picking up - Scream Factory again. Not necessarily for picture quality, but if there's a commentary track I'd like to hear it.

The Movie
So. This movie is a comedy. I had no idea. I mean, I should have, but I just never paid much attention to it after missing it in my youth. I must admit to needing a few minutes to adjust - I expected a movie with a garden of heads and a pig-headed guy with a chainsaw to be more serious. Which I can't believe I just wrote.


Farmer Vincent and his sister Ida run a motel (the Motel Hello - though the 'o' flickers a bit). They've also got a meat smoking business, which is pretty popular. It even has its own tagline - "it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters!" Now, I don't want to startle anyone, but Farmer Vincent's smoked meats may contain some roadkill. The kind that actually drives on the road.

"They're also manufactured in a facility that uses peanuts."
There's no real mystery here - by the time an over-inquisitive health inspector uncovers the truth of Vincent's 'secret garden' we're pretty clear that Vincent and Ida are using human flesh as their secret ingredient. Those sack-covered things, moving and making gurgling noises? Those are people that Vincent has ambushed on the road, buried up to their necks, cut their vocal cords, and is fattening up before slaughter. No, the real meat of the movie (sorry again) is the interaction of the characters and the bizarre and surreal beliefs and actions of the guests (and Vincent and Ida).

"Well, Ida, we're finally get ahead - get it, ahead? A head? I'll get my coat."
Motel Hell takes a little while to get going - the early scenes revolve around Vincent 'rescuing' a young woman named Terry from a motorcycle accident (that he caused). Unaware of Vincent's actions and with nowhere to go, she slowly warms to Vincent's homespun demeanor and kindness. Ida is not so welcoming to the interloper and their younger brother, Bruce - the local sheriff - develops a crush on Terry as well.

Obligatory slasher flick picnic scene. They all have one, right?
Around this small-town soap opera are sprinkled some genuinely weird moments. A couple shows up having found the Motel Hello in a magazine for swingers - and allow Ida and Vincent to tie them up and gas them, believing them to be fellow swingers. There's a punk band - including John Ratzenberger - that flip their van and end up being hypnotized by bizarre equipment (Vincent's 'humane' way of killing his 'dumb animals'). There are cardboard cows, Terry's former lover, Bo, and Wolfman Jack as a local preacher (his presence on the TV as the swingers get 'warmed up' is priceless).

They're so excited! And they just can't hide it!
Things just continue to get more and more unreal. After Terry is nearly drowned (by Ida) and saved by Vincent she tries to get Vincent to sleep with her. He refuses - they should be married first! Terry agrees and this drives Bruce a little crazy. He finally does some digging and figures out exactly why Farmer Vincent's meats are so darned good. He rushes to tell Terry at the same time that the 'secret garden' is experiencing a breakout. Ida finds herself overwhelmed by the 'animals' and Vincent duels Bruce over Terry - with chainsaws, of course!

When I added this picture my mind added 'vvvvvvvrrrr' lightsaver sounds. Because it hates me.
The thing about Motel Hell is how darn nice Ida and, in particular, Vincent are. They really believe they're doing good things - and it's the 'animals' that are, well, animals. All deviants and social misfits - bikers and punk rockers and swingers and... well, I guess that one girl got the clap from a ski instructor. Anyway, the joke is that of course the things that Vincent and Ida are doing - fattening up people and using them in smoked meats - is a billion times worse and more deviant than anything their victims do! They just SEEM nice and normal - and honestly it's enough to trick us into rooting for them, at least a little bit. (Especially as Bruce - the nominal hero of the film - is kind of a dick.)

Rory Calhoun is fantastic as Vincent and more than redeems himself for Night of the Lepus. He just seems to be having a good time with the role. His final line is a howler - seems Vincent's been a hypocrite this entire time... he used... preservatives!

And punk band members - that's a controlled substance right there.
The Bottom Line
Not the movie I expected - but the movie I deserved! Motel Hell was way more fun than I thought it would be. Low budget, yes, but with a lot of black humor, gore, and bizarre characters that lift it above similar films.

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