Sunday, October 7, 2012

Motel Hell (1980)

The Movie: Farmer Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) and his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons), are the local financial success story. First, they own and run the Motel Hell (actually the Motel Hello, but the o on the sign is constantly on the fritz). Secondly, Farmer Vincent is something of a local celebrity for his smoked meat products. Vincent prepares his meats in a special way that makes it taste different from other meats. Actually, the secret to that is in the meat itself. As his slogan goes, “it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”

You see, Vincent and Ida maintain a secret garden; one very different from the garden in the beloved children’s classic of that name. At night, they waylay travelers and bring them back. Then they bury them up to their neck in the garden, use their home surgery skills to slit their vocal chords (really kids, don’t try this at home), and fatten them up with a high protein and starch confection. Once they’ve fattened up enough, the “stock” are humanely killed, butchered, smoked, and mixed with the pork to create Vincent’s meats.

On his latest “hunt” Vincent crashes a motorcycle carrying Terry (Nina Axelrod) and her boyfriend, Bo (Everett Creach). Bo is packed off to the garden, but Vincent brings Terry home and has Ida patch her up. When she awakens, Vincent explains to her that Bo died in the crash and he buried him. Vincent and Ida’s younger brother, Bruce (Paul Linke), who also happens to be the local sheriff, confirms that this is legal in extenuating circumstances.

As Terry stays at the hotel, she and Vincent start falling for each other; not too surprising considering Vincent’s charm, her looks, and the obvious age difference between her and her last boyfriend. They even start planning to get married. However, Ida and Bruce feel that this is a very bad idea.

Ida’s motives are partly out of jealousy. However, she also knows that they will have to reveal to Terry their business; and she doesn’t think that will go too well. Her solution is to try and quietly off Terry.

Bruce’s motives, on the other hand, are all jealousy. He’s fallen for Terry himself, but she’s not interested. Bruce isn’t in on the long-pig procurement aspect of his siblings’ business, and he’s determined to show Terry that Vincent is bad for her. While Bruce may be a bit of a jackass, he’s also a fairly competent detective; and Vincent has recently made a few mistakes that could potentially lead back to him and Ida. And as if the family squabbles weren’t enough; there’s also the fritters-to-be out in the garden, determined to escape and take revenge for their captivity…

The Review:

Meat’s meat and a man’s got to eat!"

There are some major differences between urban and rural settings. I know that’s stating the obvious; but oftentimes, as with so much else, it doesn’t really hit you until you’re confronted with it directly. I have had lots of experience with both kinds of areas in my life. My dad’s side of the family is from New York, around the city, so I’ve taken many trips there. However, my adolescence was spent in an Idaho farming town. And finally, I have lived the last seven years in Boise, which is composed of a rather odd mixture of the urban and the rural.

One of the things I find interesting is how the residents of urban and rural areas tend to mythologise each other. In popular culture the two settings get idealized and demonized constantly. Even a passing interest in the horror genre will give you plenty of examples of the latter; there are actually official subgenres for urban and rural horror. The 1970s saw a major glut of movies from the rural horror subgenre; the most well known being the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Hills Have Eyes. However, they were followed by Motel Hell which, while it passes itself off as a horror movie; is actually a spoof not only poking fun at the rural horror subgenre, but at the popular view of rural culture in general.

The movie’s major turnaround of the tropes would have to be the nature of its villains. Now, while rural cannibalism was hardly a new subject by the time Motel Hell was made; these are no backwoods degenerates a la the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Instead Vincent and Ida, Vincent in particular, represent the idealized view of the American farmer. Vincent is hardworking, and obviously very proud of what he does. Family ties are clearly very important, and it’s suggested that Vincent’s family has owned that property for some generations. Vincent is also a very religious man and, if you disregard the whole murderous cannibal thing, a very moral one as well. In fact, he regards his long-pig manufacturing as a moral task. As he explains, two of the world’s biggest problems are too many people and not enough food. By killing some people and feeding them to others, Vincent is helping solve both problems at once. Hey, it makes as much sense as most of the moral rationalizations I’ve heard over the years; and a great deal more than some.

Motel Hell has a good cast, including Wolfman Jack doing a walk-on as an excitable preacher. However, it’s Calhoun and Parsons who really steal the movie. Calhoun is wonderful as a twisted Norman Rockwell creation gone wrong. Parsons is almost as good; her role as Ida switches from sweet and fun to kind of creepy and back. Also, the two actors play off each other magnificently; it’s all too easy to believe that these two are siblings who have known each other for a long time.

The movie does another interesting thing with the characters in a reversal at the end. Throughout the movie, while Vincent is obviously the villain; he’s entirely too likeable and fun for us to dislike him very much. Bruce, on the other hand, is built up as something of jackass who it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for. And yet at the climactic fight, Bruce is suddenly thrust into the role of hero, and we are asked to cheer for him against Vincent. And yet, somehow it works. Every time I watch this movie I love and enjoy the character of Vincent and think nasty things about Bruce, but I’m always cheering on the latter man at the end nonetheless. Not only that, but the dialogue of the two men at the denouement shows that despite all that has happens, things still aren’t entirely black and white in their relationship.

A really funny thing about Motel Hell is the fact that it displays old-fashioned sensibilities despite the more modern horror movie subject matter. It doesn’t have much in regards to the exploitation elements we would expect. There is a small bit of gratuitous female nudity, but the gore is almost completely absent. The majority of the horrible things going on are hinted at, but not directly shown to us. Also, it’s full of all sorts of old fashioned movie elements; the prime example being the climactic (chainsaw) duel between the hero and villain while the heroine is strapped to a conveyer belt that slowly but surely carries her toward the meat cutter. That one’s been a staple since at least the movie serials of the early 20th century, if not further back.

Ultimately, if I were asked to sum up Motel Hell in one word, the word I would use is “fun.” While it passes itself off as a horror movie, and even has some effectively suspenseful parts, I would define Motel Hell as more a comedy than a horror film. It’s obvious that nobody is taking the material seriously, but the majority of the time it’s played with a straight face with only the occasional wink and a nod, such as the ridiculous swinger couple who show up at the motel at one point, to indicate to the less observant viewer what the real intention is. Everyone seems to be having a great time, particularly our two leads; and the script and dialogue display a truly demented wit. In short, this is one you watch when you’re just in the mood for a good time, albeit one that’s a bit twisted.

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