[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 18 – [Happy 40th Birthday!] Motel Hell (1980)

Director: Kevin Connor
Cast: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Wolfman Jack
Screenplay: Robert Jaffe, Steven-Charles Jaffe
101 mins. Rated R.

I didn’t know what to expect with Motel Hell, a film celebrating its 40th anniversary today. It was my first viewing this morning and I knew little about it. I’d seen the cover, which depicted a lot of screaming heads, a man with a pig head, and a lot of backwoods flavor, but who could guess the movie I saw based on those clues. What I did see was a strange and wild movie very different than I anticipated. I’m still not sure of it.

Rory Calhoun in Motel Hell (1980)

Motel Hell is the odd and supposedly “true” story of Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun, How to Marry a Millionaire, Hell Comes to Frogtown), a man who runs the small Motel Hello with his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons, Sudden Impact, Porky’s). Vincent is also known around the area for his famous smoked meats, but he and his sister have a terrible secret: they’ve been setting traps, kidnapping people, and harvested to make the smoked meats. When Vincent takes out a couple on a motorcycle, he decides to keep the female, Terry (Nina Axelrod, Cobra, Brainstorm) for himself, bringing her back to the motel and convincing her to stay with his charms. As Terry gets closer and closer to the truth, she also gets closer and closer to Vincent and a realization she isn’t ready for.

Apparently, Motel Hell has been seen as a horror/comedy with a heavy dose of satire. I didn’t see it that way. There were no moments when I found myself laughing along or catching the joke of it all. To me, the film seemed like a stupid and somewhat dull film. You’d think that a film featuring a chainsaw duel and pig heads being worn by masks, humans being imprisoned in a garden and having their vocal cords destroyed, and a slimy almost incestuous-looking relationship between siblings Vincent and Ida would be at least entertaining. I have to admit I was rather bored. This movie is way too long, the bits that were interesting (I’ve noted them above) are smashed together with boring exposition, scenes that sputter, and character arcs being completely thrown out the window. I was frustrated with Motel Hell.

There were elements I liked in the film, but they were merely individual sequences that worked in a narrative that simply didn’t. I liked the finale, I enjoyed the macabre horror elements (nothing worked for comedy, but certain scenes meant for comedy served the horror better), specifically the garden, though I would have liked a little more time spent on these elements to build up this odd mythology. I also enjoyed the sinister side of Vincent. He’s not a bad villain, and Rory Calhoun flips between over-the-top and subtle treachery. As I said, pieces of the puzzle work, but the overall picture is sloppy.

Perhaps a rewatch will allow me to enjoy Motel Hell’s zany nature more. As it stands, I was waiting for this movie to end, even with the stronger ending. Perhaps it all boils down to an unintended disdain for most backwoods horror films (with the exception of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Wrong Turn films, I’ve loathed entries like Eaten Alive and Frogs), but I just didn’t buy into this one. I’m saddened because I’ve been very excited to see this one, and I wanted to like it, but I found it significantly lacking, like a piece of jerky made from bad meat.

-Kyle A. Goethe

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