Saturday, May 2, 2009
#60: Motel Hell (Kevin Connor, 1980)
Many times on this list, directors have taken a well-worn premise and done something interesting with it. Motel Hell takes the backwoods-hicks-turn-human-beings-into-food cliche into highly strange, hilarious new places. I highly recommend Motel Hell. Probably the only cannibalism-themed horror film to feature Rory Calhoun, Wolfman Jack, and a pre-Cheers John Ratzenberger in the cast, Motel Hell started life as a Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) project. The studio eventually passed on the project, saying it was too weird to find an audience. This pissed Hooper off so much that he walked away from the movie. British director Kevin Connor, who made every one of the 1970s Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations about fighting monsters in the center of the earth and starring Doug McClure that I watched at my grandparents' house on cable on Saturday afternoons in elementary school, stepped in and rescued the movie from limbo. I'm glad he did. It's his finest hour.
The story takes place at kindly old farmer Vincent Smith's (Rory Calhoun, standing and walking like a little Rory Calhoun) and his younger sister Ida's (Nancy Parsons) rural motel, Motel Hello. The "O" keeps shorting out, so the neon sign blinks "Motel Hell" into the night. Vincent has a side business, selling his famous smoked meats throughout the county. The recipe is secret, but I would not be revealing too much to tell you that he uses human beings he picks off the nearby highway at night to season his smoked meat concoctions. Maybe I'm a little off, but I kept craving beef jerky throughout my viewing of this film.
Vincent, believing he's doing the Lord's work in simultaneously fighting hunger and overpopulation, doesn't just kill people and smoke their carcasses. He keeps them alive for a while in his secret garden, buried up to their necks, their vocal cords cut to prevent them from screaming. He then waits for the right time to serve them up, combining their flesh with pig meat to make a delicious meat treat. If we've learned anything from horror movies, and I hope that we have, it's that human meat is incredibly tasty.
The other main characters include Nina Axelrod, playing a blankly stupid young woman initially intended as smoked meat. When she survives the staged motorcycle accident that kills her much older boyfriend, Vincent decides to keep her around as help. She blankly accepts everything throughout the film, giving a relatively stiff performance. The other cast members do a great job, however, especially the standing and walking Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent. Paul Linke does a nice job as Vincent's much younger bumbling stooge brother, who is also the sheriff and knows nothing about the secret smoked meat ingredients. Wolfman Jack plays a televangelist and preacher of the local evangelical "Eurekaistic" church (he really was an ordained minister in addition to being a rock DJ), while Ratzenberger (Cliff on Cheers) plays highly against type as a drummer for a debauched rock band, Ivan and the Terribles, whose members end up in the meat. This rock band shows the producers' 1980 confusion about what direction music would take. The members are a mixed bag of heavy metal, new wave, punk rock, and jean-jacketed burnout cliches.
Director Connor and the fine cast keep the film atmospherically rich, well paced, suspenseful, and very, very funny, particularly when old-school Hollywood vet Calhoun (standing and walking throughout) wears a pig head during a chainsaw duel and when some very enthusiastic S&M swingers check into the motel. The cast mostly underplays and the pace is relaxed without being slow, while Connor does a great job of presenting that late 1970s/early 1980s atmosphere I love so much with his depiction of small, out-of-the-way motels, neon signs, public access televangelists, giant jars of smoked meat sticks, blondes with long straight hair, and overalls as daily wardrobe.
I love Motel Hell.
Note: Motel Hell is available on DVD paired with Deranged, which I wrote about earlier.