“There's too many people in the world, and not enough food. Now this takes care of both problems at the same time."
Free-lovin' freewheelers, far-out rockers, man-sniffin' cougars, whacked-out swingers and bureaucratic busybodies - they are all grist to the mill in Kevin Connor's blackly comic, cult redneck killing-spree, Motel Hell, from 1980. He'd only been in the US for about six months, but the Brit filmmaker had been hawking around his classic Amicus portmanteau, 1974's From Beyond The Grave (perhaps wisely leaving his rubber-suited monster epics, At The Earth's Core, The People That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis under his Doug McClure-festooned duvet-cover) in the hopes of getting a Hollywood gig, when something came up that the suits thought might just be to his liking. With the trend for rural slashers already firmly entrenched in the cultural psyche, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes and John Boorman's Deliverance having poisoned the already staunchly conservative and wary sensibilities of suburban America, the fear of their lawless predatory country cousins was almost as volatile as the bigotry that created the Civil War in the first place. But this insurmountable distrust has remained fertile soil for genre-flicks concerning those who stray from the beaten path.
We’re not too far into the lazy, golden hills of California, but there’s trouble in paradise.
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun, swapping his horse for a tractor and his six-shooter for a chainsaw) runs a nice little farm and flop-house combo, just off the highway in those enticing meadows. The “O” from Motel Hello may be on the fritz, but Vincent and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) like to ensure visitors of getting a warm and hearty welcome. Even those with no intention of actually stopping-by have a habit of ending-up there ... in some form or other. Vincent has a smile for everyone, a smile almost as wide as the one beaming right across his picture on the big roadside billboard that advertises his county-famous smoked meats. Yessireee, it sure is a good life, isn’t it, Ida! Now pass me mah bear-traps and mah shotgun ... and I’ll go rustle up some tasty griddles for supper.
’cept supper round these parts is apt to cost an arm and leg!
Falling for Terry (the gorgeous Nina Axelrod), the blonde victim from one of the A-Team style road-ambushes he utilises to procure a steady supply of fresh meat, Vincent takes the confused young woman in and commences initiating her into the family ways. Ida’s none too sure about this development, sensing the alluring Terry to be a snake in their garden of Eden, and things only get worse when their younger brother Bruce (Paul Linde), who just happens to be the local sheriff, falls under the newcomer’s spell, too, and fancies his own chances with her. And, as more and more victims are planted, alive and writhing, in the secret plot out in the field, to be fed and tenderised before going through Vincent’s top-secret smoking process, the situation swiftly grows out of control and boils to an ugly head.
Cannily taking elements from the legend of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean, as well as the Ed Gein saga and Robert Bloch’s reinvention of it in Psycho and, naturally, Hitchcock’s seminal take on the matter, Connor wrings the inherent farce out of the screenplay from Robert and Stephen-Charles Jaffe and keeps things both knowingly unhinged and macabre and yet highly amusing by playing it all entirely straight. Part Walton-esque rustic melodrama – siblings fall out when the new girl is welcomed into the happy family home – and part satire upon the health of the nation – Vincent is eradicating the unworthy by feeding them to the unwary – Motel Hell is a wonderful hybrid of themes and ideas. Not all of them gel as smoothly as modern audiences might like them to, and the ensuing dilemmas caused when love gets in the way of familial honour and strange fingers stray into treasured family recipes can be either rewarding or frustrating in their execution but, coming as it did during a veritable deluge of stalk ‘n’ slash, zombie gut-munch and transformation movies, Connor’s little deely-bopper ruckus is a refreshing glance askew at the entire cycle of systematic carve ‘em ups. The central conceit of affable cannibalism was hardly new even at the dawn of the 80s, but then this is an acquired taste, and one that needs to be served with the appropriate relish. Indirectly, Connor scores a hit and takes a big bite out of the genre-pie.
Often regarded as the antidote to Tobe Hooper’s classic redneck grunge-fest, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, without which it surely wouldn’t exist, Motel Hell is wonderful oddity and one of the best black comedies to come a-slaughterin’ out of the bloody boondocks.There are stories that the film was originally offered to Hooper, himself, and that he turned it down in favour of directing The Funhouse instead (the BD of which is reviewed separately). True or not, you can understand his reticence at helming another hillbilly cannibal tale (even his 1977 croc-boiler, Eaten Alive, was simply a variation upon the same theme of outback entrapment and murder) although the similarities between Motel Hell and Hooper’s subsequent Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 are as readily apparent as a meat-hook above a ball-pond. It is tempting to say that Connor beat him to the punch-line, although Hooper always maintained that he hadn’t even seen Motel Hell before he led Leatherface and his clan in front of the cameras for a second time.
Whether by design or by accident, Motel Hell sold its meat far and wide. Considering the goofy but grim mouth protector that he wears when drugging victims, further evidence of Farmer Vincent's more immediate influence could be seen in the gas-mask wearing killer in My Bloody Valentine, and hoppin' mad Dennis Hopper, again, as the depraved Frank in David Lynch's classic Blue Velvet.
Seemingly slapdash and lackadaisical, Connor’s film trips through its meandering episodes with a weirdly compelling momentum … and when I say trips, I mean “trips”. One classic sequence reveals Vincent and Ida’s sublime tactics for grooving their human livestock into the appropriate frame of mind for culling, via a hippy-notic light and sound show that some viewers may actually have a few problems of their own with. But the nastier elements of this bizarre farming method – severed vocal chords and savage neck-breakage - never actually upset or shock in the way you may expect them to. Yet they do sort of get under the skin, and itch for a little while afterwards like a tick in a cow’s hide. There’s nothing gratuitous here, though. Vincent always maintains that he’s doing the world a service, and that he won’t allow his crops to suffer unnecessarily. To this end, the script is achingly clever at times. Accused of “playing God”, Vincent is mortified. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin!” he implores with absolute sincerity. As insane as it is, he and Ida have a mission … and, more importantly, a vocation and some award-winning standards to keep up. There’s nothing maniacally personal in what they are doing. The temptation to go all Bible-bashing and ladle on the fire and brimstone was possibly quite acute during the conceptual phase. Craven had subverted family values in Last House on the Left and Hills Have Eyes, and we’d suffered the Lord’s ire in Deadly Blessing and Carrie, so it comes as a breath of rarefied air to discover that Vincent’s crusade is merely an idea that his grandpappy probably came to over one final, famine-enforced plate of beans at the turn of the century. His grand-plan, then, is flung-together and held in-place by burlap and spitball.
Kevin Connor says, today, that Vincent’s scheme is actually quite prescient, but it is worth recalling the third of Charlton Heston’s trio of high-concept SF outings, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 Soylent Green was chewing much the same fat seven years earlier, and that George Romero had recently hammered-home the notion of American society devouring itself in the ultimate act of mass consumerism. Then again, by steadfastly not making any allegorical statements, Connor’s inadvertently does so. Food for thought, eh?
The Amicus mentality was not that easy for Connor to shake. Slapstick can intrude, especially with Paul Linde’s bumbling Bruce dithering between copping a quick feel of a reluctant Terry and genuinely unravelling a baffling case of multiple disappearances. A Frank Spencer-style mud-bath is a touch unfortunate, and some nudies hurtling hither and thither when the amorous rozzer whips up his sirens to clear the Drive-In so that he and Terry can get a better look at The Monster That Challenged The World seems as though Larry Zucker stepped behind the camera for an hour or so when Connor was catching forty winks. But these and many other inane elements only serve to embellish the underlying depravity festering in the stew. It is pertinent to remember that both Texas Chainsaw and Hills Have Eyes were able to poke fun at their respective scenarios as well, even if their antagonists weren’t exactly auditioning for The Three Stooges. As the klutz of the piece, Linde actually gets to sport another cool beige California cop’s uniform after his dumb-ass turn in TV’s CHiPs, although his intelligence level has hardly increased even given that his totty-smitten kid brother to the more commanding Vincent is actually the closest thing that we have to law enforcement around these parts. He stands as the intermediary stage between Evil Dead’s cowardly, buffoonish Ash and the reluctant, though still unavoidably buffoonish hero that Ash would become – only Bruce remains locked within that clumsy, inept middle-phase from start to finish. Linde is an extraordinarily personable guy, and he enables the lovesick pup to be both an interminable putz and a champion with his heart in the right place.
“Meat’s meat, and a man’s gotta eat!”
But the casting of Rory Calhoun is pure, unadulterated genius. Iconic veteran of a gazillion oaters, the dashing, rugged and ever-smiling cowpoke had fallen foul of rumours circulating that he was ill with cancer, according to his co-star Paul Linde, which simply wasn’t true at all. But he found that he struggled to get work outside of TV even though he was a brilliantly assured character actor, a proudly laconic leading man, and a performer unafraid to get his hands dirty. Which is probably why he leapt so enthusiastically against type to play the loveable, mass-murdering Vincent. He wasn’t a stranger to wacky horror though, having appeared in William Claxton’s cult turkey, Night of the Lepus, which saw him battling a horror-horde of mutant killer bunnies alongside fellow saddle-steward Stuart Whitman, Psycho’s Janet Leigh and even Star Trek’s Deforest Kelly. With a look of Victor Mature and eyes so honest and warm that they could melt plate steel, he makes for the perfect killer. Who would ever suspect such a generous and amiable fellow? The crucial thing is that even when he is tending to his human cattle, he is all unclotted sweetness, attentive, caring and nurturing. This is what makes the set-up so infuriatingly feasible, and Vincent so darn sinister. If you rolled up at the Motel Hell(o) and Donald Pleasance greeted you, you’d be back on the interstate before he’d even opened his mouth to say good morning. But Calhoun could literally charm you into the cooking pot. He gets the gag, too. The picnic scene is an untethered joy, and his reaction to when Terry first attempts to seduce him actually has you sympathising for the poor old boy. Both he and Nancy Parsons are having a breeze as the odd couple enjoying the good life out beyond the fringes of society.
Parsons would go on to carve her own unique cult niche with her notorious, manhood-squeezing high school deputy, Miss Ballbricker, in Bob Clark’s classic hormonal adventures Porky’s and its two sequels, Porky’s II and Porky’s Revenge. (Incidentally, Bob Clark was, himself, along with Alan Ormsby behind the Ed Gein shocker Deranged.) Heavy-set and saddled with sterner features than a well-hammered anvil, she brings a brilliant sense of the joyful uncanny to the doting Ida. Sensing that the equilibrium of the homestead will be disrupted with the arrival of Terry, she goes fifty shades of green and embarks upon her own slightly schizophrenic campaign of pest extermination. Unlike Vincent, Ida definitely has an evil side that can manifest itself in the blink of an eye. Watch for the moment when she and Terry are playfully splashing one another during atubing-session out on the lake,and one particular face-full of sun-dappled water stokes Ida’s ire. The sudden change in the big girl’s expression from whoopee to wrath is priceless. Parsons is excellent value as the pig-tailed ogre from Satan’s redneck quarter, but she invests Ida with gallons of icky-drippy charisma, and gambols about the screen with the athletic zest of a hooch-addled warthog. There is even a curious little hint of lesbianism to further spice up the deviant dumpling, with a lingering look over at Terry and even some ogling of a purloined lad’s mag! I think it is pushing it a bit for some commentators (a couple of which are found in the extra features on this disc) to cite her as being an inspiration for Kathy Bates’ personification of Stephen King’s grim Old Testament saviour, Annie Wilkes, in Misery, but it is fair to say that Ida might be cut from the same cloth. Her little cherubic tagline of “Okey-dokey!” is a touch of evil genius, her “intergalactic” playacting during “harvest-time” a joy. Even when the final act threatens to spill over into quasi-zombie territory (well ... you’ll have to see it to understand), she spins on-a-dime from mirth to madness and back again with such pizzazz and gumption that when the apocalypse comes you could do far worse than stand by her ample, dungaree’d side.
Indeed, such is the level of the murderers’ all-round good spirits that the film often recalls the absurdly gurning yokels that surround their chopped-up, out-of-town victims in the rural sixties bloodbaths of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The influence of his delirious Two Thousand Maniacs and, indeed, the tale of Old London Town’s barbarous barber, Sweeney Todd, and those tasty pies his patrons were shoveled into, combine in Connor’s film to create an eclectic, tongue-in-cheek ode to capitalism – the Smiths have turned their little temple to self-sufficiency into a lucrative commercial business. The secret of success, as clearly implied here, is to never, ever give up your secret.
A special mention must go out to Nina Axelrod whose sun-kissed beauty here was something that enabled an otherwise disappointed teenage gorehound to find solace elsewhere in the frame. No matter how set in your ways you might be, if this little lady suddenly dropped into your idyllic haven out of the blue, you’d be apt to give your meat a vigorous seasoning too. The delicious thing about Axelrod’s rather silly character is that she becomes a surrogate Snow White, or Goldilocks, straying into a veritable fairytale glen, replete with an evil stepmother and the sort of furnace that wouldn’t be out of place in a gingerbread house in the deep, dark woods. Any motivation slips behind the veil of naiveté, although it is reassuring to find that, when the time comes, she can indeed find her inner scream queen. In fact, to really enjoy Motel Hell and have its numerous inanities and indulgences be swept away from any chance of interfering with the fun, it is probably best to view it as a dark adult fairytale. Connor even supplies lots of swirling, blue-tinged night-mist and a sense of chapter-passing in the narrative.
With such a quirky, laidback tone, riddled with backwoods humour and lolloping from one oddball set-piece to another, Motel Hell betrays no obvious trace that it was directed by an Englishman. It feels like the fetid flipside of Norman Rockwell, the old pioneer spirit smoked down to its blue-grass basics of just doin’ what a man’s gotta do. Only with a little bit more herbs and spices. Yet Connor’s visual sense and penchant for the eccentric, so brilliantly essayed in From Beyond The Grave, definitely shines through. I could easily imagine him leaving a cream scone somewhere on show in the slaughterhouse, just for a giggle.
“It takes all kinds o’ critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!”
Throw in some great curio support from the furry-voiced ex DJ, Wolfman Jack, as a white-suited evangelist (with more than just a look of David Dickinson, I might add) and John Ratzenberger as a mutton ‘tached member of the howling rock band, Ivan and the Terribles, and a wonderfully off-the-wall sequence involving a couple of swingers who are into anything (“Do you think they like animals?” wonders one of two Playboy Playmates in the film, Monique St. Pierre), and Connor’s fledgling US speedball-production offers plenty of far-out shenanigans. That it could all soeasily be a segment in an anthology is another fantastic little nod to the heritage that the filmmaker was so proud of.
Motel Hell’s rural whimsy is deceptive, its laidback, subversively gothic excesses kept in unorthodox check until a climax coated with bravura, and bristling with sibling spit and backwoods fury. Its iconic image of a chainsaw-wielding madman in a bloody pigs-head mask remains a spasmodic jolt to the system, and its mano-et-mano showdown does, indeed, bring home the bacon when it really counts. Yet despite such lurid imagery and a decidedly unsavoury theme running all the way through, this is not a gory film at all. We do see some occasional body-parts and there is the one gloriously graphic example of the sort of shot that everyone is convinced they saw in Texas Chainsaw Massacre – but definitely didn’t - and had to wait afull four years until Tobe Hooper had to guts to finally show it in the sequel with Dennis Hopper and Leatherface jousting with power-toolswhich, as I’ve already said, owes an even greater debt to Connor’s film than simply buzzing deep into human flesh. There are times when you are genuinely on the edge of your seat in anticipation of some graphic viscera … but Connor refuses you any until the finale. He never liked the bloody stuff. This reservation has been credited to his British credentials, of course, and the lack of affinity with Drive-In fodder and Grindhouse gristle, and it is easy to believe that Motel Hell started off as being very explicit in a slapstick fashion – it was made, when all said and done, in the wake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th – and would potentially have been something of a proto-Brain Dead or even Re-Animator with regards to the splatter that matters. The original script was riddled with dildos, death and downbeat sleaze until Connor had almost all of it jettisoned. The sequence with the swingers is hysterical, though, and a lot of their toys still remain in the film. But having come from the Milton Subotsky stable at Amicus, however, ensured that Connor was firmly in the camp that preferred their horrors and debauchery to be implied rather than splashed in the face. If Amicus was a retaliation to the lurid, sexed-up horror of Hammer, then Motel Hell was, as they have said, the remedy to Tobe Hooper and the graphic excesses of the nihilistic seventies.
But even so ... this has got duelling chainsaws, a cabbage-patch of groaning, moaning noggins, a bloody pig’s head on the rampage and Nina Axelrod in a wet T-shirt. What more could you want from a night’s stay in Motel Hell besides a good, hearty breakfast in the morning?
Clever and daft at the same time, Kevin Connor’s US debut is a cracking bit of crackling!
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