One of the great joys of cult film fan­dom is stum­bling onto a movie that shouldn’t exist but does… and is all the more delight­ful because this improb­a­ble film actu­al­ly works.  A great exam­ple that Schlockmania loves is Motel Hell: a tru­ly bizarre blend of can­ni­bal hor­ror and odd­ball satire that not only made it to the­aters but also had the ben­e­fit of a decent bud­get and gift­ed actors and film­mak­ers.  It defies expec­ta­tions, find­ing its own unex­pect­ed­ly low-key groove to achieve a dis­tinc­tive blend of hor­ror and humor.

MotelH-posMotel Hell starts off by mak­ing its vil­lains the main char­ac­ters: Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and his sis­ter Ida oper­ate a small rural motel called Motel Hello — the last “o” is usu­al­ly on the fritz, hence the title.  They don’t have many cus­tomers but that doesn’t mat­ter because their real bread and but­ter is their suc­cess­ful home busi­ness pro­duc­tion of smoked meats dis­trib­ut­ed in the local area.  Of course, the secret ingre­di­ent that makes those smoked meats so unique­ly tasty is the inclu­sion of smoke-cured human flesh, with the vic­tims usu­al­ly drawn from “acci­dents” that Vincent man­u­fac­tures on a local back road.

HoMotelH-01wev­er, Vincent and Ida’s smooth­ly-run busi­ness is thrown into dis­ar­ray when Vincent devel­ops a crush on Terry (Nina Axelrod), a poten­tial vic­tim that he res­cues and allows to recu­per­ate at the farm.  She falls for him, too — she’s unique­ly free-spirit­ed, with a yen for old­er men — but he grap­ples with whether or not she can be brought into the fam­i­ly busi­ness.  Meanwhile, Ida plots again­st the girl and Vincent’s younger broth­er, local Sheriff (Paul Linke), devel­ops his own crush on Terry.

Motel Hell has the kind of premise that could have spun off in sev­er­al bad direc­tions — and yet it stays on course through­out.  For starters, the script by Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe is gen­uine­ly wit­ty: it pays homage to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but it also MotelH-02mines a vein of “can­ni­bal­ism as com­merce” satire that would lat­er be explored in a more rau­cous way in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

It also ben­e­fits from the sure­foot­ed way the film blends its hor­ror and humor ele­ments, using them to off­set each oth­er in a way that keeps the sto­ry­telling inter­est­ing.  Thus, the sce­nes depict­ing the ways that Vincent and Ida care for and har­vest their “live­stock” are amus­ing­ly macabre instead of gross.

MotelH-03It’s also worth not­ing that Motel Hell has a sur­pris­ing­ly light touch despite its sub­ject mat­ter.  The cred­it for this goes to direc­tor Kevin Connor, a vet­er­an of British hor­ror and fan­ta­sy fare who made his American debut here.  Rather than try to com­pete with the film’s humor and hor­ror blend via exces­sive styl­iza­tion, he goes for a straight­for­ward approach that trusts the view­er to know when to laugh and when to flinch.  He also gives the film an unex­pect­ed­ly appeal­ing aes­thet­ic, thanks to atmo­spMotelH-04her­ic pho­tog­ra­phy from Thomas Del Ruth and an excel­lent musi­cal score by Lance Rubin that off­sets its scary music con­tent with a love­ly, melan­choly main the­me.

The final part of the film’s appeal lies in the per­for­mances.  Calhoun and Parsons are pitch-per­fect as the broth­er-sis­ter duo that dri­ves the film: Calhoun takes a dead­pan, odd­ly charm­ing approach, play­ing the char­ac­ter like the sin­is­ter ver­sion of the kooky Grandpa from a Disney movie, while Parsons brings a sly glee­ful­ness to her more vicious char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.  Axelrod shows nice comic tim­ing as the hero­ine, as does Linke in the most overt­ly comedic of the main char­ac­ters.  Look also for a fun cameo from Wolfman Jack as a tel­e­van­ge­list and Dick Curtis and Elaine Joyce as a hilar­i­ous­ly obnox­ious pair of swingers who find more than they bar­gained for at the motel.

In short, Motel Hell is one of the best humor/horror blends because it is has the courage to under­play where oth­er films over­do it, allow­ing its off­beat sto­ry­line to speak for itself.  It’s amaz­ing such an off­beat yet acces­si­ble film got made — and the lives of cult movie fans are all the richer for its exis­tence.