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.
Motel 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.
However, 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 mines 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.
It’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 atmospheric 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.