(1980) Directed by Kevin Connor; Written by: Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe; Starring: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons and Nina Axelrod
Available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“There’s nothing cruel, what I’m doing here. I treat most of my stock better than farmers treat their animals. I don’t feed them chemicals or hormones. When you consider the way the world is today, there’s no question that I’m doing a lot of ‘em a big favor.” – Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun)
I’m ecstatic to take part in the Things I Learned from the Movies Blogathon, co-hosted by the dynamic duo of blogathon hosts, Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Seriously, I have no idea how they manage to come up with so many fantastic blogthon ideas, but I’m glad they keep doing it. Today’s offering is a not-so-guilty pleasure from 1980, blending horror and comedy into one diabolical stew.
Motel Hell tells the story of Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun)* and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons), who run a backwoods motel, along with a successful smoked meat business.** Why do customers come from far and wide to taste his unique treats? Is it his secret blend of herbs and spices or patented smoking process? Nope, Vincent incorporates another exotic, yet readily available ingredient. What could you possibly learn from horror movies, let alone one with such a far-fetched, gruesome premise? Allow me to illuminate you, dear reader, on the wealth of lessons to be gleaned from Motel Hell.
* Fun fact: According to director Kevin Connor’s DVD commentary, Harry Dean Stanton was considered for the role of Farmer Vincent, but turned it down.
** Queasy fact: The pig carcasses in the smokehouse were real.
Lesson number one: Read the list of ingredients when trying new food. For the benefit of this discussion, I’ll assume you don’t have any food allergies or dietary restrictions, so you’re not already meticulously verifying everything that goes into your stomach. After watching Motel Hell, maybe you should. Whenever you’re in a strange place with suspect food preparation methods, you might consider pressing the establishment for a few more details. If you can’t find an ingredient roster, or they’re not forthcoming, maybe it’s best to pass on that snack. And remember: just because that food’s locally sourced from an independent proprietor doesn’t mean they’re above cutting corners (witness the film’s best line, delivered by Calhoun in the final scene).
Lesson number two: Always consult your AAA ratings (or CAA ratings, for those readers north of the border) before checking in for the night. As a veteran of many road trips, I get it. You’re a weary traveler looking for someplace to rest your head for the night, and that little place looks inviting enough. Heck, the sign even says “Motel Hello.” But dig a little deeper underneath the surface, and looks what happens when you let your guard down. In one scene, a kinky couple checks in for the night to do who-knows-what to each other with who-knows-what, and Farmer Vincent doesn’t bother to have them sign the registry. Truth be told, they were really obnoxious and too self-absorbed to see the red flags, but they didn’t deserve their fate. In another scene, Farmer Vincent places a bumper sticker (crookedly, I might add) on a family’s station wagon. Excuse me? Did I ask you to place that tacky thing on my car? I think not. Unless the business is paying you to advertise for them, kindly decline.
* Not so fun fact: Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, California, which stood in for the Motel Hello and was the site for many other productions, burned to the ground this past summer in a wildfire.
Lesson number three: If you plan on snooping around, use the buddy system, for cryin’ out loud! When a curious health department inspector suspects something fishy about Farmer Vincent’s establishment (spoiler: it has nothing to do with fish), he returns to investigate what’s behind a locked gate. What’s in that secret garden with the weird noises? Bring a colleague. And watch your back every now and then.
Although Motel Hell was British director Kevin Connor’s first American film, it wasn’t his first indoctrination into horror. Connor made his auspicious directorial debut with the Amicus portmanteau film From Beyond the Grave (1974). Even if the premise stretches credulity, he treats the material with a deadpan perspective. Calhoun and Parsons are excellent as the leads, who view their profession as fulfilling a higher calling. If anyone could have benefited from the aforementioned lessons, it’s Vincent’s naïve fiancée Terry (Nina Axelrod). Instead of getting involved in a dubious May-December romance, she should have asked more questions, and kept an eye on his disapproving sister Ida. Alas, live and learn.
Okay, Motel Hell probably won’t change your life. It does, however, illustrate the time-worn adage that you are what you eat. You can also do more with comedy and horror to say the sorts of things we wouldn’t dare say in a straightforward drama. Many of us give little thought to the food we stuff down our gob, or how it got to our table. While this movie might not turn us all into vegetarians, we might be inclined to take a moment to pause and think about what we eat, and where it came from.