Friday, October 7, 2016

Motel Hell (USA, 1980)

"Meat's meat, and a man's gotta eat."
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)

When we went to see this flick way back when it was released — yes, we were old enough to see R-rated movies without adult supervision in 1980 — it wasn't just because we are horror fans and had hoped for a movie corresponding to the trailer above. No, there were two other, primary reasons we wanted to see Motel Hell: Playboy's September 1978 Playmate of the Month Rosanne Katon (36C-23-34, directly below in her prime),* and Playboy's November 1978 Playmate of the Month and 1979 Playmate of the Year Monique St. Pierre (36C-26-36, further below in her prime).** (Or does that count as four other reasons?) Among the many things we disliked about Motel Hell at the time, aside from the fact that it was neither all that gory nor scary, was that in the movie they were both underused and overdressed.

"It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters."
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)

* Rosanne Katon had a short but successful career in exploitation and much more of her (literally) can be seen in such fun titles like Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy (1976 / scene), The Muthers (1976 / main theme), She Devils in Chains aka Ebony, Ivory & Jade (1976 / trailer, with Playboy's October 1969 Playmate Jean Bell), Lunch Wagon (1981 / trailer), and Bachelor Party (1984 / trailer).

And while we doubt that our latter two quibbles with the flick were shared by many, Motel Hell was anything but a hit when it was released — and that despite the iconic photo on the cover of Fangoria #41 (still further below). Motel Hell only became a cult classic over the years, when time permitted it to be appreciated as it was intended to be appreciated (as a quirky black comedy) and not as a failed and not-so-bloody slasher at a time when blood and not humor was expected of a horror movie. Indeed, that was probably the marketing department's biggest mistake back then: as obvious by its trailer above and the Fangoria cover and spread, Motel Hell was sold as a serious hillbilly horror movie along the lines of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 / trailer) — Tobe Hooper was even the movie's originally intended director — when it is arguably more an odd hybrid of hixploitation like HG Lewis's incompetently made but entertaining classic Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964 / trailer) and Bob Balaban's inexplicably forgotten black cannibal comedy Parents (1989 / trailer).

"Sometimes I wonder about the karmic implications of these actions."
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)

** Monique St. Pierre's career as an actress was miniscule at best; her only other film of note is Cirio H. Santiago's typically lowbrow sci-fi action flick, Stryker (1983 / trailer).

In any event, recently, 36 years after having seen Motel Hell in some long gone grindhouse in downtown San Diego — yes, the city's "Gaslamp Quarter" once had real personality — we caught the film again, uncut, one early evening in Las Vegas. (OK, it was Henderson, but who can tell the difference?) And we liked it a lot more than way back in 1980, though the movie is far from perfect. It is, in a way, a prime example of the individual and oddly personal (if not less than commercial) projects from a time in Hollywood when the studios weren't overly infected with sequelitus and still weren't above releasing an occasionally unusual horror movie that didn't fit in a specific shoebox. (Private Parts [1972 / trailer], Images [1972 / trailer], Tourist Trap [1979], or the continually and unjustly maligned Fear No Evil [1981 / trailer] anyone?) It is easy to see why Motel Hell has developed cult status over the years.

"There's too many people in the world and not enough food.
Now this takes care of both problems at the same time."
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun)

Originally planned as a straight horror film by the producer-screenwriters Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe, Motel Hell got revamped as a satire after Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave [1974 / trailer], The Land That Time Forgot [1975 / trailer], At the Earth's Core [1976 / trailer], The People That Time Forgot [1977 / trailer], Warlords of Atlantis [1979 / trailer] and The House Where Evil Dwells [1982 / trailer]) took over the directorial reins. For the most part, the sex change was successful: Motel Hell garners many a smile, some giggles, and a few all-out guffaws as it entertains. (We particularly liked the head-scratchable hypnosis scene this time around, a humorous example of total inanity that we remember hating way back in 1980.)
It is arguable that the best thing about Motel Hell is its casting of one-time second-echelon Hollywood heartthrob Rory Calhoun (born Francis Timothy McCown, 8 Aug 1922 – 28 Apr 1999) as Vincent Smith (motel owner, butcher, farmer, small-business owner). Calhoun — whose other fun films of note during the twilight of his career include, among others, Night of the Lepus (1972 / trailer); Revenge of Bigfoot (1979 — a "lost" film legendarily featuring a cameo by some guy named Bill Clinton); both Angel (1984 / trailer) and Avenging Angel (1985 / trailer), alongside the great Susan Tyrrell; and Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988 / trailer) — remains laconic, almost unflappable, and likable throughout most of the movie but can, when needed, exude the required menace to be threatening. 
As Vincent, he anchors Motel Hell and manages to make all the flaws in the movie somewhat less noticeable (the biggest being the one-note characterization, occasional lapses in the narrative, tangents that disappear or go nowhere, and some pretty questionable acting by other actors). He also has the best dialogue of the movie, although the brainless oversight of Terry, the blonde final girl (Nina Axelrod of Roller Boogie [1979 / trailer], Time Walker [1982 / trailer] and Critters 3 [1991 / trailer]), does often achieve a humorous irony. But in the end she, much like the hero-by-default Sheriff Bruce Smith (Paul Linke of The Baby Maker [1970 / from the soundtrack], Big Bad Mama [1974 / trailer], Moving Violation [1976 / trailer], Space Rage [1985 / trailer], Shrunken Heads [1994 / trailer] and Fallen Angels [2006 / trailer]), often comes across more like an underdeveloped stereotype than a real character, which makes it hard to root for her or Sheriff Smith — at least, that is, until the big final showdown featuring dueling chainsaws and a damsel-in-distress situation straight out of a Dudley Do-Right nightmare.
Perhaps not the most exciting of directors, Connor's well-framed compositions nevertheless manage to give the occasionally ecliptic narrative a determined pace that often dryly but effectively supports the humor. The fact that he fails to imbue the big final attack of the almost zombie-like survivors with much tension probably has less to do with his direction than with the script itself, which literally has the whole kit and caboodle of semi-zombies (but for one) disappear after they attack Vincent's equally deranged sister Ida Smith (Nancy Parsons, 17 Jan 1942 – 5 Jan 2001, of American Raspberry aka Prime Time [1977 / trailer], The Woman in Red [1979 / trailer], the extremely dated Sudden Impact  [1983 / trailer], and Death Falls [1991 / opening], with Roberts Blossom). Parsons' performance is rather uneven and veers between believable and unbearable, but at her best she manages to convey a superciliousness and egotism rivaling that of Shirley Stoler in the Honeymoon Killers (1970 / trailer), but sort of on a Sunday-morning comics level. She isn't at her best very often, it should be noted.

Motel Hell, a comic oddity from the past that is much better now than when it was released. Light on gore and skin, but a fun way to spend a rainy evening.
Trailer to the movie that Sheriff Smith (Paul Linke)
takes Terry (Nina Axelrod) to see,
The Monster that Challenged the World (1957):

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