I am sure that we have all been affected in one way, or in a lot of ways, because of the current global pandemic. So, with that, I would like to say to anyone reading this that I hope you are safe and healthy. One of the ways that I was affected by the lockdowns came in like a wrecking ball that I could not have anticipated—I lost a connection to not only myself, but my dreams—which included my passion for horror. When it came time to watch Motel Hell (1980) for our Class of 1980 retrospective, I panicked, as I couldn't get out of bed let alone watch a movie and write coherent thoughts on it. That was until about two and a half weeks ago when I decided to face problems again and give it one more try, and it was the best decision that I could have made.
Kevin Connor's Motel Hell (1980) was a first-time watch for me. I had heard about this movie from my friends in the horror community, but I hadn't seen any promotion for it like movie posters or trailers. So, imagine my surprise when almost the first frame of this movie awakened something in me that I hadn't felt in over four months. I didn't expect to say this, but Motel Hell (1980) helped me reconnect with my dreams/passions, which led me back to me.
From the title, I assumed that Motel Hell (1980) would be a gritty slasher in which poor, unsuspecting travelers would seek the establishment as a quick rest spot before heading off to wherever they planned to go when ultimately the motel would be their final destination. And, I wasn't completely off-base, as that is the underlying plot; however, I was surprised by how decidedly funny and satirical the movie is. Motel Hell (1980) follows brother Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and sister Ida (Nancy Parsons), who run a motel and a successful sausage business. With a slogan like, "It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s Fritters," I should have suspected that the pair were putting human flesh into the sausages, but I was still focused on some Vacancy (2007)-level shenanigans to ensue.
The reason why my first glance at the "Motel Hell/O" sign re-awakened my passion for horror is that, simply put, it was clever. It subverted my expectations by immediately injecting a quick bit of humor right at the beginning. It was like Kevin Connor was conveying that the motel was inviting guests to stay at a place that was so polite, it was saying "hello" to everyone who saw the sign. Yet, once guests arrived, it would be the last place they would ever go. It made me laugh. I hadn't laughed or smiled in what felt like ages, and if you listen to our Corpse Club podcast, you know that I laugh early and often. From that point on, I began to watch everything closely, attempting to make sense of everything I was seeing. There are some really bizarre moments to unpack—as if planting humans in the ground and feeding them until they are "ripe" enough to "harvest" isn't bizarre enough—so please, bear with me.
One of the most bizarre moments of the plot falls on the "love" story between Vincent and a young woman named Terry (Nina Axelrod). Initially, I read their relationship as something like a father and daughter would have, only for it to progress throughout the movie into something romantic. Their stark age difference, coupled with the fact that Vincent was responsible for the accident that almost killed her, just never sat well with me, and I couldn't get behind it. It was also unsettling to see Rory Calhoun, whom I know from How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), in this movie as such a sinister character. I love when casting directors put Golden Age actors in roles like this. It's the mixture of "light" and "dark" that makes for the perfect concoction. Towards the end of the film, we get another bizarre, but truly enjoyable moment when Vincent and his brother, Bruce (Paul Linke), the town's sheriff, face off in the slaughterhouse with chainsaws. Oh, and did I mention that this fight is happening while Vincent is wearing a bloody pig's head? It gave me flashbacks to Panos Cosmatos' Mandy (2018), when Red and that cult member fight with chainsaws. It is such a metal thing to do. I won't spoil how the fight ends because it is something I hope our readers will check out for themselves.
Vincent makes for a convincing villain, but Ida is an excellent partner in crime as well. You never know what her intentions are. When Terry accidentally stumbles on a secret room in the house, Ida is aggressive towards her and then switches to a more pleasant demeanor before inviting her to go tubing in a nearby lake. She proceeds to wait until Terry's guard is down before attacking her again, but I wouldn't have guessed that she wasn't mad because of the intrusion, but because she is jealous. Like her brother, she embodies that "Motel Hell/O" sign beautifully. She's polite and inviting, all while being evil incarnate. I also really enjoyed the supporting characters. Some have more screen time than others, but definitely keep an eye out for the BDSM couple. They were a lot of fun, as well as the punk band Ivan and the Terribles. Even the name of the band is a fun play on words. The director and the cast seemed to be having the best time making this movie, and it shows.
While looking back on my experience with this retrospective, I realize the theme is one of expectation(s). I didn't expect to lose any and all connection with myself and my passions these past few months, and I certainly didn't expect to find them again because of Motel Hell (1980). Little by little, this horror comedy weaved its way into my heart. I knew nothing about this movie, and it subverted what I thought I was in for based on the title. It made me laugh. It made me squirm. It reminded me of other great horror films. It reawakened my love for horror, which has been a passion of mine since I was at least five or six years old. In the last two and a half weeks since watching this, I have rewatched so many movies and even some horror TV shows. I will definitely rewatch this sometime soon, if only for that rad chainsaw fight.
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