“Meat’s meat and a man’s gotta eat!” Heed the battle cry of Farmer Vincent Smith, maker of the finest smoked meats around. People would come from far and wide to purchase his delectable fritters, unaware that his special ‘ingredient’ was plain folk, like you and me. 35 years ago, Vincent and his Motel Hell cut off a slice of Americana and served it up in theaters, with a heaping help of humor for good measure. Cannibalism was never this down home friendly.

My initial memories of Motel Hell  formulated around two images: The front cover of Issue #9 (November 1980) of Fangoria magazine, the new horror monthly that specialized in the kind of gruesome images that it’s gentler forefather, Famous Monsters of Filmland, wasn’t comfortable delving in to. Upon the cover was a picture of a man in bib overalls, wearing a pig’s head and brandishing a blood soaked chainsaw that seemed to buzz right off the page. As I stared, mouth agape, my only thought was: yes please, sign me up for whatever this thing is…

The second image was the newspaper ad. In the foreground, people buried up to their necks in soil, while in the background, a couple of farmers, one male, one female stood proud and stoic holding farming tools. Below the ‘Motel Hell’ sign was the tag: ‘It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent Fritters’. Below that, was ANOTHER tag: ‘You might just die…laughing!’

Okay. So from the magazine cover (never picked up that issue – a shame, as it goes for about $60 on eBay and was yanked from most retailers at the time for being too graphic) to the ad, all I could foster in my developing cranium was: a) it was a horror comedy, and b) where the hell does the chainsaw come into play? All of these burning questions were answered when I finally saw it on videotape in the summer of ’81. Motel Hell, from 1st viewing to present day, stands as a testament to originality, in tone and execution. It still holds up as a hilarious and ghoulish take on the American Dream.

Meet Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun – Night of the Lepus), owner and operator of Motel Hello, with the last ‘O’ always on the verge of flickering out completely. With the help of his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons – Porky’s), he arranges ‘accidents’ for travelling motorists near his property (bear traps, spikes, cutouts of cows – the usual). Once captured, they are planted up to their necks in Vincent’s secret garden, vocal cords slit, and fed so as to plump them up, all juicy-like. When ready, they’re slaughtered and added to Vincent’s meat mix, resulting in the best smoked meats in a 100 mile radius. When Vincent shoots out Bo and Terry (Nina Axelrod – Critters 3)’s motorcycle tire, Bo is kept for the garden and Vincent falls for the blond beauty. Telling Terry the next day that Bo was killed in the crash, Vincent convinces her to stay with them and recover. In her confusion, she reluctantly agrees. Enter the youngest member of the Smith clan, Bruce (Paul Linke – CHiPs), the town sheriff who has no clue what nefarious schemes his siblings have been pulling for years. The viewers are then treated to a parade of victims for Vincent and Ida (including a group of punk rockers and a swingin’ couple), before Bruce finally figures out what is going on, and in an effort to win the heart of Terry, must battle to the death with his brother (THERE’S the chainsaw!) and sis – which could spell the end of Vincent’s creepy cottage industry.

British director Kevin Connor’s debut was 1974’s From Beyond the Grave, an Amicus horror anthology released at the tail end of that sub genre’s popularity. He then went on to family oriented adventure fare such as At the Earth’s Core (’76), and Warlords of the Deep (’78). When those fell out of favor, he packed his bags to try his hand at Hollywood. Within a couple of months he was handed the script for Motel Hell. Written by brothers Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe, who started out a few years earlier with Robert co-writing and Steven an associate producer on technorape thriller Demon Seed (1977), Connor convinced the brothers to ditch the more juvenile humor (the script allegedly opened with Ida and a dildo on a bed), and focus on the dark humor prevalent in the screenplay. Which to their credit, they did – and man, does this thing sing.

Motel Hell is an extension of Psycho’s basic premise – dark secrets at a wayward inn - however, there are some key differences. At no time are we asked to sympathize with Vincent and Ida, no internal struggle to debate. Their moral compass swings not according to punishment of the guilty, but rather whoever is unfortunate enough to travel through their neck of the woods. Vincent does muse on how he will be received by God, the ‘karmic implications’ of his actions, but ultimately sees himself as His helper, keeping the world’s over population in check. As well, the conflict arises not from outside forces, but internally, as Terry’s budding relationship with Vincent causes a schism between he and Ida, who is none too pleased to share her brother (and only friend) with anyone.

Other influences abound, but luckily none tied to the trends of the day. This was peak Slasher time, but the film generally stays away from the (already) shop worn tropes of the genre. There are no pretty teenagers to be found, and the only law enforcement is related to our protagonists (and, while ostensibly the good guy, Bruce displays a goofy sleaziness towards Terry that is slightly disturbing in its own way). The rural setting helps erase most time stamps on the film – other than one scene in town, everything occurs either at the ranch or on the winding roads leading to it, creating a sense of isolation. Perhaps the biggest comparison viewers make is to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (’74), but that’s only on the surface – chainsaws are humming by film’s end – and in turn, one could say that this film influenced Chainsaw’s sequel 6 years later, swapping out smoked meats for chili (but keeping the dueling chainsaws).

No matter how the film is tagged, (falsely) as a Slasher or as a gorefest (not even close), the true lasting appeal of Motel Hell is its tone, and the performances. Call it serendipity or dumb luck, but having Connor as director proved to be an inspiration. He handles the material as if he is still making an adventure film, light and lively, but swapping out Peter Cushing and Doug McClure for Vincent and Ida as our tour guides. Vincent is almost perpetually cheerful, selling his slice of the American pie to one and all. Ida wears her dementia on her sleeve, but Vincent is mostly oblivious – he truly believes he’s a pillar of the community and an upstanding citizen. Connor presents every despicable act with a cheery disposition, never going too heavy or gruesome, as the subject matter alone skates on the thinnest of ice. Cannibalism never scores at the box office, and while Motel Hell ‘s returns doubled its cost and pulled in over $6 million U.S., it was a far cry from the success of the same year’s The Shining or Friday the 13th. Sure, you can kill ‘em - but you better not eat ‘em.

However, it’s the cast that really makes this film soar. Everyone performs this lowbrow Grand Guignol tongue in cheek, making sure that the tasty bon mots provided by the Jaffe Brothers’ sunny and sinister script don’t hit the soil with a resounding thud. Linke and Axelrod give nice, relaxed turns as the dimwitted sheriff and damsel in distress, respectively. Parsons plays Ida with a breezy malevolence that befits her role as her brother’s keeper. But the show belongs to Calhoun. A Hollywood veteran of countless westerns, ruggedly handsome with a cowboy smile, he was offered the job after Harry Dean Stanton turned it down. So charming and folksy, his Farmer Vincent is a villain for the ages - never playing down to the material, but rather lifting it up with a cornpone plainspeak that tickles the funny bone while sending shivers down the spine. It was a role that he was born to play, and if someone had been paying attention, they may have had the next Vincent Price on their hands.

In the past 35 years, ingredients from Motel Hell have bubbled up from time to time in horror films, as in the aforementioned  The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (’86), or American Gothic (’88). But the reason it has persevered – and been preserved -  while the others have gone stale, is this: It shows a willingness to embrace the absurd, through humor and horror, and a lack of pretense that good old Farmer Vincent himself would be proud of.

  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.