I've heard for years that I should see Motel Hell from 1980, but I didn't really trust the recommendations. This is, after all, a movie about a farmer who makes sausage out of people. It's a common enough premise, and it's usually pretty boring. All of these movies climax with an attractive girl in dirty, ripped clothing cowering against a wall in the background while the Bad Guy holds some kind of sharp implement which is shown in the foreground, dripping something red. The cannibalism genre has a few good entries, I guess, but Delicatessen and Eating Raoul aren't even horror movies, and Ravenous is just ridiculous.
So I wasn't very optimistic about Motel Hell, but when it came up on Amazon Prime tonight, I thought I'd give it a shot, and I'm pleased to announce that it was a good decision, as far as idle decisions go.
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) is a farmer who owns the run-down Motel Hello which doesn't look like a place you'd stay if you had a choice. He also produces a line of smoked meats (creatively named Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats) whose slogan is, "it takes all kinds o' critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters!" He's friendly and affable and it's hard to picture him taking part in the sort of activities you already know he's going to be engaging in by the end of the movie.
Vincent lives with his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons), and his brother is the local sherrif, Bruce Smith (). Ida is complicit in Vincent's activities, but Bruce thinks he's just a good cook, which is a surprise since Vincent obtains his meat by setting traps on the highway. Vincent is careful, though, and has never been caught or even suspected. Our first glimpse into his process occurs when the local health inspector comes poking around. The two men seem to have a good rapport, but when the inspector gets a little too close to Vicent's secret, Vincent decides to whap him on the head with a shovel, cut his vocal cords, and bury him up to the neck in a secret garden where he fattens his victims to prepare them for slaughter. Why do they have to be neck-deep in dirt? No special reason; it just keeps them from escaping.
Vincent causes a young couple to have a motorcycle accident, buries the boyfriend, and rescued the girl whose name is Terry. Bruce stops in while Vincent is nursing her back to health, and the two of them hit it off pretty well (as far as he's concerned, anyway). They start hanging out, but the romance never really gets off the ground because Terry is actually developing feelings for Vincent. Bruce is upset and Ida is beginning to feel neglected, and it only gets worse when Vincent and Terry announce their engagement. Things are going so well that Vincent decides to teach Terry some of his tricks of the trade, which is probably, all things considered, not a good idea.
A movie like this could be gruesome and depressing, but Motel Hell is really a satire on nerve-jangling suspense movies like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it works. I don't think I could get my parents to sit through it, but it's nowhere near as horrific as its premise suggests. You can tell that the filmmakers and actors are having a good time, and hoping that the mood rubs off on the audience, which, of course, it does. This is part of the grand tradition of fun horror movies like Slither, Gremlins, Fright Night and (appropriately) Bad Taste. Vincent Price might have starred in something like this. Christopher Lee might have, too, but he'd have tried to make it far too serious.
Rory Calhoun--who mostly played cowboys during his mid-20th century heyday--doesn't quite have the gravitas of Lee or the charm of Price, but he makes Farmer Vincent into such a good natured, "aww, shucks" sort of guy that it's hard to see him as the villain of the picture, and you're still rooting for him when he (SPOILER ALERT THAT YOU'RE GOING TO READ THROUGH ANYWAY) loses to Bruce in a chainsaw fencing match at the end of the movie.
Here's the trailer: