I remember the lot of us piling into someone's car, probably driven by someone's well-meaning older sister who just wanted to get out of the house for a night, and heading over to the local twin cinema where Motel Hell was playing. We were beside ourselves with anticipation, for we considered ourselves connoisseurs, having already endured such fare as Halloween and Friday the 13th, not to mention drive-in showings of Night of the Living Dead and The Exorcist, already a few years old but still packing a wicked punch. So you can imagine our gradual disappointment as Motel Hell played out: it was a comedy.
We didn't know who to blame. We couldn't remember which of us had read about the movie and recommended it. Maybe we were all guilty. After all, we'd heard there was a guy in the movie wearing a pig mask, attacking people with a chainsaw. How could that not be great? But there were too many pratfalls in the mud, and too many corny jokes. I don't recall how the audience reacted, but our little group slumped out into the parking lot, about as disappointed as any quartet of movie goers could be.
"Some of it was ok," somebody said.
"The cutting out of the vocal cords," someone else said.
We tried to muster some enthusiasm for the guy in the pig mask, and we all agreed that the beautiful Elaine Joyce, queen of TV game shows and 'Love Boat' episodes, was a delight. But our comments were empty. We were just trying to see the best in something that would go down as one of the great disasters of our young movie going lives.
Over the years, though, the movie occupied a place in my heart. It reminded me of fun times, and Fangoria magazine, and the maniacal promise that all horror movies offer just moments before you step in to the darkness of the theater. I remember thinking in those days, with the release of each new horror movie, that maybe this time I'd be shaken and changed forever. Deep down, I desired to be carried out of the theater on a stretcher, paralyzed with fright, images from the movie burned into my brain, ruining me.
And if not for a few twists of fate, Motel Hell might have been the film to do it.
The original screenplay by Robert Jaffe and Stephen-Charles Jaffe was much darker than the finished product. It was rumored to be far more violent, and even included scenes of bestiality. It was not played for laughs. Tobe Hooper, who'd directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was originally slated to direct the picture for Universal. This, I think, is the movie I would have enjoyed.
The Jaffe brothers were relatively new in Hollywood - Robert had adapted a Dean Koontz novel for the Julie Christie film, Demon Seed (1977), while Stephen had served as a producer on that film, as well as Time After Time (1979), a well-regarded time travel film starring Malcom McDowell. The Jaffes' dad, Herb, was also a producer, having helmed The Wind and the Lion (1975). All three Jaffes were aboard for Motel Hell, but once Universal understood what the grotesque feature was all about, the production was canceled. Without Universal's backing, Hooper also moved on. The project was suddenly without a director or a distributor. More time passed. Finally, in March 1980, a British director happened to be in LA, looking for work.
Kevin Connor was 43 at the time, with a few movies under his belt, including an excellent Amicus anthology called From Beyond The Grave (1974). With no jobs coming his way, he visited his agent, Bobby Litman. When Connor moaned about his lack of work, Litman told him about an opportunity to direct a horror film. This turned out to be Motel Hell, which had been languishing for nearly two years without any takers. Connor met with the Jaffes, showed them a print of From Beyond The Grave, and talked them into turning their screenplay into a "black comedy" and "removing all the unnecessary crudeness."
I have a feeling that the unnecessary crudeness is what I missed.
A comfortable five week shoot ensued. The majority of exteriors and location filming were shot in Northern California in Canyon County. The ranch house of the Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, California acted as the motel office; a nearby stables doubled for the motel itself. Interiors of the motel, farm, and smokehouse were filmed on constructed sets at Laird International Studios in Culver City.
Veteran cowboy star Rory Calhoun was onboard as Farmer Vincent (after Harry Dean Stanton had turned the role down), and Nancy Parsons was cast as Vincent's degenerate sister Ida. Paul Linke, a college friend of Robert Jaffe, was cast as Vincent's younger brother Bill, the hero of the piece. Linke dropped 25 pounds to play the role (he was probably best known to audiences as Grossman on NBC's 'CHIPS'.) Playboy Playmates Monique St. Clair and Rosanne Katon had small roles, as did famous radio personality Wolfman Jack. (Look for John Ratzenberger of 'Cheers" fame in a small role, too.)
United Artists released the movie in Oct. 1980, and it slowly worked its way across the country. Motel Hell enjoyed a small success - the movie cost about three million, and made about six. It wasn't enough to spawn a franchise, but it wasn't a loser. UA had to be happy with a film that earned back more than double its production costs with a minimum of fuss.
The story: Vincent and Ida run a roadside establishment called Motel Hello, but the "O" has shorted out in the neon sign, thus we get the film's title. The motel is just a front, though, for Vincent makes most of his money by selling his world famous smoked fritters. His secret? He mixes pork with human flesh. His trick is to set traps on the road near the hotel, where unsuspecting drivers inevitably wipe out. Vincent drags the bodies to his special garden, buries them up to their necks, and cuts their vocal cords so they can't scream for help. Why bury them? So he can feed them and fatten them up like captured veal. When one of his intended victims turns out to be a pretty young blond woman, he falls in love with her. This, of course, creates problems.
The film has a black comedy feel that seems ripped from the pages of old EC comics. Whatever violence or sexuality there may be is more laughable than visceral. But the tongue in cheek humor that Connor was so proud of left a few critics scratching their heads. From The NY Times News Service: "There are liberal dashes of intentional humor that make one wonder whether the movie is not laughing at itself. If it is, it is not laughing nearly hard enough, so the innocent bystander is uncertain whether he is watching sly merriment or serious mayhem..."
Strangely, Roger Ebert practically swooned over it, calling it "a welcome change of pace," and adding that "most of the sleazoids would be a lot more fun if they didn't take themselves with such gruesome solemnity."
Of more importance to the movie's status was the recognition given to it by the horror cognoscenti, perhaps most notably in Phil Hardy's excellent 'Encyclopedia of Horror Movies', a landmark tome that belongs on the bookshelf of any horror buff. It described the final chainsaw battle as "one of the truly great moments in the Grand Guignol pantheon." Hardy's book also described the satirical aspects of the film as 'pretty juicy," and Vincent's belief that he was doing the country some good was, "the epitome of Reagan's America." Never mind that the script was written during the Carter administration; the film's supporters latched onto the idea that the story was a social statement. As one American critic put it, the movie's "eerie ambience shows America and its simple minded ideals through puke colored lenses."
Whether Motel Hell was a successful satire or not, it attained cult status over the years for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that it received an X-rating in England. Motel Hell wasn't on the list of VHS movies banned during the U.K.'s infamous "video nasty" era, but it seemed to benefit from the hype, as did most gory horror movies of the era.
In Great Britain the movie was released on tape in the early 1980s, still saddled with the X, meaning the movie was not suitable for youth below 18. Until 1982 the X certificate existed and was replaced by the 18 certificate of the BBFC. This version was slightly censored, which created a mythology that an uncut version existed. The excised footage, not more than a few seconds, had to do with a scene where Farmer Vincent accidently guts himself with his own chainsaw. Another factor that added to Motel Hell's legend was the word "cannibalism," which always cropped up in stories about the film. Missing footage and cannibalism could only whet the appetites of gorehounds. When the movie occasionally appeared on American television, usually late at night on some far flung cable channel, it would be heavily edited, creating more interest, and frustration, for aficionados. In 2002 the film was finally released on a DVD double bill with Deranged, giving a new generation, and an old one, a chance to see what the fuss was about.
Ultimately, the film has earned its reputation because it's pretty good. Despite my initial reaction, it's a solid movie with some strong flourishes. For me, the real star of the film is Nancy Parsons as Ida. She's a great heel, mixing in just the right amount of comical villainy with downright sadism. The scene where she invites Vincent's new girlfriend out for a swim and then tries to drown her is nearly perfect. I'll always wonder what the original screenplay might have been like, but there's plenty to like in Motel Hell. Cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth created a cheesy post card feel for the movie which worked beautifully, and there are a couple of scenes that are exceptionally good, particularly when we see the buried victims, their heads visible above the dirt, articulating their pain in horrific gurgles.
The Jaffes didn't do much writing after Motel Hell, but the father and son producers remained busy during the next two decades. Their combined resumes include such hefty titles as Night Flyers, The Lords of Discipline, Ghost, Near Dark, Star Trek VI, Strange Days, Fright Night, Fright Night Part 2, and The Fly II. As for Connor, he established himself as a prolific television director.
Motel Hell has its moments. Unfortunately, I came of age during a time when horror movies were rather gloomy and serious, and I had no patience for a feature littered with campy jokes. I'll always think the tale of Farmer Vincent and his fritters could have been better. When I watched Motel Hell recently, I couldn't help thinking there was a good horror movie in there trying to get out, the Jaffe's original script still trying to be heard. In a way, like one of Vincent's victims, its own throat had been cut.
Motel Hell was released on Blu-ray by Scream Factory in Aug. 2014. It's also available on many streaming services, including Xfinity VOD.