Horror spoofs have been around almost as long as horror movies. In 1925, a silent parody of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde called Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde was made, starring none other than Stan Laurel in the titles role(s). The horror parody subgenre is still going strong, as evidenced by this year’s brilliant What We Do in the Shadows. Along the way, there have been spoofs of every type of horror movie, from the paranormal (Saturday the 14th) to the slashers (Student Bodies) and everything in between (30 Nights of Paranormal Activity with the Devil Inside the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Horror parodies can even start successful franchises, as has been the case with Scary Movie and A Haunted House. But, the best parodies are the ones that fool the viewer into actually being scared while they’re laughing. That’s what the 1980 horror comedy Motel Hell does.
Motel Hell is about a farmer named Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun from Night of the Lepus) and his sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons from Porky’s), who own a motel called Motel Hello (but the O on the sign is burnt out – get it?). Farmer Vincent is known around the county for his delicious smoked meats. What his customers don’t know is that he uses human flesh for his fritters, setting traps on the road and capturing those who are unfortunate enough to fall into them. Once caught, Vincent buries his victims up to their necks in a “human garden,” keeping them alive until they are ready to be “harvested.” When a motorcycle is caught by one of Vincent’s traps, the farmer finds himself taken with the female passenger, a lovely young woman named Terry (Time Walker’s Nina Axelrod) whom he sets up in a room in the motel to recuperate. Vincent’s brother, Bruce (Paul Linke from “CHiPs”), who also happens to be the sheriff of the town, shows up and also becomes smitten with Terry. Thus begins a strange love triangle between Farmer Vincent, his captive Terry, and Sheriff Bruce, with jealous sister Ida on the outside looking in. Oh, there is still a crop of live people waiting to be harvested for their meat in Vincent’s field.
With its script written by Robert Jaffe (Nightflyers, Demon Seed) and his brother, Steven-Charles (who also collaborated with him on Scarab), Motel Hell is essentially a mock-up of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Psycho, although it’s got bits and pieces of plenty of other fright flicks in there as well (no spoilers, but it essentially becomes a zombie move by the end). Director Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave, At the Earth’s Core) takes the campy script and gives it a visual shot of dark horror while keeping the actor’s performances strictly tongue-in-cheek, so the resulting film is the epitome of a horror comedy; it goes from laugh to scream at the drop of a hat.
The iconic image of Motel Hell is Farmer Vincent wielding a chainsaw while wearing a pig’s head. Interestingly enough, although this is the most memorable mental snapshot of the movie, it only appears late in the third act; Farmer Vincent doesn’t stick his head into a pig every time he kills, he only does it for the grand finale of the film. Vincent does use his chainsaw in other scenes in the movie, but the pig’s head scene is still the most fun to watch because it features the most awesome chainsaw fight this side of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. It may only be for a short time, but Farmer Vincent works the hell out of that chainsaw and pig’s head.
The four main characters in Motel Hell are all played by actors and actresses who, in one way or another, are part of the pop culture lexicon, whether it’s Grossman from “CHiPs” (Paul Linke) or Balbricker from Porky’s (Nancy Parsons). But the familiar faces don’t stop there. Legendary seventies disc jockey Wolfman Jack makes an appearance as a perverted preacher. John Ratzenberger from “Cheers” shows up as the drummer of a band who falls into one of Vincent’s traps. Playboy’s 1979 Playmate of the Year Monique St. Pierre and stuntman-turned-actor Everett Creach (The Dark, Prophecy) also show up in small roles. It may not have a bunch of huge-budget talent, but Motel Hell has just the right combination of quirky cast members.
The technical aspects of Motel Hell are all fantastically done. The film was shot by cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth (Stand by Me, The Running Man), who uses fun tilts and pans along with colorful neon and strobe lighting to give the picture a typically eighties quality. Most of the budgetary constraints of the film are hidden by the skillful editing of Bernard Gribble (The Sentinel, Tales That Witness Madness); each kill shot seems to cut away right before anything graphic is shown, forcing the audience to imagine the worst while doing away with the need for expensive special makeup effects. And the score, composed by Lance Rubin (Happy Birthday to Me), is both melodic and dissonant, providing a hauntingly eerie backdrop for the dark and spooky visuals. The solid filmmaking in Motel Hell provides a sturdy foundation for the grim story and the corny performances.
There’s a thin line between comedy and horror. When it’s not walked properly, the movie becomes a farce. But when it is done right, you get a movie like Motel Hell.