Friday, January 27, 2017

Earnest and Gallows - MOTEL HELL

It’s rare to find a truly amiable villain in horror movies.  Oh, they might seem nice... at first.  Terry O’Quinn seemed like the perfect catch at the beginning of THE STEPFATHER (if you ignore the part about him murdering his old family).   Chucky promised to be Andy’s friend to the end (slight exaggeration).  And has there ever been as swell a guy as Edward Hermann in the LOST BOYS, with his dream of a modern, blended (vampire) family?  Sooner or later, though, the facade begins to crack, and the darker motives start to bleed through.  Pleasantness gives way to crazy.  Except of course in the 1980 black comedy horror, MOTEL HELL, where pleasant and crazy are bound together in the same package.

The Capsule:
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) is about the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.  He is always ready to give you a warm smile, a gracious word, and a cozy room at the Motel Hello (he really needs to get the blinking “O” on the sign fixed).  On top of that, he's the founder of Farmer Vincent’s Smoked Meats, known far and wide as the tastiest treat anyone can put in their mouth.  His sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons), might seem a little strange, what with her habit of scaring the crap out of young children while wearing a pig’s head, and his younger brother Bruce (Paul Linke) may be a complete doofus (and the local sheriff), but Vincent goes out of his way to make everyone welcome.  This is because he knows, “it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”  Critters like a Russian themed punk band, some ski bunnies, a couple of swingers, and a nosy Health Inspector.  But when one of his late night hunting trips bags the beautiful, free spirited Terry (Nina Axelrod), Vincent sees more to her than just culinary potential.  He heals her up, lets her help around the farm, and lavishes her with attention.  Terry falls hard for the kind old gentleman, but how is she going to react when she finds that Vincent is grooming her to take over the family business?

The best villains are the ones who do not think they are villains.  Some, like The Walking Dead’s Negan, believe they have to do a little (or a lot of) bad to insure the safety of their people.  Some, like SEVEN’s John Doe, think they are on a righteous mission of vengeance.  Then there’s Vincent, the sweetest little cannibal ever.  His cognitive dissidence is so strong that he thinks his worst crime is adding preservatives to his smoked meats.  Rory Calhoun, best known from that Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns describes a puppy as “standing there like a little Rory Calhoun,” plays Vincent like the grampa you always wished you had.  He is always smiling, a little cornball, and never irritated.  It’s not just an act, either.  Vincent is a absolute sweetheart.  If this were a normal horror movie, he would be the first one killed.

It’s just an unfortunate fact that strangers are the secret ingredient to his widely loved meat products.  The movie never mentions how Vincent discovered the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup style mix-up.  All we need to know is this is a man dedicated to supplying the tastiest smoked meats humanly possible

(and helping ease overpopulation as a bonus).  In his mind, depriving the public of his goods is a worse crime than some innocent kidnapping, murder, and enabling mass cannibalism.  He even tries to be humane to his livestock.  He plays soothing New Age music after planting them up to their neck in his secret garden.  Sure, he slices their vocal cords to keep the noise down, but it’s done with anesthetic and the sure hand of his sister Ida.  Even when it is time for slaughter, he uses some psychedelic gizmos to put everyone in a trance before snapping their necks.

Ida is a little more of the traditional psycho, though she too seems more reasonable than you would expect—when not lurking behind walls with a meat cleaver.  Nancy Parsons had a very imposing presence (she would go on to portray Ms. Ballbriker in the PORKY’S films), and she gives Ida a certain childlike quality that makes her unpredictable and unnerving.  Aside from a few flashes of jealousy towards Terry,   though, Parsons plays Ida on a fairly even keel.  She is just as dedicated as Vincent when it comes to their life’s calling.  After force feeding the gargling heads in the secret garden, she genuinely asks Vincent if he thinks people will appreciate what they are doing someday.  It’s as if they are trying to cure a disease rather than providing a salty man meat treat.  

She also has some disgusting eating habits, which is saying something for a cannibal.

Vincent’s earnest and upbeat attitude makes it somewhat more believable when Terry doesn’t complain about the MISERY treatment she gets from her caretakers after her accident (which he caused).  He’s so nice to her that she doesn’t want to leave the farm.  Not that she has anywhere to go.  She’s kind of lived out of her motorcycle, and her biker boyfriend is (supposedly) dead.  It’s sweet how they develop a father/daughter bond.

Until things get weird.  Not on Vincent’s part, on Terry’s.  When she (wisely) spurns Bruce’s ham fisted attempts at romance, it seems to be just because he is a horrible, bumbling slimeball.  Then we find out she has more mature taste in men.  The father/daughter thing goes out the window when Terry asks Vincent to become her (literal) Old Man.  I can see why Vincent thought she might be up for being his culinary apprentice.  If she’s ready to marry a 57 year old man she just met a couple of weeks ago, she’s up for anything.

Incidentally, the whole motel angle is kind of irrelevant to the plot.  Vincent acquires most of his victims from traps on the road.  The one exception is the swinger couple, who misidentify Motel Hello as being on their map of “Hot Spots”.  Like Vincent, these two are highly dedicated to their lifestyle.  Once they get into their room, the woman gets into a dominatrix outfit (with whip) and the guy comes out in a leotard, bra, and transparent skirt.  They are actually excited when Vincent and Ida ominously show up to snatch them (“Ooow, you’re into bondage!”).

Another colorful batch of victims is the punk band, Ivan and the Terribles.  The lead singer is the only one really sticking with the Russian motif.  Everyone else is wearing standard late ‘70s punk/new wave outfits, he had an long stringy Rasputin beard glued to his face (not sure if it’s bad stage makeup or bad movie makeup).  I don’t recognize that dude, but I do recognize the drummer, played by Cheers’ John Ratzenberger.  So before he was Hamm in TOY STORY, he was turned into ham in MOTEL HELL.

All of the victims have some sort of mildly questionable moral trait, but that has nothing to do with why they are chosen.  Vincent is purely opportunistic.  It doesn’t matter if they are rude, nosy, or promiscuous.  Vincent doesn’t judge.  He just needs them healthy, and dumb enough to fall for his traps.  One trap involves blocking the road with a line of cardboard cutout cows, so he clearly isn’t culling our brightest minds.

The hero of the movie is in some ways worse that the villain.  Bruce is a complete hayseed goofball and an attempted date rapist to boot.  It’s painfully obvious why Terry would choose Vincent over him.  He spends most of the movie being petulant and jealous of his (much) older brother.  Bruce is the only person in the movie Vincent gets annoyed with.  He even fumbles his way through the climactic chainsaw fight.  It’s hard not to look badass when in a chainsaw fight, but Bruce somehow manages.  

Director Kevin Connor, who’s done a ton of TV movies you’ve never heard of, nails the tone.  It is much more of a black comedy than horror, but it does have just enough of the ‘70s exploitation grit to keep things feeling a little queasy.  While it rarely gets scary, the climax is a 100% handcrafted nightmare.  [SPOILER FOR SOMETHING SHOWN ON THE BLU RAY COVER] Bruce finally pieces together what has been happening (for the last twenty years) and confronts Vincent in the smoke house.  As he is untying Terry (who it turns out does not want to be in cannibal food service) Vincent bursta out of the back room wearing a bloody pig head and holding a huge chainsaw.  

Confession: when I was a little boy, I saw the pig head image on the cover of Fangoria and it scared the shit out of me (the MANIAC poster did the same thing).  So yes, this scene might have had more impact on me than a normal person, but that scene is insane.  It takes the whole movie for Vincent to crack, but when he does, he cracks big.  Immediately after the pig head comes off, though, I’m back to feeling sorry for him.  I can’t remember if Rory Calhoun was nominated for an Oscar that year, but if he wasn’t, he deserved it.  Marlon Brando never elicited that kind of sympathy while half cut in two by a chainsaw.  And isn't that the real test of an actor's craft?

C Chaka

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