Film Vault: “Motel Hell” (1980)

Courtesy of United Artists

A funny thing happened this past weekend when I visited a haunted forest.

Though Halloween’s approach and its requisite costumes, candy and haunted houses are definitely in style, a haunted forest has a certain charm. Kids run around trying not to soil themselves as Jason and Leatherface impersonators go full bore with fake blood and phony chainsaws.

The filmic references are always in haunted attractions. Freddy-men brandish claw hands while wolves howl in the distance a la the Wolfman. “Psycho,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and, of course, “Halloween” come to mind as great October chillers that get spoofed. But in a haunted forest in Clarkston, Mich., the weirdest, coolest allusion was made as a part of the spectacle.

They made a freakin’ homage to “Motel Hell”!

A woman offered spectators the chance to spend the night so they could be buried later and turned into sausage! What a great idea — and an appropriate reminder of a great movie.

Possibly one of the strangest, most underappreciated genre pieces of the 1980s, “Motel Hell” is a tricky treat. Released in 1980 at the forefront of the slasher film renaissance, “Hell” is a yarn about lonely farmer Vincent Smith (respected TV veteran Rory Calhoun). The slogan pretty much sums it up: “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!”

Vincent and his sister are slightly mental. They trap unsuspecting patrons at their motel, only to turn them into delicious meats later. Victims are buried up to their heads so they can be fed, fattened and eventually filleted. These kooks clearly have to be stopped. But this is just a soft outline for the surrealist horror comedy, unlike anything else released at the time.

Mixing hard-edged horror with sharp laughs, “Hell” is a series of preposterous scenes. Witness a bus of punk rockers get too high to drive and captured because of their stupidity; watch as a health inspector’s need to maintain cleanliness seals his fate; and stare wide-eyed as Farmer Vincent goes ape-shit in a chainsaw fight wearing a pig’s head as a mask. It’s just too bizarre to forget.

And it’s all done in a perfectly ironic manner. You can see how much fun this movie was to make based on the smiles and stammers every actor gives. “Hell” gets everything right within its genre.

The photography is gorgeously dim. The humor is totally deadpan (look for Wolfman Jack as a pervert preacher). The violence and nudity is exceptionally gratuitous, especially in a time when limits were starting to get pushed hard. And the performances are wonderfully bad, in the perfect 80’s way. Maniacal laughing while holding a chainsaw? Oh, it’s too great to pass up.

With Halloween and the proliferation of hackneyed horror, everybody has their preferences. Whether they’re the “Sleepaway Camp” types or the old Universal horror films, there are countless sub-groupings within the tumultuous horror genre. Critics have never been keen on these flicks when they have more prestigious pieces, but it doesn’t matter. There would be no such thing as a cult movie without films like “Motel Hell.”

“Motel Hell” most certainly is a cult movie, and for good reason. It’s just awesome, and the forest in Clarkston seems to think so too.

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