Coming in the middle of the cannibal craze of the ’70s and ’80s, Motel Hell has less interest in graphic exploitation than in a grim portrait of crazy people. Yes, it’s billed as a horror-comedy, and it does contain a few legitimate laughs, but this is a real horror film. It’s more disturbing than traditionally scary, but frankly, that’s the way I like ‘em.

The film opens as a quiet study of Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun — seriously!), a rural motel owner (the title comes from a sign reading MOTEL HELLO, but of course the “O” has burned out) who enjoys the musings of an eerie televangelist who seems to broadcast 24 hours a day. Oh, he also goes out in the middle of the night and kills passing motorists. In his mind, he’s doing God’s work. God wouldn’t let him kill them if they weren’t bad, which is why Terry (Nina Axelrod) changes everything. She survives a motorcycle crash, and Vincent realizes she’s special, and it’s his duty — and God’s will — to nurse her back to health.

Initially terrified of her apparent captor, Terry develops Stockholm Syndrome and decides to stay and work for Vincent and his even creepier sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons). What Terry doesn’t know is that the family harbors a disturbing secret: Farmer Vincent’s smoked meat business — which sells the best meat anyone in the 100-mile radius in which they’re sold has ever tasted — contains a heaping helping of Soylent Green. A recipe passed down for generations, Ida buries the deceased neck-deep in the dirt of a secret garden. Thankfully, the film doesn’t dwell on the details. We’re simply to understand that “planting” them and slitting their throats (apparently so they can stew in their own blood) reanimates them. Ida and Vincent wait until they’re “ripe” before plucking them from the dirt and mixing them with pork.

Ostensibly, the plot revolves around Terry’s ignorance of Vincent’s secret life as she gets closer to him. Really, though, the plot is an afterthought. The film is at its best as a study of a twisted family unit, aided immeasurably by Calhoun and Parsons. This could have easily turned into the obnoxious sort of film where the director strains to mine laughs from the incongruity of characters doing deplorable things in a nonchalant way, but director Kevin Connor allows Vincent and Ida to play everything absolutely straight. Their dialogue during the “processing” scenes is the sort of intentional cheese that could have sunk the entire movie, but it works because Calhoun and Parsons play the characters as people absolutely convinced of their moral righteousness. They don’t mug for the camera.

The film’s third act relies a bit too much on cheesy horror cliches, which may have worked in a more overtly comedic film. Here, I just never got the sense that anyone was trying to be funny. Enough of the film legitimately disturbed me that when the filmmakers started to make the most obvious possible choices, it disappointed me. Once the attempt at plot takes over, it never matches the bizarre depravity of Ida’s garden and Vincent’s slaughterhouse. The rushed happy ending doesn’t help redeem it.

Nevertheless, the majority of Motel Hell works pretty well. Like a low-budget Poltergeist, it manages to combine real laugh lines like “Wow, I’ve never met anyone famous before — how come I’ve never heard of you?” with eerie elements like the grotesque sound of Ida’s “plants” choking on their own blood. It loses some steam in the end, but it’s worth watching for the numerous things it does well in the first 70 or so minutes.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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