English director Kevin Connor’s schlock comedy Motel Hell (1980) is perhaps best remembered for providing two of horror cinema’s catchiest tag-lines – “Meat’s meat, and a man’s gotta eat” and “It takes all kinda critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters”. However these expressions uttered by the film’s protagonist and his homicidal sister also sum-up the essence of a film which is as unsettling today as it was when first released over thirty years ago. Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) run ‘Motel Hello’, one of the most hospitable roadside hostels in America’s Deep South.
The Smiths are also famous for the spiced meat they make from livestock reared on their own land. People may not be so keen to stop by however if they knew the secret ingredient which goes into Farmer Vincent’s succulent delicacies, and if they realised that by booking into the motel they’ll likely finish up as tomorrow’s ‘dish of the day’. Combining horror and comedy is a difficult act to get right. Too much humour and you end up with something so over-the-top that your audience laughs for all the wrong reasons. The right mix however can result in a film whose disturbing qualities last long after it has finished.
Like a good roller-coaster ride, horror works best when it leaves the viewer smiling.
A strategically placed visual gag or pithy one liner can defuse tension at the ideal moment, disarming the viewer and relaxing them often just before the real fright hits, making it all the more effective. In Motel Hell, screenwriters Robert Jaffe and his brother Steven-Charles – along with director Connor – manage this with aplomb, resulting in a skin crawling combination. Comedy and a disturbingly grimy horror are brought together with memorable effect, whether through the creepy hillbilly siblings or the anticipation as innocent visitors come from miles around to buy Farmer Vincent’s juicy meats.
In the same way that brother and sister combo Vincent and Ida run their lucrative sideline, Motel Hell works because it approaches the whole proceedings seriously – albeit with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. ore-hungry Audiences will have a whale of a time if they watch the film with the same attitude, along with a very large pinch of salt.