Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Motel Hell (1980)

The "rural terror" genre is done to near-perfection in this tale of wayward motorists, smoked meats and gurgling heads planted in the garden.

The folksy brother-and-sister proprietors of the rural Motel Hello, Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida Smith (Nancy Parsons), not only provide an out-of-the-way place to stay for travelers, but they run a company called Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats which turns out an array of jerky and other vaguely sausagey products. Customers just can't get enough of that smokey gamey flavor; could it be that their curious appeal lies in a secret ingredient?

We soon discover that all is not harmless twangs and cornpone humor in this neck of the woods when a Mindy Cohn-esque Ida, clad in bulge-hugging denim overalls, repairs to the vegetable garden, where we see a row of small burlap sacks sprouting from the ground. When the bags begin swaying and producing wet moaning sounds, the Smiths' secret is revealed: they've been burying the still-living bodies of car crash victims up to their necks in the soil in preparation for including them in their celebrated meat products. Naturally they've severed their vocal cords first, so they can't call out for help. It never pays to be careless in the smoked meat business.

We see how the whole scam works in deatil when Vincent lays out a series of bear traps across the nearby road, waiting for late-night drivers to be forced into a ditch. Speeding along the highway is none other than a van full of pot-smoking hippie rock musicians, billed on the side of the van as "Ivan and the Terribles." Just as the Smiths' had planned, the van overturns and the dazed/unconscious members of the band are soon prepared for planting, along with the requisite throat surgery. The cannibalistic smoked meat business seems as successful as ever.

Like many family farms and small businesses these days, however, the Farmer Vincent line of pork'n'person treats is threatened. Once craggy, gray-haired Vincent falls for the much younger wife of one of his vehicular victims, his estranged little brother Bruce (Paul Linke), now a cop, decides to intervene. Since running away from the Smith home at age 11, Bruce has harbored dark suspicions about his family. Too young to have learned the horrible secret before leaving home, he dimly begins to process the relevant clues, such as a nearby man-made lake where Vincent and Ida have sunk a couple hundred wrecked cars. Could he, like the rest of town, have unwittingly snacked on their former occupants?

Soon even the paunchy, slow-witted Bruce makes up his mind to confront his deranged siblings and save the day in a climactic showdown with Vincent in the butchering shed. Just as Vince is about to finish up with the reckless band members recently retrieved from garden-tenderizing and now hung torso by torso with care, his little brother bursts into the scene. Each combatant finds his way to the most appropriate weapon at hand, and they are soon engaged in one of the most swashbuckling chainsaw fights in cinematic history. As in all truly life-affirming films, the doughy forces of local law enforcement triumph over the weathered forces of homicidal pork snack products.

Cast notes: Leading man Rory Calhoun had a long and mostly successful career specializing in gritty western roles such as Four Guns to the Border (1954) and Apache Territory (1958), though he also appeared opposite Betty Grable as a handsome forest ranger in 1953's How to Marry a Millionaire. Nancy Parsons, of course, is famous to generations of horny teenagers as Beulah Balbricker from the Porky's franchise. Also making brief appearances are semi-famous rock DJ Wolfman Jack as a sleazy televangelist (is there any other kind?) and John Ratzenberger, later of Cheers fame, as the drummer for Ivan and the Terribles.

The film mixes some truly filthy and bizarre scenes with plenty of oddball weirdness and fortunately, never takes itself very seriously. It's a genre parody that never becomes too knowing and self-referential and therefore manages to be truly entertaining. Recommended to horror fans, meat product enthusiasts and psychotic motel managers.

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