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A kinder, gentler riff on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Kevin Connor's Motel Hell (1980) remains thirty years later fairly unpalatable and stiff, albeit tendered with a wink and a flesh-eating grin. While echoing the rural dread of Tobe Hooper's infamous endurance test, the film also evokes the Sweeney Todd mythos (Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street had just wrapped its celebrated Broadway run in June of 1980, prior to transferring to London's West End), such bad hospitality films as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and Bud Townsend's The Folks at Red Wolf Inn (1972) and the cannibal thrillers on the order of Laurence Harvey's Welcome to Arrow Beach (1972) and Jeff Gillen's Deranged (1974). The rib tickling tale of a backwoods innkeeper and slaughterhouse permitee who lures unwary travelers through his door and onto his menu, Motel Hell was sold to horror geeks via the coy tagline "It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters."
A former editor who had cut Richard Attenborough's Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and Ennio De Concini's Hitler, the Last Ten Days (1973), Kevin Connor transitioned to the director's chair with a clutch of genre titles, including the Amicus Films anthology From Beyond the Grave (1974), the Edgar Rice Burroughs' adaptations The Land That Time Forgot (1975) and At the Earth's Core (1976) and episodes of Space: 1999. Trying his luck in Hollywood in early 1980, Connor went months without a job offer. Rescue came in the form of an open call from United Artists for a director to helm a horror script written by Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe, sons of veteran film producer Herb Jaffe. After screening From Beyond the Grave for the brothers, Connor got a peek at the script. At that stage, Motel Hell was darker and more disturbing, lacing extreme violence with bestiality. Connor accepted the assignment with one caveat: make it a comedy.Shot on a budget of $3 million, Motel Hell employs a leitmotif of garish neon primaries to add inexpensive production value. Making his feature film debut on the shoot was cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth, son of veteran Hollywood director Roy Del Ruth and later the Emmy winning DP of over a hundred episodes of The West Wing (1999-2006). Exteriors for Motel Hell were lensed on the Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, California, with interiors constructed on sets at Laird International Studio in Culver City. Despite the ghoulish nature of the material, principal photography was a lark for all involved, apart from the unseasonable cold, the eventual spoiling of slaughterhouse meat used as set dressing and the discomfort of supporting actors required to spend their days buried in the ground up to their necks to flesh out Farmer Vincent's garden. The film's infamous dueling chainsaws denouement was a last minute improvisation that became a selling point, thanks in part to the use of an image of a pig-headed combatant on the cover of Fangoria magazine.
A discovery of controversial Hollywood agent Henry Willson, star Rory Calhoun had left his matinee idol days behind him and was engaging with the cult icon phase of his long career. The former Francis Timothy Cuthbert was a familiar face in such drive-in and grindhouse fodder as Night of the Lepus (1972), Revenge of Bigfoot (1979) and Angel (1984), in which he provided care and comfort to a teenage prostitute. Cast as the discomfiting sister of Calhoun's jocular Farmer Vincent was stage actress Nancy Parsons. Cast most often as autocratic nurses, Parsons would achieve her own measure of cult credibility as the apoplectic Beulah Balbricker in Bob Clark's high school comedy Porky's (1982). Second-billed Paul Linke was best known at the time as the comic relief cop on NBC's CHiPs while future Cheers regular John Ratzenberger enjoyed an early role as an ill-fated rock drummer.
Released in October 1980, Motel Hell surfed into cinemas on the wave of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th and Armand Mastroianni's He Knows You're Alone but faced competition from the likes of George Bowers' The Hearse, Charles Kaufman's Mother's Day, Greydon Clark's Without Warning, Vernon Zimmerman's Fade to Black, George Edwards' The Attic, Mike Newell's The Awakening, Ulli Lommel's The Boogeyman and William Lustig's Maniac (among others) in the weeks leading up to the holidays. Surprisingly, Motel Hell bested its rivals, both in box office returns and critical acclaim. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, critic Roger Ebert praised the film's depravity-mitigating sense of humor, proclaiming that "Motel Hell brings to this genre... the refreshing sound of laughter."
Executive Producer: Herb Jaffe
Producers: Robert Jaffe, Steven-Charles Jaffe
Director: Kevin Connor
Writers: Robert Jaffe, Steven-Charles Jaffe
Music: Lance Rubin
Editor: Bernard Gribble
Cinematographer: Thomas Del Ruth
Special Effects: Adams Calvert
Cast: Rory Calhoun (Farmer Vincent Smith), Paul Linke (Sheriff Bruce Smith), Nancy Parsons (Ida Smith), Nina Axelrod (Terry), Wolfman Jack (Reverend Billy), Elaine Joyce (Edith Olson), Dick Curtis (Guy Robaire), Monique St. Pierre (Debbie), Rosanne Katon (Suzy), E. Hampton Beagle (Bob Anderson), Everett Creach (Bo), Michael Melvin (Ivan), John Ratzenberger (Drummer).
by Richard Harland Smith
John Willis' 1981 Screen World, edited by John Willis (Crown Publishers, Inc., 1981)
Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990 by Dennis Fischer (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1991)
Kevin Connor interview by John Kenneth Muir