Hell is in Hello: “MOTEL HELL” (Connor, 1980)

Lee Marvin “sang” these words in the musical Paint Your Wagon:

Do I know where Hell is? Hell is in hello…

Don’t know whether Director Kevin Connor got the idea from Lee Marvin, but he certainly borrowed from Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with an actual chainsaw duel between two brothers featuring at the climax of the film. Texas, in its own low budget way, revolutionised the horror genre, introduced slashers, and let us in on the world of the neglected, socially isolated “flyover zone” cannibal.

It’s also a spoof on Psycho – the killer in the motel, the unsuspecting travellers. You might also call it a precursor of the film Delicatessen that was considered on this blog last week: once again there are rooms for rent, human meat for sale.

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The motel is actually called MOTEL HELLO but the “O” keeps flickering off, thus giving the sinister name, and the title of the film.

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Vincent (Rory Calhoun) is a neo-lib dream: an entrepreneur who relishes his freedom to do whatever he likes in the name of business. The hidden hand of the market is his, and that hand carries a shotgun, or sometimes a chainsaw. Vincent runs the motel, but in his spare time (of which he has plenty) he ambushes motorists and stores them until he slaughters them and sells their flesh in his butcher shop as FARMER VINCENT’S SMOKED MEATS.

Simpsons fans will know Rory Calhoun of course!

Farmer Vincent’s is a family business, and Vincent’s sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) is involved in the process, which involves burying the victims up to their necks in the garden and cutting their vocal chords so they can’t make a fuss, then feeding them up like hogs until they are fat and edible. But Vincent fancies one of the victims, Terry (Nina Axelrod) and asks Ida to help her heal from the accident he caused. His kid brother Bruce (Paul Linke) is the local sheriff, and is as clueless as we expect local sheriffs to be, but he soon develops a crush on Terry. But she develops a crush on Vincent, so we know that (murder and cannibalism aside) there’s going to be trouble.

In a scene that perfectly parodies slasher movies, two little girls sneak into the smoking room, and with the requisite spooky backing track, are terrified by the scenes of carnage they see there – a lot of dead pigs. Only pigs, we might chuckle but, for Vincent, pigs and people are just the same: dumb animals good for nothing except slaughter and smoking for profit.

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Terry is pretty upset about losing her boyfriend (to whom she was not married, the religious Vincent notes), but he convinces her that being with them is “preordained”

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“Ah, the ways of the Lord are mysterious!”

Vincent’s methods of harvesting meat animals are not too particular: the local meat inspector who gets too nosy, a bus full of hippie musicians, even a pair of swingers whom he has lured with an ad – all get buried up their necks in the garden, unable to make any intelligible sound.

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He explains to Ida how important his various traps are, because “they give me a chance to be a free agent” and his work will remain special and important. Yep, Vincent is a classic neo-lib. As Ida pulls the latest victims out of the truck toward the holes he has dug, he tells her “plant ‘em!”. As they reflect on the strangeness of the hippies, they chant their motto:

It takes all kinds of critters
To make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!

As Vincent and Ida settle down to “plant” their critters and pull out the scalpels to cut their vocal chords, are they really behaving differently to the farmer who ties down a bull or hog to castrate him or to burn off his horns, or a sheep farmer who cuts hunks of skin off the backside of a lamb because it’s an easy way to avoid fly-strike (and saves money on insecticides)? They cleverly portray the hard work and care of farmers who really can see nothing wrong in the suffering they inflict for the sake of profit. He checks out one victim, smiling “not quite – tomorrow he’ll be ready to become famous.”

Terry asks how Vincent got started in the meat business and he tells her of the days when they couldn’t afford an icebox, and Granny would smoke anything she could catch – chickens, rabbits, frogs. One day, she asked Vincent to do something about an annoying dog who was barking, and that dog ended up smoked too. Did Granny know she was eating a dog, asks Terry, now repulsed, although she has just been enjoying Vincent’s smoked “ham”. Vincent replies:

Why Granny never put any distinctions on any of God’s creatures. She always used to say [Ida and Bruce join in the chant] MEAT’S MEAT, AND A MAN’S GOTTA EAT!

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Ida doesn’t like the wheezing and hissing noises the captives make as they try to talk without vocal chords. Vincent replies “They’re good animals! Not like taking care of chickens, or hogs.” Ida asks: “Vincent, do you think in the years to come people will appreciate us for what we’re doing here?” She goes on “Somebody’s gotta take a little responsibility for the planet!” Vincent and Ida are also ecologists, performing a valuable service by combating the scourge of human overpopulation.

The action is interspersed with the seemingly continuous telecast of a televangelist on the TV. Also with cannibal puns: as the swingers get ready for what they expect will be a wild evening (it will, but not quite as they hoped), Ida tells them “you look good enough to eat”. And the final credits roll to the Kregg Nance song “You’re eating out my heart and soul”.

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People certainly don’t like the idea of cannibalism, but they usually find it hard to articulate what is wrong with it, compared to eating other “critters”. For most, it is enough to say it is taboo, but that really begs the question. The genius of this film is that Vincent is not the usual psychotic serial killer type of cannibal. He is good humoured, kind, and has a strong sense of morality, seen in his choice of religious programs, as well as his shock when Terry comes on to him – he recoils, saying “we should be married first”.

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Well, they are going to get married, by none other than the local pastor, played by the legendary Wolfman Jack, a gravelly voiced DJ of the golden age of Rock.

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Ida drugs Terry, so that she and Vincent can go prepare the meat for the wedding feast. Vincent insists on offering his victims a humane death – he believes that “no animal should ever suffer any unnecessary pain”. Well, we nearly all believe that! Just a question of semantics – define ‘animal’. Define ‘pain’. And define ‘unnecessary’.

Anyway, Bruce is royally pissed off and starts looking for evidence against Vincent, and the “animals” start digging themselves out and staggering about in a scene reminiscent of just about every zombie movie.

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Terry finds out the truth, but it’s her version (what else could it be?) As far as Vincent is concerned, he is just preparing the wedding feast. He says:

Haven’t you ever cleaned a fish? There’s nothing cruel in what I’m doing here. I treat most of my stock better than farmers treat their animals. I don’t feed them chemicals or hormones. When you consider the way the world is today, there’s no question I’m doing a lot of them a big favour.

Terry ask him what right he has to play God. Vincent denies that is what he is doing.

I’m just helping out. There’s too many people in the world and not enough food. This takes care of both problems at the same time.

And that’s Vincent’s truth. And there is some truth in it.

The climax is the two brothers battling it out with chainsaws (a Texas Chain Saw reference) while Vincent wears a pig’s head on his head, which would not help his visual acuity much, but takes us to all sorts of interesting tropes, such as Animal Farm. The shock ending: as Vincent dies, he admits to his whole life being a lie, to being the biggest hypocrite of them all. Why?

My meat. I used – preservatives!

The film received a respectable 70% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The reviews range from “a rather well-executed dark comedy” to “tasteless, gruesomely awkward and moronic.” I liked it because it ticked all the boxes in my quest to understand cannibalism’s undermining of anthropocentrism. And Rory Calhoun is terrific – or as Montgomery Burns would say:

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