Horror films are sold on their macabre imagery. Sometimes the degree of cringeworthiness is the sole selling point needed to entice the target audience. By this standard, Motel Hell delivers. Many films make their victims suffer, but here the torture stretches out for days. Their bodies mutilated in a way still unique even after the ensuing decades brought the torture porn of the 2000s. The final battle between the good and evil forces of the story involves a chainsaw duel where one of the participants wears a hog’s head as a mask. That right there is something you won’t find in any other horror feature.
Motel Hell offers quite a bit more than you’d expect from even outsider horror. It’s conceit, that the signature smoked ham uses humans as a secret ingredient, is not new. Texas Chainsaw Massacre enshrined it as a genre hallmark from the get-go. Motel Hell fleshes out the conceit, showing the lengths goodly Vincent Smith uses to “humanely” fatten his stock. We also get to see the method of dispatch for the victims...
If only the plot itself weren’t dirt-dumb Motel Hell would be a genre classic instead of a curio. After trapping a couple riding through on motorcycle in one of his roadside traps, Vincent decides to keep the pretty blonde Terry at his motel, nurturing her back to health while claiming that her riding companion died on the scene. Despite multiple attempts on her life from Vincent’s sister Ida, Terry falls for the lanky, elderly, Vincent. Somehow unbeknownst to her, Vincent’s been going back to the road to trap other motorists on a nightly basis. The only explanation for Terry’s behavior is a mix of Stockholm Syndrome and sheer stupidity.
Rory Calhoun does manage to imbue a genuine sense of decency into Vincent. I was expecting “evil twin syndrome” or multiple personality disorder to explain the motivation behind his character’s evil deeds. The rest of the cast is largely there. Among the victims, a pre-fame John Ratzenberger (as a drummer in a metal band, natch) put up little fight. Wolfman Jack gets something of a triple cameo, appearing on the radio as himself, and as a televangelist on the TV and in person.