Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Halloween 2015: September 27

Motel Hell (1980)

I swear I don’t have a weird personal connection to every movie I review. Yet, here we are again. “Motel Hell” will always stick in my mind for two different reasons. Firstly, I can recall seeing a clip of the movie as a kid, probably during a promo for MonsterVision. It was the scene of Farmer Vincent stepping out of the butcher shop, chainsaw in hand and bloody pig head on his shoulder. That image didn’t scare me exactly but it definitely stuck with me as gruesomely unnerving. Years later, I would discover that my grandfather – who passed before I was born – loved “Motel Hell,” considering it his favorite horror movie. While I wouldn’t go that far, the movie’s oddball sense of humor has definitely made it a cult favorite.

It takes all kind of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters. Vincent and his sister Ida supplement their just-scraping-by hotel business by selling Vincent’s trademark smoked meats. His sausage, beef jerky, and barbecue are so popular that people come from miles around to try it. What everyone doesn’t know is that there’s a secret ingredient in the farmer’s food… People! Vincent kills ne'er-do-wells from the near-by freeway and cooks them into his ever-popular exports. This is going fine for Vince and Ida – even their cop brother is entirely unawares – until Vince becomes infatuated with one of his female victims, throwing off the motel’s delicate balance.

The backwoods cannibal was already a staple of the horror genre by 1980, thanks to the iconic success of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Hills Have Eyes.” The idea was well-known enough that a piss-take of the subgenre came into existence. Though it comes close, “Motel Hell” never entirely plays it straight. Unlike Leatherface or Jupiter’s brood, Farmer Vincent is genial and welcoming to everyone, serving slaughter with a smile. Though never explicitly said to be inbred, Ida certainly looks like she might be and it’s implied she’s romantically attracted to her brother. Everyone’s love of Vincent’s meats is played for goofball laughs, instead of horror. One scene has Ida hiding a bloody tub full of fingers from the unassuming girl. Giggles coexist with gruesomeness in “Motel Hell,” quite amicably.

And the film certainly has its’ fair share of gruesomeness. Vincent does not murder his ingredients immediately. He, instead, slits their vocal cords and buries them up to their necks, allowing the meat to become tender. The noises the victims make, which sounds like a straw slurping at the bottom of a milkshake, is definitely weird and off-putting. They are kept in a “garden,” burlap sacks over their hissing necks. Near the end, the victims dig themselves up and go on a rampage, zombie movie-style. Coming at the beginning of the first wave of American slasher flicks, the movie’s gore isn’t exactly inconsequential. Whole arms and legs are shoved into meat grinders, heads are chopped, and bloody hatchets are employed. That climatic image, of Vincent with the chainsaw and the pig head, is indeed one of the most unnerving mask an eighties horror killer would ever wear. No wonder lesser disciples, from “Saw” to “Manhunt,” would rip it off.

Yet “Motel Hell” keeps the tone light. Absurd elements are sprinkled throughout. Vincent’s victims are often ridiculous. First-off, we see a totally over-the-top punk band fall to his trap. An extended sequence is devoted to the two kinky swingers who come to the hotel, expecting Vincent and Ida to join in their deprived antics. The couple is into everything, including S&M, bondage, cross-dressing, bestiality, and Sonny Bono mustaches. Before snapping the ingredients' necks with ropes attached to a tractor, Vincent and Ida hypnotize the victims with flashing lights and soothing music. One scene has Vincent confessing how his murderous antics allow him to exercise his creativity. His final line is a punchline to a long running joke throughout the film. “Motel Hell” veers just up against parody, treading the “dark comedy” line very carefully.

The romantic subplot of “Motel Hell” never quite works. Even if he did rescue her life, it seems unlikely that a vivacious young lady like Terry, played by the frequently nude Nina Axelrod, would fall for a considerably older man like Vincent. More confusing, she obviously has feelings for Sheriff Bruce, Vincent’s heroic and boring brother. Then again, without the subplot we wouldn’t have gotten that delightfully scene of Ida attempting to drown the girl while they’re out inner-tubing. Or Wolfman Jack’s extended cameo as a televangelist who is not as virtuous as he appears. Despite a sometimes shaky script, Rory Calhoun holds the entire movie together. Calhoun’s easy-going attitude and ever-present smile makes Vincent seem incredibly friendly, in spite of his murderous ways. Even while tying up the kinky couple, and knocking them out with sleeping gas, he remains charming. Nancy Parson is also amusing as Ida, never afraid to play the part for maximum grotesque gallows’ humor.

Funny, quirky, gory, and the right kind of sick, “Motel Hell” would naturally attract a cult audience, thanks to late night cable screenings and frequent VHS rentals. Stumbling upon the movie in the middle of the night on an obscure movie channel is probably the ideal way to watch it. A remake was announced at one point but has since been abandoned. This is for the best, as I can’t imagine the movie’s delicate mixture of gruesome gore and sick humor making it out of the studio system intact. Instead, kick back with the original and a packet of beef jerky. Because meat’s meat and a man’s gotta eat. [8/10]

The Killer Shrews (1959)

In the long timeline of unlikely film adversaries, “The Killer Shrews” occupies a special place. Reimagining shrews – small fuzzy garden pests – as movie monsters is a terrible idea but not an inconceivable one. Shrews really do have to eat more then their body weight everyday. Some species of shrew are venomous, which is a genuinely weird fact. Though everyone agrees that its premise was a bad idea, “The Killer Shrews” is mostly remembered for its underachieving special effects. The movie is also in the public domain, making it a regular presence on horror host shows. Which is how a movie that otherwise would’ve been obscure remains a well-known point of derision for monster kids everywhere.

Captain Thomas Sherman delivers supplies to a small island in the middle of the ocean. The supplies are for Dr. Cragis, a scientist working on shrinking humans in order to decrease food consumption. Also on the island is Cragis’ daughter, her asshole fiancé, a research partner, and some other people. The result of Cragis’ experiments has caused shrews, common creatures, to grow to the size of wolves. When a hurricane blows in, the group is stranded on the island. And the killer shrews are hungry.

“The Killer Shrews” is barely over an hour but feels much longer then that. Obviously a low-budget film, the filmmakers didn’t even have the funds to make an entire movie about killer shrews. So instead, large portions of this low budget monster movie are a closed room drama. The group of people hang out in the house, drinking alcohol. They argue among themselves. Jerry, Ann’s fiancé, is a total jerk-wad. Ann is immediately attracted to Captain Sherman, which inflames Jerry’s rage. Dr. Cragis details his experiments, showing himself to clearly be mad. A few of the other characters trade tense glances. The cast mostly features TV vets – like future “Dukes of Hazzard” sheriff James Best and “Gunsmoke” regular Ken Curtis – and B-movie actors, like model Ingrid Goude. None of them have much presence, chemistry, or character development, making these early scenes a real drag.

Once the Killer Shrews scamper on-screen, things get a little more amusing. What the film is truly famous for is the questionable methods used to create the Killer Shrews. In close-ups, the shrews are brought to life via mangy hand puppets. At least the puppets are sort of grotesque, with their bulging eyes and extended fangs. In long shots, the Killer Shrews are less convincing. In short, they’re dogs dressed in ratty carpets. They never look like anything other then dogs in ratty carpets. Adding to the oddness is the sounds the critters make, which sounds like car wheels skidding on the freeway. The titular creatures look ridiculous but, like any good B-movie, “The Killer Shrews” just rolls with it. They’re ridiculous threats, even when given venomous saliva, the ability to scratch through walls, and deadly pack-hunting skills.

Despite its reputation as a “so bad, it’s good” classic, “The Killer Shrews” is mostly just boring for most of its run time. Watching the characters argue in a small building or threat about the shrews outside doesn’t make many laughs. The shrews are funny to look at but only the first time you see them. As the film goes on, the melodrama gets more high-strung. Jerry becomes even more of an exaggerated ass wipe, setting himself up for his own demise. The characters start to yell at and belittle each other more, which is usually funny. The solution they come up with to get off the island is truly baffling. The gang welds a series of metal barrels together, crawling under them, and waddles off the island. Well, that’s a unique solution to a problem.

After a lot of boredom, “The Killer Shrews” eventually evolves into a source of unintentional laughter. If the film hadn’t been shown on TV so much over the years, I suspect it would have been forgotten by all but the most die hard monster fanatics. Instead, “The Killer Shrews” is regarded as a minor cult classic. And I guess that’s fair, since those goofy shrews are kind of endearing. The movie even spawned a fifty year later sequel, which traded out dogs in fur coats for really crappy CGI, and somehow got Bruce Davidson to star in it. What a world we live in, with such shrews in it. [5/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Well Cooked Hams

In the world of “Tales from the Crypt,” theatrical performers like magician or clowns are rarely benign and anyone is willing to kill to get ahead, whether it’s financially, professionally, or romantically. Back in the late 1800s, Miles is a floundering stage magician. He is unable to master his magic tricks, despite killing his former mentor for his secrets. Another magician comes into town, the mysteriously accented Kraygen, with an offer to teach Miles’ his best trick. The Box of Death involves a locked box, swinging blades, and a bucket of acid. Soon, Miles kills Kraygen for his secrets too. Naturally, not all is as it seems.

The title of “Well Cooked Hams” is appropriate. This is another “Tales” episode devoted to two hammy actors going head-to-head. Billy Zane, with a ridiculous mustache, plays up all his most unsympathetic attributes, creating a character that is definitely fun to hate. Meanwhile, Martin Sheen has three chances to ham it up, as three different characters. It’s certainly amusing to hear Sheen croak Krayden’s cartoonish German accent. The overheated world of stage magic is well suited to “Tales,” as dramatic reveals and garish production designs appear in both. The script is nothing unexpected. Once again, the bad guy does bad and gets his just desserts. Underrated Bond girl Maryam d’Abo looks great as the magicians’ assistant but isn’t given much else to do. The episode certainly will entertain those who enjoy the “Tales from the Crypt” formula. Part of that formula is the Cryptkeeper cracking silly jokes about learning French, which is always welcomed. [7/10]

So Weird: Exit 13

I’m kind of surprised “So Weird” is just now getting to the “Groundhog Day” story line. While traveling towards Niagara Falls, the Philips family pauses their trip at an unusual rest stop. There, the odd shop-owner sells Annie a strange rock connected to the local American Indian tribe. Once the rock is in her possession, Annie notices that the day keeps repeating. They pull into the same rest stop. Molly’s trash bag splits open every time. Jack spills soda on him. Cary is nearly run over by the tour bus. Only after looking at the strange symbols on the stone does Annie begin to unravel the mystery.

“Exit 13” benefits from being another episode that never tries to scare. (That stupid spirit panther is nowhere to be seen either, which also helps.) The premise is fairly hacky, as every supernatural TV show has to try its hand at the time loop concept. The magic stone is a fairly ridiculous plot device. It moves around on its own, for no defined reason. Annie, and only Annie, can hear the associated spirit cry out. The stone is supposed to an Indian artifact but the carving upon it looks like something a kindergartner would draw. How the mystery is resolved is fairly ridiculous, Annie finding the other half of the stone in a very obvious place. Timothy Webber as Ziegler, the shop owner, gives an overdone performance. However, there are some minor pleasures to “Exit 13” Cary almost being run over every ten minutes provides some decent suspense to the last act. Annie looking up the needed information on the internet is dumb but also in-keeping with the show’s spirit. In fact, it really feels like it’s been too long since someone has looked something up on the internet. This also allows for another text-only cameo from Fiona, for all that’s worth. So it’s not a great episode but, as far as season three goes, I’ll take it. [6.5/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

As a youngster not more than 7 years old, I had to regularly help my Grandpa butcher pigs.

After shooting the pig between the eyes, he would slice behind the pig's Achilles tendons, hook it through the hind legs and drag it by chain with a truck to a large tripod. The pig was then raised high up the tripod with a block and tackle until it hung upside down by its hind legs. The pig would then be repeatedly raised and lowered into a 55 gallon drum of scalding water. This made the course hair of the pig easy to scrape off.

Once that was done, my Grandpa would take a large knife and cut completely around the pig's neck, draining it of blood, cutting deep enough so that only the neck bones were keeping the head intact with the body. When this was completed, my job began.

I would grab the pig by the ears and walk in a circle, twisting the head until I felt its neck bones 'pop'. I would then roll a wheelbarrow under the pig and pull downward on the ears. The head of the pig would fall into the wheelbarrow. Then the pig would be split open and in half with knife, saw, hammer and chisel, and the innards pulled out and plopped into the wheelbarrow.

I would then roll the wheelbarrow away from the butchering site to a nearby swamp, where I would dump the head and guts, leaving them to rot away or be chewed on or pecked at by some wild animal.

I recall my biggest fear was not of the actually killing or butchering of the pig, you get used to that, even as a kid. biggest fear was that I might allow the wheelbarrow to tip over and spill its contents before I reached the swamp. When this happened, I would have to pick up the pig waste and put it back into the wheelbarrow, making sure that I got it to the swamp.

For some reason the horror of "Motel Hell" and Farmer Vincent never bothered me. I'm not sure why.