When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
MOTEL HELL (1980) and the Shock of the New

Director Ang Lee’s 1997 film THE ICE STORM dramatized the risks and perils of Modernity.   Today when “new” means “contemporary” and Modern is out-dated — losing its power to the next wave, PostModernism — it’s hard to conceive or convey what Modernism was all about.   THE ICE STORM laid bare the personal perils in the 1970s due to social pressures in the Modern Era to embrace things that had never been tried before.   Unlike the cut-and-paste mentality of PostModernism (where anyone can collage an identity from a civilization’s library of attitudes and ideas) Modernism and its era demanded to invent and experiment on a continual basis:  instead of mash-ups, the pressure was to produce a surging Niagara of the New, the Newer, the Newest.  

Made at the tail-end of the Modern Era, the grindhouse classic MOTEL HELL conveyed that sense of generating Newness in concept and execution.

MOTEL HELL is a great example of that era’s notions of push the envelope and always keep moving.  There’s not a knowing wink at the audience, no arch humor based on the viewer understanding he’s seeing a Culture Jam, no sense of “You know what’s coming next.”  It is a movie comprised of scene after scene attempting, on one lever or another, to do something never tried before.

Nothing, of course, is totally original.  And MOTEL HELL definitely leveraged the momentum of several movies made before it.  Yet the movie left those roots in the planning stage and created its own voice.

While the movie’s Homebase Idea of a No-Way-Out roadside lodging run by a maniac definitely owed its existence to Hitchcock’s Bates Motel, MOTEL HELL‘s roots ran deep into history.  Many slash-and-gore films were based on real persons and true events.  While PSYCHO and later films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE were inspired by Wisconsin loner/serial-killer/human-flesh-petrifier Ed Gein and James Landis’ 1963 THE SADIST was a reworking of the accounts of Badlands-killer Charles Starkweather, MOTEL HELL was a product of another true life serial killer, Sawney Beane, whose tale had become a horror movie subgenre in its own right.

Sawney Beane (and Mrs. Beane carrying severed limbs into the family cave)

Sawney Beane (and Mrs. Beane carrying severed limbs into the family cave)

Sawney Beane, the 16th century Scotsman who ambushed highway travelers at night, then cooked and served the bodies to his cave-dwelling family, spawned a string of 20th century horror-and-gore movies profiling artfully deceitful rural cannibals who prey upon passing motorists (beginning with Wes Craven’s 1977 THE HILLS HAVE EYES).

Along with Craven’s work, other ‘seventies movies had opened a door for MOTEL HELL to pass through.   The Grindhouse Overdrive of that decade had produced films that re-sized classic Hollywood careers to fit the two-dollar-a-ticket crowd.   1977’s SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS boasted Yvonne DeCarlo, Charlie Chaplin’s son Sydney, and two Oscar-nominated actors:  John Ireland and Jack Kruschen.  [MOTEL HELL‘s leading man was ‘fifties lover-boy Rory Calhoun, who may have set some sort of record by appearing opposite Marilyn Monroe in three films.]   1978’s HALLOWEEN and the following year’s WHEN A STRANGER CALLS had cemented the equation that a sweet young girl in danger of being hacked to death could equal screams in the audience and megabucks at the box office.   Yet MOTEL HELL didn’t clue in the audience that its experience was part of that genre, or that it owed something to those films. Its aim was to scare a lot of people and make a lot of money by offering something new.

To be sure, it’s a flawed work.  The setups and payoffs could easily have benefited from a couple more re-writes.  But the script riffs brilliantly on late ‘seventies obsessions of diet and sex.   That’s another unique quality of this film:  in several ways MOTEL HELL pulled horror/gore writers and directors away from making films that simply freaked-out and grossed-out the audience, and into the realm of Slasher Films that (in addition to the gore) were presented and enjoyed as mischievous entertainment.  It’s a multi-purpose film (comedy, gross-out, social commentary, thriller) that pushed the genre towards the repackaging / reintroduction / re-combination game that movies like this have become.

Savor its trailer:

Industry buzz says a remake of MOTEL HELL is in development.  It’ll be interesting to see if it will borrow a lot, and refer to a lot from other films, or whether it will keep the Modern spirit.   But then, just the fact that the movie is being re-fashioned, re-marketed and re-introduced says a lot about the cultural shift of the last 30 years.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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