The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the quintessential barbecue horror movie, if such a thing exists. It may even be surprising to learn that there are others, but Texas is a benchmark in the wide spectrum of food industry horror. There’s so much horror already apparent in food and the way that we treat it that none of these pictures seem like too much of a stretch. That’s a large part of what makes them scary. Motel Hell might not sound like it, but it’s one of the very best. It really is an intelligent satire. Rory Calhoun’s Farmer Vincent owns a motel, sure, but what he’s really known for is his smoked meats. If there’s anything that falls flat in Motel Hell, it’s really that the motel is an afterthought. It’s much more focused on sending up and commenting on the meat industry. And that’s where it shines.
The secrets to Vincent’s smoked meats have been passed down through his family. His brother, the local sheriff, is jealous that he is not in on the recipe to the point where it is a sort of obsession for him. It becomes worse when Vicent rescues a young woman who he takes under his wing. Bruce, the dear brother, instantly falls for her, but she only has eyes for the much older Vincent. There’s a surprising amount of soap opera drama for an early slasher, as Vincent’s oafish sister Ida is also seething with jealousy over the relationship.
The character drama seems almost out of place, but is actually incredibly fitting. This is a commentary on not just what goes into our food, but on the entire meat industry. There’s inherent jealousy there. Vincent’s recipe seems to be directly tied to his young girlfriend, there are many inherent similarities. Particularly in how closely he guards them. It may seem strange that a central female character can be likened to the Colonel’s blend of herbs and spices, but it is a movie about cannibalism, after all.
That’s the obvious secret of Farmer Vincent’s fine smoked meats. They are the guests of his motel. Stragglers, people who are lost and needing assistance, or the people that nobody would miss. They all get added to the menu. Unlike most cannibalism films, we see Vincent’s treatment of these people clear as day. They aren’t simply caught and killed. That’s where the satire—as well as the jet black humor—really shines.
The victims of Motel Hell are given the full slaughterhouse treatment. They are confined in a small space from which they cannot escape—instead of being penned, they are buried up to their necks in the dirt, which is a symbolism of its own—and are kept alive and fed regularly until it is time to send them off to slaughter. They are treated exactly like cattle. Even in a movie that has a strong sense of humor, this is incredibly disturbing.
It’s a treatment of people that we never get to see in this kind of thing, at least not in 1980. It could be argued that the basic point of a slasher is to set people up as though they were in a slaughterhouse, but it’s one thing to make allusions and another to actually see humans get the exact same treatment as the animals they eat.
Unlike Bruce, Ida is aware of the recipe and all that goes into it. She is right there beside Vincent every step of the way. These siblings in particular represent the kind of takeover that happens regularly in the food industry.
One doesn’t know the secret ingredient—something that every single establishment from fast food to food trucks seem to contain—and will do anything to find out, the other knows but seems to bide her time until she can take it for herself. While they may not always happen on such an aggressive scale, these things are nonetheless a part of the process that goes into making your favorite snacks.
Motel Hell is bitingly funny, absurdly campy and in its earnest depiction of these things it can even be genuinely scary. The ending sums up the entire point of the feature, with Vincent using his last moments to utter the deathbed confession, “I used preservatives.”