Face-Off: Eaten Alive vs. Motel Hell

This being the week of Thanksgiving, when people in the U.S. will be gathering together to eat themselves into food comas, it's only fitting that the films in this week's Face-Off have something to do with eating... And since we're dealing with horror movies here, the things being eaten in these films are human beings. Beyond the shared element of people being munched, both of these films also happen to center on killers who run lodging establishments: in Tobe Hooper's EATEN ALIVE (1976), the killer runs a hotel, and it's pretty obvious what sort of place the killer in Kevin Connor's 1980 film MOTEL HELL runs. Let's find out which one of these establishments provides the better experience.
EATEN ALIVE stars Neville Brand as a odd fellow named Judd, owner of the rundown old Starlight Hotel. Judd does everything by regulation, but these are regulations he made up in his own off-balance mind. He jots down notes on everything that happens, is obsessed with (and lost one of his legs to) the crocodile he keeps in the pond in front of the hotel, and can slip into a homicidal rage at a moment's notice, especially if he suspects a woman works at the nearby brothel. Judd has some major hang-ups. Brand does a fantastic job in the role, proving he can play psycho with the best of them.
Played by Rory Calhoun, pig farmer Vincent Smith is an affable, old-fashioned guy who you would never suspect of being a murderer. His sister Ida (Nancy Parsons), who lives with him on the farm and helps him run the titular MOTEL HELL (it's actually Motel Hello, but the neon sign's last O is on the blink), is more noticeably off-kilter, but not too bad. Vincent treats the murders he commits as if they're the same as any other part of farm life, which just means he a more subtle sort of psycho than killers like Judd. That makes him scarier, because this guy can blend in with regular people.
The oddball hotel owner attracts some oddball clientele, many of which are played by familiar faces - among others, there's Robert Englund as ornery good ol' boy Buck, THE HILLS HAVE EYES' Janus Blythe as his lady friend Lynette, and Marilyn Burns, William Finley, and Kyle Richards as a mind-bogglingly strange family. It's really cool to see all these genre stars (some of whom weren't yet genre stars) packed into the same film, and each of them plays a memorable part in some way. Englund delivers a line that has become quite famous, while Finley will have you WTFing during his scenes.
While most of Vincent's victims aren't people who stay in the motel, they're all kept on his property for a while. We don't get to know much about them, since their vocal cords are severed and they're kept buried in a secret garden with bags over their heads. The focus is on the farmers, but a couple who do make an impression are a pair of hilarious swingers who get out the whip, oil, and plastic clothing before Vincent and Ida bust in on them. Vincent also "saves" a young woman from a motorcycle crash and brings her home to stay with him. In a confounding twist, she falls madly in love with him.
Judd manages to kill several people over the course of the film, despite displaying a good deal of incompetence in the process. He hacks people up with farming implements, his favorite weapon being a scythe. In the best kill of the movie, this scythe is stuck through a man's neck, in one side and out the other. A lot of times, though, Judd misjudges the swing of his scythe and it either comes up short or gets blocked by something he didn't realize was in the way.
Vincent doesn't kill his victims outright, instead subduing them so he can keep them in his garden until it's time for slaughter. Because of that, what would usually be kill scenes are trapping scenes, and Vincent has several methods of gathering victims from a road near his farm. He shoots out tires, places bear traps, and blocks the road with wooden cutouts of animals. Planted victims are later killed by having their necks broken with a rope attached to a tractor. Simple and quick.
Anybody who dies at the Starlight Hotel gets fed to Judd's tourist attraction crocodile. As Judd says, that croc "don't make no distinctions" and will eat anything it's given... or anything that gets too close to its pond. This thing seems to be insatiably hungry, too. It can eat multiple people and a dog all within hours of each other. There are a couple shots where the crocodile looks less than real, but its munching scenes are effective overall.
Vincent was raised by a grandmother who made no distinctions about what sort of meat she smoked, and he follows her example. He found that human flesh was damn tasty when smoked and mixed with pork, and he didn't keep this to himself. He has a popular line of smoked meats that can be purchased within a 100 mile radius of his farm. That's the great, sick joke at the heart of this film: Vincent is making a whole lot of people into unwitting cannibals.
Director Tobe Hooper and cinematographer Robert Caramico took full advantage of the fact that Starlight Hotel existed only on a soundstage, lighting the place in an unnatural, otherworldly way. The score by Hooper and Wayne Bell adds to the otherworldy feel, as does the quirky behavior of the characters. EATEN ALIVE tells a simple story, but does so within an intensely weird film. This is a weirdness that I find appealing and recommend that other horror fans experience, but some may find it off-putting. The one thing that has a negative effect on viewings for me is the amount of downtime in the film, scenes of Judd mumbling to himself (although he is entertaining) and of the hotel occupants settling in. It's not exactly great, but it's still one of my favorites.
Don't let MOTEL HELL's pleasant down home charm fool you; this a really weird film itself. How else could you describe a movie about a kindly farmer who keeps voiceless, gargling people buried in his garden and treats them no differently than his pigs? Much like Farmer Vincent himself, it puts on a soothing facade of normalcy, then sneak attacks you with things that are outlandish and insane. It's a little too long at 101 minutes, but the wacky characters, disturbing visuals, baffling plot points, and strong sense of humor will carry you through to the unforgettable climax of a cackling Vincent, wearing a pig's head over his own, having a chainsaw duel with the film's hapless hero. MOTEL HELL isn't a film I can revisit often, but I enjoy it when I do.
MOTEL HELL is rightfully a cult classic and has lots of memorable moments and quotable lines, but EATEN ALIVE is the film I'm drawn back to more often - I'd rather bask in that strange atmosphere with Judd and the croc than hang out on the farm with Vincent and Ida.

Do you agree that the Starlight Hotel provides a better stay than Motel Hello, or would you have given the win to MOTEL HELL? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts on these films. If you'd like to send in suggestions for future Face-Off articles, you can contact me at [email protected].



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