Motel Hell (1980) – The Test of Time

The new episode of the Test of Time video series looks back at the 1980 film Motel Hell, starring Rory Calhoun as Farmer Vincent

The episode of The Test of Time covering Motel Hell was Written by Andrew Hatfield, Narrated by Niki Minter, Edited by Mike Conway, Produced by John Fallon and Tyler Nichols, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

Copycat movies have been a thing forever. You can look at the broader scope and consider that most slasher movies became copycat in one way or another. A supernatural killer, excessive gore and nudity, and even the high body counts. That style of horror movies could become a dime a dozen. Twin films are similar, but they are made at roughly the same time and actually trying to release first to beat the other to market so as to not be seen as an attempted clone of the other studios idea. Boiling it down even further, some copycats go beyond just the themes and even try to take direct elements from the previous movie that made money. Italian horror is the king of this, particularly Bruno Mattei with his rip-offs of Terminator and Alien but in 1980, 7 years after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we would get Motel Hell (watch it HERE). It’s a clear rip off of TCM, or is it? It’s a classic right? Or is it. We’ll take a look at just how well it stands the Test of Time.


Some movies go beyond their rating and critical reviews to amass a cult following. Motel Hell is one such movie. Made on a budget of 3 million it only pulled in a little over 6 at the box office but it did have above average reviews. Roger Ebert really enjoyed the satire and other critics thought it was a great imitator to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. More on him in a second. The script was written by brothers Steven and Robert Jaffe, who had never worked on a script before. It was originally a much, MUCH darker affair that they based more tonally on TCM. It was completed in 1977 and even caught the attention of Universal, who wanted Tobe Hooper himself to direct it. That was before they actually read the script, however, and it ended up being too dark and strange for their liking. When Universal exited the project, so too did Hooper.

While it was the first screenplay they worked on, it wasn’t the first one either men completed with Robert also having written the screenplay for 1977’s Demon Seed. He doesn’t have a whole lot else to his name besides some acting credits while brother Steven would go on to be a producer on interesting projects like Near Dark, The Fly II, and Star Trek 6. With Hooper out of the director’s chair, new distribution company United Artists tapped Bafta nominated directed Kevin Connor to direct. Prior to Motel Hell, Connor had directed a few Amicus productions for Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg including the underrated anthology movie From Beyond the Grave. Post Motel Hell would see him almost exclusively as a director of episodic TV and made for TV movies, but he was still active as recently as 2017 and even has a project upcoming on IMDb.

Motel Hell The Test of Time

The cast is even more eclectic than the crew with old Hollywood royalty Rory Calhoun as the sweet but demented farmer Vincent. An early western star, Calhoun appeared in a number of film and tv projects in the genre with his most famous runs being on 79 episodes of The Texan and a late career role on Capitol with a just silly 1248 Episodes. Older western stars aren’t new to horror with Tourist Trap‘s Chuck Connors another fellow gunslinger who traded 6 shooters for slashing. Calhoun would also show up in the drive-in fare Angel and Avenging Angel as more or less a parody of himself and his last on-screen appearance was in an episode of Tales from the Crypt. Be still my beating heart.

Rory would be joined at the hellish motel by Paul Link as Bruce who should be our hero. Should be. Nancy Parsons as our other main villain, Nina Axelrod as the poor lost girl, and fun appearances from Wolfman Jack and John Ratzenberger. Apart from Paul Link being in over 100 episodes of CHIPS, would you believe that Ratzenberger has had the best career of the supporting cast here? The movie shows us that Farmer Vincent and his sister Ida live on a farm and produce famous meat that is known all over the county. The problem is that the meat in question is taken from the people they take from the traps they set on the road. Vincent shoots the tires of a couple’s motorcycle and while the male, Bo, is taken to the garden to be farmed, the female, Terry, is taken back to the Motel.

We meet Vincent’s younger brother Bruce, who is a sheriff but also blissfully unaware of his brothers’ activities. They inform Terry that her boyfriend died in a crash and even show her the grave, so she decides to stay at the motel. We see them trap more people including a band and a very interesting swinger couple as well as the process in which they kill and collect their meat, but more on that later. Terry falls in love with Vincent even as his brother tries to woo her, and Ida becomes jealous and attempts to kill Terry in a way that could be accidental. Terry wants to sleep with Vincent, but he refuses until they are married, because this murderer has old time family values apparently. Both Ida and Bruce interfere, for different reasons, and Terry finds out the truth of Farmer Vincent’s famous Fritters. Bo is able to escape and let the rest of the living prisoner meat loose.

The survivors attack Ida and Vincent fights Bruce with chainsaws while Terry is strapped to a conveyor belt on her way to being another meal. Bruce wins and with Bo strangled by Vincent, he and Terry find the garden and Ida’s body. They discuss burning down the hotel and the O on the Motel Hello sign burns out giving us our title and very literal destination.

Sign of the Times

1980 was still very much in the early phases of the slasher boom but there were a few things that were consistent among most of them. One of those is the phenomena of the “Final Girl” and here we have Terry in that role. While Motel Hell isn’t strictly a slasher, many horror movies borrowed what would be the tried-and-true aspects from them. Along those same lines, this falls under the category of a copycat movie, at least on the outside. The problem with a lot of horror, again looking at you slashers, is that there were a lot of copycat or even downright carbon copies of other movies out there with similar premises. Motel Hell appears to be a copy at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but really, it’s almost a PARODY of that film and even the genre. While the original script was much darker, the final product rides the thin line of a black comedy.

Another sign of the times, and one that does my heart and soul good, is the drive in. I don’t mean that this movie was drive in fodder, even though, yeah, this movie is drive in fodder, but that there is an ACTUAL drive in that appears in the movie. While not in the heyday of the 1950s and 60s, this was still a time that the drive-in experience was easier to find than not. Finally, we discussed Rory Calhoun being the main character in this and while he may not be the most revered actor of all time, he follows in the footsteps of a lot of old Hollywood veterans signing on to horror well after their stars had faded. We mentioned Chuck Connors, but you could also lump in Bette Davis and George Kennedy in there amongst others. Sometimes actors were always meant for the horror life like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Lon Chaney but for others it’s the late in life stuff that cemented their legacy for a new generation or different kind of audience.

Motel Hell The Test of Time

What Holds Up

I am sad to report that this section just isn’t as full as I wanted it to be and I’m sure you all wanted it to be. One of the things that does not disappoint here is the performance of Rory Calhoun as farmer Vincent. He owns every scene he is in and has a range of emotions depending on what’s going on during the movie. When the movie tries to go dark comedy, which it often does, Calhoun also has the best lines and deliveries. He just works here, and the performance is endearing throughout. The other standout performer is radio DJ turned sometimes bit player Wolfman Jack, here playing a man of God. He is sleazy, corrupt, slick, and just generally a good time. He isn’t to be taken seriously and acts the part appropriately.

While there isn’t a ton of gore to be found, even though the title is something as salacious as Motel Hell, the scenes that incorporate the horror and blood aspects really shine. Even though the victims make some admittedly silly choking sounds with their vocal cords cut, the entire process is still terrifying. Ida and Vincent drug them, plant them, cut their vocal cords, and bag their heads until they are ready to be dug up and cut into various meat selections. The way they kill them without empathy or remorse is chilling and is genuinely scary. The movie ends on a high note as well in probably the most famous scene that gets talked about. We get dueling chainsaws and a giant pig head as a mask. With how slow the movie is throughout its run time; this is a breath of fresh air just before the credits roll.

What doesn’t hold up?

To start, anyone that isn’t Rory Calhoun or Wolfman Jack is a letdown in the acting department. Yes, it’s a horror movie but that doesn’t excuse it from the perils of stilted acting and bad characters. It gets to the point where you are damn near rooting for farmer Vincent to get his way. These aren’t powerhouse actors in juicy roles like the casts of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or Silence of the Lambs, but it really takes you out of it. To that end, the tone of the movie is a bit all over the place. The original darker script tends to overlap with the newer, more darkly humorous one and it pulls the audience in too many directions tonally. You can do horror films and you can do pitch black comedy. Hell, you can even use slight humor to cut the tension in a genuinely frightening movie, but it has to be proportioned well and here, it just falls flat.

The final two grievances are that the main character, the protagonist we are supposed to root for and follow, is fairly dumb. She falls for nearly everything and as final girls go, she doesn’t have a lot of great qualities or even much agency of her own. To top all of this off, the movie drags on a bit and is just far too slow and dry. While the concept is a very interesting one, the execution makes the whole thing fall rather flat.


This movie has it’s fans, to be sure, but aside from reputation and its Scream Factory Blu-ray and new 4K, it’s forgettable at best and an annoying missed opportunity at worst. What could have been the other side of the coin to Texas Chainsaw ended up falling flat on both sides. If you want a darkly comical Texas Chainsaw movie, then look no further than Texas Chainsaw 2 and leave this one alone. Motel Hell does not stand the test of time.

A couple of the previous episodes of The Test of Time can be seen below. To see more, click over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.