Nearly two decade after Alfred Hitchcock first incited the horror genre’s fascination with creepy motels through his presentation of the ‘Bates Motel’ in Psycho, this particular choice of setting was revamped in the wake of 80’s slasher film genre. Injecting the setting with a twisted kitsch factor that is characteristic of the era’s cinematic offerings, the motels presented in certain campy horror outings really touches on a particular brand of nostalgia that pander’s to our love for the meeting point between motels and kitsch. Let’s look at some of the highlights of this fleeting moment in movie history where campy motel hell was all the rage.
Motel Hell (1980)
Perhaps the most enduring 80’s horror movie in the extremely-niche motel horror-film category is Motel Hell, the 1980 cult classic helmed by Kevin Connor. The film is set at the strangely-named ‘Motel Hello’, which, as you may have guessed, has a malfunctioning sign that causes the letter ‘O’ to flicker on and off (motel hell? Get it?). The proprietor, named Judd, has a successful gig going for him which consists of capturing his guests, cutting out their vocal chords, and keeping them well fed them until they are plump enough to be harvested into some good ol’ human smoked meat. A touching romance is borne out of this situation (obviously) and many needless acts of cannibalism ensue. For all its pointless murder scenes and redundant tropes, Motel Hell is a nostalgic exploration of a pre-Yelp society where there was no real way of really knowing whether or not you would be cannibalized during a motel stay. It is worth checking out merely because it is a touchstone of the campy 80’s motel horror movie subgenre.
Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1986)
This 1986 cult classic certainly lays its premise bare within its title. Much like Motel Hell, the Mountaintop Motel once again paints the managerial staff of the motel industry as a pack of ravenous human-hunters. The ringleader in this case is Evelyn, a recently-released psychiatric patient who reprises her prior role as the owner of a collection of cabins being rented out as motel rooms. In typical motel horror movie fashion, a number of broken-down cars and ill-fated honeymoons result in couples left with no other option but to take shelter in the Mountaintop Motel. Naturally, the ensuing events are a barrage of people alternately getting attacked by creepy-crawlies or mutilated by Evelyn’s giant sickle. Though the film was initially criticized for its contrived plot line and amateur acting, it has definitely appreciated in kitsch value over the years. This is due in part to the campy nature of Jim McCollough Sr.’s quirky directorial chops, which give the film a black comedy sensibility. Nonetheless, there is no denying that this film is surely rough around the edges, and for this reason is quite hard to come by, unless you were fortunate though not impossible if you are adept at scouring the web.
Eaten Alive (1979)
Although Poltergeist is better remembered as Tobe Hooper’s follow-up to the slasher opus The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it was actually a little known horror-comedy called Eaten Alive which was released as the ill-fated follow-up to the seminal 1974 motion picture. The film can be loosely summed up as being about a murderous hotel owner who feeds his victims to his pet crocodile, which is essentially a slight variation on the default scenarios we have come to expect from motel horror films. Perhaps the kitschy plot elements and cartoonishly sadistic violence highlighted in this movie can be seen as an unsung precursor to the overblown tropes that would dominate the horror genre throughout the ensuing decade, but history has not been very kind to Hooper’s 1977 film. Universally dubbed as a purposeless gore-fest, the film certainly did not double down on the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, instead opting to amplify its more troubling aspects (IE exploitative violence and casual misogyny). Yet if you want to, for some reason, witness the full development of this motel trope across the late 70’s into the 80’s, Eaten Alive is necessary viewing.
Let’s face it, people are already creeped out by motels enough as it is (and rightfully so!), so the aforementioned movies certainly aren’t doing much to to eradicate the stigma. Yet, these horror gems from the 1980’s are more campy than scary, so if that’s your thing, treat yourself by marathoning these lesser-known flicks!