Aside from slashers, the 80s also spawned various horror films about the use of human flesh as meat to be served to unsuspecting patrons at restaurants, diners, and such. Motel Hell serves up a demented take on the theme and could be so disturbing, but instead goes the campy, over-the-top exploitation route, probably because it would have been way too heavy for 1980 censors if the premise had been taken seriously. So basically it was watered down to Waters…John Waters that is. Yeah, it’s definitely weird enough to be something John Waters could have put on celluloid.
Basically, a freaky redneck man and his hella-butch-overalls-wearing sister have a motel, slaughterhouse, and a “meat market,” so you can guess what becomes of guests. Not even Norman Bates thought of a way to turn a profit on being a psycho killer! This plot could be a simple setup for a whole lot of kills, but instead, the movie is more about the process of exactly how this psycho pair makes sure their meat is perfectly right for use.
This shit is heinous. They bury their victims in their yard, STILL ALIVE, up to the head, then cut their throats, severing the vocal chords so the victims can only make these horrible gurgling sounds. After that, the victims’ heads are covered with sacks. So every time the psycho pair visits their little crop of people, you see a bunch of sacks wiggling furiously from the dirt while making miserable noises. The goal of the pair is to tenderize the meat through immobility—which requires feeding the “garden heads” by sticking funnels in their mouths.
The psycho pair is portrayed in typical backwoods lunatic creepy comic fashion, not unlike Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive in that respect, where you find the maniacal behavior somehow funny, yet you know coming face-to-face with the freak in real life would be a whole different story. The scenes involving the tormenting of the garden heads are truly horrible, but the film has a bunch of characters and subplots that help distract from over thinking the possibilities of the situation—like, WTF happens when the buried victims poop or pee? Ew…fricking…ew.
There are two chicks who stop their car in the middle of nowhere because there are cows crossing the road—cardboard cows that are part of a trap, making this a moment that could have been high on suspense but is instead somewhat humorous. There is all out slapstick camp when a whip-wielding dominatrix and her male slave, dressed in clear plastic bra and miniskirt (Missing Persons anyone?), think they are about to get into a swinging B&D interlude with the nasty looking, rope carrying psycho pair.
Then there’s this trippy neon strobe light experiment the psycho pair performs on the garden heads that could only be a product of 1980. Add to that a role for Wolfman Jack as a reverend, and you can see how far this movie strays from its disturbing main premise.
Along with the revolting concept of the garden heads, the ending of this movie also has some pretty strong horror elements. First of all, the garden heads eventually escape and are these traumatized, almost zombie-like monsters, making for some fantastic horror. And the final scene could have carried the whole movie in a sort of Texas Chainsaw way, when a local cop is chased through the slaughterhouse by a chainsaw swinging maniac wearing a fricking slaughtered pig’s head. What a fantastic creepfest that moment alone is—a visual that could easily stay with viewers forever. It makes a great starting point for a remake if you ask me….