I'm not sure that Motel Hell "works", but just on sheer chutzpah, it's got to be one of the most wholly worthwhile American horror films of the early 1980s. Simply nobody was doing this kind of thing in 1980, the year the film was released as part of the first wave of slasher movies, in whose company it really doesn't belong. What we have here is a horror comedy, but of an inordinately particular sort. Fact is, I'm not sure that I can name another such hybrid where the main gag is that there's no gag. What Motel Hell's screenwriters, brothers Robert & Steven-Charles Jaffe, and director Kevin Connor are playing at is exaggerating all of the most nonsensical, idiotic aspects of a typical low-budget horror movie (though not the gore, of which there is virtually none, apparently at Connor's request), going so far into silliness that it becomes impossible to take it seriously, but never tipping its hand that we aren't meant to take it seriously. By my count, there are only two moments where the tells us directly "okay, this is wacky and you should be laughing", and by no coincidence at all, those are the two worst scenes in the film. Everything else is borderline performance art: inhabiting and accentuating the ethos of a shitty low-budget independent horror movie in order to... not to mock it. This isn't a parody. To give it a chance to have fun mocking itself, maybe.

In whatever mode of comic detachment it's operating, Motel Hell is first and foremost a riff on the "redneck serial killers" genre that, in the previous decade, had most famously produced The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There is absolutely no chance that the Jaffes hadn't seen that film before writing their own, and there's even less of a chance that Connor was unaware of it when he came up with the idea for the climactic scene, which was developed very near the end of the film's production, and which includes an actual chainsaw fight in addition to a character wearing dead flesh as a mask. And in fact, TCM creator Tobe Hooper was at one point signed on to direct, but left for reasons apparently concerning how damn weird Motel Hell was turning out to be. Anyway, he had his own opportunity to make a comic variant on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre formula with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, lead-footed sack of crap that demonstrates just how marvelously inventive and tightly-controlled Motel Hell is in comparison.

Motel Hello - the "O" is on the fritz and spends more time burned out than lit - is located in one of those tiny towns that could be just about anywhere in the United States south of the Mason-Dixon line or west of the Great Plains (the film was shot entirely within driving distance of Los Angeles). There are convenient swamps to dump cars in, so maybe not so far from whatever little California community was home to the Bates Motel. It is owned and operated by Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun), a charming fifty-something, and his loud terror of a sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons), but to all appearances, the hotel isn't so much "dying" as "dead", and where the Smiths earn a living is instead their thriving food business: Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats are regarded throughout the county as the absolute best of the best meat products that you'll ever lay your hands on.

The film opens in the dead of night, with Vincent out on the hunt; as he stalks through the woods, he's right by the location of a motorcycle accident, one that leaves the grizzled driver Bo (Everett Creach) apparently dead, and his much younger girlfriend Terry (Nina Axelrod) beaten up and unconscious. Vincent takes the woman back to Motel Hello, where he and Ida nurse her back to health; when she demands to know where Bo is, Vincent sadly admits that he buried the man. The local sheriff, Bruce (Paul Linke) - Vincent and Ida's very young brother Bruce, no less! - acknowledges that county law makes provisions for passersby to bury dead humans "in extenuating circumstances", though he seems more than a little alarmed that Vincent stumbled upon such extenuating circumstances. Or maybe it's just that he's taking an extra-protective stance towards Terry on account of having fallen head over heels in love with her at first sight. She, meanwhile, is gravitating instead to Vincent, and who the hell knows what's going on his head.

As you have surely figured out, and the movie supposes you've figured out, the propriety blend of different animals used to make Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats include humans, and his late-night hunting trip, along with Bo's "accident", were all part of his routine of picking up drifters, outsiders, and undesirables. It doesn't stop there, either: he and Ida keep their victims alive but highly incapacitated, slashing their vocals cords and then burying them from the neck down in a garden in the woods out behind the motel. This situation has persisted for years, apparently but now Vincent is sloppy: bringing Terry home rather than planting her is seemingly unprecedented, and getting Bruce interested in coming by Motel Hello more often (unlike Ida, he has no clue what Vincent is up to) puts a real strain on the older siblings' ability to keep their operation a secret.

That gives us enough to go on, but Motel Hell is not really much of a plot movie - I can't tell by what point the movie wants you to be 100% sure what Vincent's cannibalistic plot consists of, but it's dropping hints within the very first minutes, and there's a scene with twin little girls, guests of the motel, sneaking into the meat processing facilities, and this scene is staged to be tense in ways that are predicated on our already knowing A) that Vincent is dangerous; B) that he butchers people in that room. And this scene comes along so early in the film that Terry hasn't even regained consciousness yet.

Instead of stringing us along either with a mystery of what's happening or how (if) Bruce is going to stop his brother, Motel Hell is basically just a sequence of vignettes coruscating along, showing what Vincent's life is like and how it becomes complicated thanks to Terry's presence. Given everything about it (low-budget indie, shot outside Hollywood, comedy version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in 1980), it hardly seems possible what I'm about to suggest, but it feels inordinately like Italian horror - far more than the same year's Friday the 13th, which intentionally pilfers from the Italian horror toolkit. It's in the lighting, for one thing, and very much in the pacing and structure, which I can barely describe, though I love it. Motel Hell is astonishingly slow-movie for a 1980 release in anything resembling the slasher movie tradition: at 101 minutes, it's already quite long for the genre, and most of that time is taken up with lengthy scenes that have no particular direction or urgency. I first really noticed this during a sequence of Vincent and Ida burying some punk rockers they've just captured (one of them played by future Cheers regular and Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger, who between this and The Empire Strikes Back had an exceptionally fascinating 1980), where Connor sits back and simply allows this to take as long as it needs to take, in the process reducing the act of digging to a series of isolated fragments of activity; a shot of the augur spinning, so close that it's almost geometric abstraction; shots of holes, bodies, bandaged necks, Ida and Vincent's faces.

The punk rockers are an example of the film's main structural characteristic, which is that most of what happens doesn't happen for any particular reason. Most of Motel Hell does nothing to move it forward: the entire punk sequence, along with a very similar sequence involving two young women distracted by Vincent's fake cows, and an interlude with pair of BDSM-loving swingers who come to Motel Hello by mistake, feel like the sort of thing the Smith siblings deal with every single week, nothing that has any driving momentum beneath it. Each of these sequences is permitted to find its own rhythm and tone, attracting the whole of the movie's attention only as long as they're onscreen, and then forgotten thereafter for the next sequence. This is the part that feels especially Italian to me: the way that Motel Hell seems to take place entirely in the present tense, with every scene focused mostly on how it's functioning right now, with little interest in how they tie into the rest of the movie.

The other thing is how it's been lit and shot by cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth. This is a fantastically beautiful movie, something I was thoroughly unprepared for, and its beauty comes across in some baffling ways. At first, it's just the inherent loveliness of putting fake moonlight into night-for-night forest scenes; this changes right around the time we see the secret garden for the first time, and the lighting takes on a certain stagey quality, losing in naturalism what it makes up in atmosphere. And then, a while later, the colored lighting comes in, and then all bets are off completely - we're suddenly in Mario Bava Country, and I'm crazy for it. There's a loopy scene of Vincent using a colored light hypnosis machine to subdue his planted victims (frankly, it's not clear why he'd need to do, but that's hardly what the scene is predicated on), and from that point on, Motel Hell ceases to be anything but a vessel for the filmmakers to pursue whatever ludicrous conceit interests them, whether it's staging Ida's doomed final moments in such blazing cherry-red light that it washes out the details of a real set and turns it into an all-red negative space; or transforming Terry into a "Perils of Pauline" style melodrama victim, with the butchering room standing in for the old sawmill; or giving Wolfman Jack a cameo as a charismatic preacher speaking in tongues; or that chainsaw fencing finale.

None of this hangs together, and I can't really say with any honesty that much of it's funny (the scene with the swingers, for that part, is actively anti-funny, mostly because it's the point where the film finally starts to tell overt jokes). There are some moments that are effectively tense: the girls in the abattoir, for one, and the first time we stumble into the buried victims is an unquestionable peak moment in early-'80s horror, with exaggerated gurgling noises and the shifting movement of a burlap sack on the ground working to create a freaky sense of the irrational and inexplicable, totally unnerving even before we see the head making that noise. But for the most part, the film's main goal is to be strange - a borderline hallucination of inexplicable colors, dreamy horror tableaux, silly cheapness (the fake cows are so random that it's actually funny, in an absurd way), and characters so broad in conception and erratic in behavior that the screaming caricature of redneck hicks that is Ida ultimately emerges as one of the film's most stable characters. A huge part of all this - maybe even the most important part - are Calhoun and Parsons, whose performances are the rock upon which Motel Hell's understated, warped sense of humor is founded. There are some very bad performances in the movie - Axelrod is a emotive as a board - but the two leads have the task of creating the illusion of a bad performance that ends up supplying the right note of arch artifice and silliness that Motel Hell must have, if it is to work as a comedy at all. It took a full half of the movie for me, at least, to get on Parsons's wavelength - her deadpan delivery of "you look good enough to eat" to the swingers is what did it - because she's such a caricature of what urban filmmakers think rural hicks are like. But it goes beyond that: she's basically playing a live-action cartoon version of a giddy psychopath, like if Mrs. Lovett from the musical Sweeney Todd had first appeared as the manic slapstick character in a Tex Avery short.

No such learning curve is needed to figure out what Calhoun is up to: he's just plain great, using his Old Hollywood bearing and screen presence (the man was a legitimate B-lister in the '50s, holding down major roles opposite Marilyn Monroe and Susan Hayward) to add a layer of deliberate camp to his unhinged loony. I have no idea how to describe it: you look at individual facial expressions or hear specific line deliveries, and you think that this must all be intentionally over-the-top hamminess, but then the role taken as a whole object primarily suggests that Calhoun is keeping things tamped down and coiled-up inside. It's like he's playing a goofball in the most dignified, subdued way possible, and he's both the best thing about Motel Hell and the key to its comedy - his presence keeps shifting the tone underneath our feet (silly when we expect it to be scary, serious and grave when we've gotten used to him being silly), and reminding us that it's okay not to take any of this very seriously, but try to have as much fun with it as he evidently did.

He's a weird main character for a very warped feature. Motel Hell is a slippery horror comedy: it's too ditsy to be scary and too earnest to be funny; too aimless to have momentum and too erratic and arrhythmic to be boring. It's hilarious in way that's not really laugh-out-loud funny more than a few times (though those times count, especially a visual near the very end that plays like a perversion of The Wizard of Oz and the Wicked Witch of the East). But it's amazingly captivating, regardless of all that - one of the only truly singular American horror films of its era, and possibly the most altogether fun movie of the early slasher period.

Body Count: 7, and remarkably backloaded - it's 45 minutes until the first verifiable death, and almost another half-hour till the second.