“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters. You might just die... laughing!”
Odd things are going on at the Motel Hello. It seems the establishment’s proprietor Vincent Smith and his sister Ida are in the habit of capturing passing strangers and “planting” them in a secret garden behind the motel for tenderizing and seasoning. After the proper amount of time has passed, the siblings harvest their “crop” to use as the secret ingredient in Vincent’s prize-winning preservative-free smoked meats. Things go along this way until the night Vincent ambushes Terry, an attractive young woman whom he immediately becomes smitten with. Rather than add her to the livestock, Vincent decides to bring Terry home, hoping to win her affections. Over the next few weeks, oblivious to Vincent and Ida’s late night activities, the fragile and confused Terry slowly grows to love the much older man, attracted by his decency and simple way of life. This upsets not only Ida, who would prefer to see Terry become a sausage rather than her sister-in-law, but also Vincent’s younger brother Bruce, the town’s oafish sheriff who wants Terry for himself. After some misadventures and close calls, things finally fall apart for Vincent when Bruce and Terry discover what’s going on in the smokehouse and the “secret ingredients” escape the garden looking for revenge. Realizing Terry will not be the one with whom he can share his mission and meat making secrets with, Vincent forlornly dons his giant pig mask, prepares to turn Terry into beef jerky, and challenges his little brother to a chainsaw duel to the death.
A number of articles suggest that, as of this writing, there are over twenty horror movie remakes in various stages of development. One of the titles being tossed around is 1980’s Motel Hell, the rights to which were recently purchased by Twisted Pictures, the same folks who bring us a new entry in the Saw franchise every year. This info has prompted the staff here at The B-Movie Catechism to draft an open letter to those responsible for any potential remake of Motel Hell.
Dear Unimaginative Hacks…
(No, wait, stop! That’s uncharitable. And though the odds favor our interpretation, we don’t really know 100% yet whether that’s a true statement or not. Let’s try again.)
(They do, in fact, make films. Of course, so did the Nazis. But we digress again.)
To Whom It May Concern,
We, the movie going public, are not adverse to horror movie remakes. House of Wax (1953), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978), The Thing (1982), and many others we could name, are all good, enjoyable movies. But let’s face it, the veritable avalanche of horror remakes over the past few years has resulted in mostly unwatchable wastes of celluloid churned out solely to suck cash out of the pockets of undiscerning young teens. And suck they have! But never mind that; let's optimistically assume you who plan to remake Motel Hell actually have the desire to make a good movie, one which retains some of the qualities which made the original into the beloved cult gem it is today. The staff here at The B-Movie Catechism would like to offer our (completely unsolicited) opinion on how we feel you could accomplish this by pointing out some films representative of the kind of movie Motel Hell SHOULD NOT BE.
(1) THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE – Though he eventually dropped out, we know that original Chainsaw director Tobe Hooper had planned to helm Motel Hell. And why not? Both movies share a similar “people as meat” story line and both feature scenes with some nut-job swinging a chainsaw around. But that’s all window dressing. At their core the movies are two different animals. Take, for instance, the way in which mealtimes are handled. Chainsaw’s infamous dinner table scene is excruciatingly tense as the assembled family watch their 100+ year old patriarch feebly attempt time and time again to deliver a killing blow to the forehead of their young screeching captive. In Motel Hell, you get the three Smith siblings and Terry having a picnic in their Sunday best discussing Vincent’s childhood. The talk veers into the weird as the Smith’s relate the touching story of how the family smoked and ate grandma’s favorite dog after it died because the old woman taught them that “meat is meat, and a man's gotta eat!". Not being Chinese, Terry is appropriately weirded out, yet continues to unknowingly munch on one of Vincent’s victims the whole time. While there is horror in both scenes, Chainsaw focuses on dread and shock whereas Motel Hell concentrates on dark humor. Should some unimaginative hack substitute the former for the latter, one of Motel Hell’s greatest strengths would be (ahem) gutted. Speaking of which, that brings to mind…
(2) HOSTEL – You might think, given the gruesome subject matter, it would be a no-brainer to ape Eli Roth’s pathetic exercise in cruelty in which a group of grotesquely unlikable kids visit a brothel before being graphically tortured to death. But don’t you do it! Even though cannibalism is central to the storyline, the original Motel Hell is shockingly low on blood, guts, and bare butts. One of the best examples of this is the scene in which a pair of goofy swingers, lured to the Motel Hello by a phony ad, are set upon in their room. Despite the potential for some good old fashioned sex and bloodletting, the set piece is played out entirely for laughs as the unwitting duo mistakes Vincent and Ida’s appearance in their doorway, laden with ropes and gas masks, as nothing more than part of some kinky bondage foreplay. It ends with the giggling idiots willingly allowing themselves to be hogtied and rendered unconscious, all without a shred of nudity or violence. Now we can understand the temptation, especially for some kind of unimaginative hack, to amp up this kind of scene with tons of sleaze and gore, but it would be completely out of character for the Smiths. Which leads us to…
(3) THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS – Now, bear with us, this is probably the most important thing to get right, so it’s going to take a little bit longer to explain. Wes Craven’s 1991 production, like Motel Hell before it, is also a horror-comedy featuring a brother & sister duo who secretly do terrible things to strangers. More important is the fact that both pairs of siblings espouse traditional family values and feel that Providence is on their side in what they’re doing. But despite these surface similarities, the portrayal of the two families couldn’t be more different. This is because The People Under The Stairs is an allegorical parody which takes broad swipes at the perceived eeevils of (wait for it) late 80s Reaganomics (yes, we’ve been there before) and the Religious Right. Craven’s movie is so over-the-top that it may as well have been called The Poor Homeless People Under The Stairs and The Filthy Racist Republicans Who Walk All Over Them. The humor often crosses the line into slapstick and the actors purposely play their roles with all the subtlety of professional wrestlers. And for the most part, that approach works for the kind of film Craven wanted to make.
But Motel Hell isn’t that kind of film. It isn’t interested in politicized sermons on social justice; it just wants to tell a story. The old-fashioned values and religious beliefs expressed by the Smith family aren’t just tacked on to make fun of “those hypocritical conservatives”, they’re actually part of who these people are. In fact, its probably fair to say that, at least in Vincent’s case, his faith is at the core of all his actions. He’s never cruel to the people he captures. Like any good steward, he keeps them healthy and well fed until their time has come, at which point he uses an elaborate hypnotic device to calm them so he can painlessly snap their necks. Vincent is preternaturally calm, only becoming unstrung in a few instances which offend his sense of morality. One is when Terry offers herself to him and Vincent, truly taken aback, angrily exclaims such a thing is wrong outside of marriage. Another is when Bruce bursts in on Terry in the bath desperately trying to convince her not to marry his brother, an intrusion which causes Vincent to rush in to protect the honor of his loved one old-school style with a double barreled shotgun. Otherwise, Vincent donates to the local radio preacher, gives free jerky to the kids, and spends most of the movie with a big sincere grin on his face. All in all, he ends up being the most decent and likable guy in the whole movie.
Well, you know, for a murdering cannibal, that is. You see, despite all of his good points, something’s gone terribly wrong somewhere inside Vincent. And the clue to just what that it is can be found in his final words as he lies dying in his brother’s arms. Knowing death is imminent, Vincent, like any good Christian, feels compelled to clean the slate and confess his sins. “My whole life has been a lie.” he gasps, “I’ve been the biggest hypocrite of all. I… I used… preservatives.” Now you would think that maybe, just maybe, after all the kidnapping of tourists, clipping their vocal cords, burying them up to their necks, force feeding them gruel, then digging them up and turning them into Hickory Farms style gift baskets, you might think all of that stuff would give Vincent a few pangs of guilt right there at the end. But that’s not the case. Since Vincent truly believed in his heart that those actions were part of God’s will, the only thing really weighing on his conscience was the knowledge that he lied about the ingredients in his Bratwurst. Vincent’s problem is a malformed conscience.
Now, according to the Catechism, “Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed… A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” Which raises an interesting question. Since Vincent was following his conscience, warped as it was, can his soul really be held accountable for the evil of his actions? It was St. Thomas Aquinas, after all, who wrote in the Summa Theologica that “when erring reason proposes something as being commanded by God, then to scorn the dictate of reason is to scorn the commandment of God.” Or to put it in a way I can understand it, if your conscience tells you to do something, even if it ultimately turns out to be wrong, you HAVE to do it. That sounds like Vincent might get a break, but before we let him completely off the hook, we should probably check the qualifiers.
“It can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.” the Catechism continues, BUT “this ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. (Uh Oh) This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin." In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.” It’s never really explained how Vincent arrived at his beliefs (Bruce claims the old man has syphilis of the brain, but you know, Bruce has some jealousy issues), however there’s nothing shown in the movie to suggest that he is being willfully ignorant of right and wrong. So it’s back to the Catechism. “If - on the contrary - the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.” So, while the actions themselves remain evil, it appears Vincent could ultimately escape judgement for them.
Then again, he might not. In a 1991 lecture entitled Conscience and Truth, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had this to say. “It is never wrong to follow the convictions one has arrived at—in fact, one must do so. But it can very well be wrong to have come to such askew convictions in the first place, by having stifled the protest of the anamnesis of being.” This anamnesis is, as Brian Lewis of Australian Catholic University explains, "a sort of original memory of the good and the true implanted in the depths of our being by our Creator, in whose image we are made and towards whom we are drawn. It is not a memory that we can put into words. It is so to speak an inner sense, an abiding capacity to recall, that is triggered by something that crops up in our experience and either strikes a responsive chord within us or clashes with us.” If one ignores or stifles conscience on this level, Cardinal Ratzinger explains, “The guilt lies then in a different place, much deeper—not in the present act, not in the present judgment of conscience but in the neglect of my being which made me deaf to the internal promptings of truth. For this reason, criminals of conviction like Hitler and Stalin are guilty.” And for stifling that innate sense of right and wrong over the course of his life, Vincent might be guilty also. That’s a shame, because he seemed like such a nice guy. For a murdering cannibal.
And that’s the big reason, dear filmmakers (Thought we had forgotten, didn’t you?), that Motel Hell is not the same kind of movie as The People Under The Stairs. Whereas Craven’s movie gives us nothing but caricatures whose sole purpose is to drive home Wes’ notion that conservatives are bad, bad people, Motel Hell gives us real characters (comparatively speaking) with just enough depth to make us willing to invest in them for an hour and a half, and maybe even think about them after the credits have rolled. If you want to make a worthy remake, then please, put a little effort into the characters. But if all you’re interested in is the quick buck, then I suppose all you have to do is trot out the standard Hollywood stereotype of the deranged toothless backwoods evangelical. But that would be unconscionable.
Thank you for listening to our little diatribe, we hope we have been of some help as you make your decision. Unimaginative hacks.
The staff of The B-Movie Catechism
Speaking of consciences, I may as well clear mine. The reason I’ve posted little over the past two weeks has been my complete inability to quit watching the political circus going on right now. I just can’t turn away. And apparently, neither can the U. S. Bishops :)
And if you’ve made it this far then you deserve a treat. Here’s a little something I found on Flickr: Motel Hell in Legos.