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Vacancy (2007) -vs- Motel Hell (1980)

Mark Sanchez, Featured WriterThe Smackdown

I love films on many levels, often for the guilty pleasures they offer. I routinely staged a BAD FILM FESTIVAL back home in Portland, where “They Saved Hitler’s Brain,” “Mars Needs Women” and “Basket Case” found an audience denied them by a discerning world. This buffet featured one indigestible chunk that always served up funny portions of unbelievable plotting, ridiculous dialogue and laughable production values: “Motel Hell.” Into the arena stumbled a new challenger for the crown of BAD FILM royalty: “Vacancy.”


The Challenger

“Vacancy” features a married couple headed for breakup when they develop car trouble off some nameless Interstate. Amy and David (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) leave the car and hoof it to the Pinewood Motel. Bad choice. They should have stayed in the car since they found a refuge as forbidding as the Bates Motel and even more decrepit. The Pinewood features a manager (Frank Whaley) with the same voyeuristic tendencies as Norman Bates, only not as charming and just as lethal.

David and Amy learn — after playing some videotapes in their room — that the Pinewood is an impromptu studio for snuff films. They want to check out, but the manager and some buddies have different ideas. “Vacancy” moves its tightly-edited way to the bloody conclusion, but our heroes wind up better off than Marion Crane on her road trip in “Psycho.”

The Defending Champion

What? You missed “Motel Hell” when it came out in 1980? Not surprising since it was crowded out of the theaters by the likes of “Raging Bull,” “The Shining,” “The Empire Strikes Back”–even “Caddyshack.”

If so, you missed Rory Calhoun as the designated bad guy in this variation on the “Honey, we chose the wrong motel” theme. Once again, we have a couple of people wandering into a motel they had no business visiting.  Farmer Vincent (Calhoun) is a real cut up as a part-time butcher who dismembers and smokes the motel guests in a special mix of herbs and spices. Good triumphs over evil in this gory send up of slasher flicks. Motel Hell offers blood and laughs in roughly equal amounts. This film showed off the acting skills of two Playboy Playmates, Wolfman Jack and John Ratzenberger, who survived this experience to play Cliff Clavin in “Cheers.”

The Scorecard

Both films aim for different audiences with similar ammunition. “Vacancy” and “Motel Hell” focus on innocents trapped by homicidal maniacs. There is blood, lots of it and the films center on the challenge of getting out alive.

Director Nimrod Antal displays a surer hand with “Vacancy” and the story’s editing and pace make you acutely feel David and Amy’s desperation. “Motel Hell” competes on a different level and succeeds.  Neither film will make you forget “Psycho”–but no one in those motel cut ’em ups can match this line from Rory Calhoun: “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters!” That’s enough to make you go vegetarian.

The Decision

The crown for King of my BAD FILM FESTIVAL goes to “Motel Hell” in a split decision. “Vacancy” offers recognizable stars, good production values, a high suspense-and-blood quotient but that’s not enough. “Vacancy” is a better-looking film than “Motel Hell” but less memorable. Calhoun and company clearly enjoyed making their film and it shows. They let you enjoy all the cheesy effects and lousy acting in it without having to ask yourself: Don’t I have something better to do with my time? “Vacancy” suffers the fate of merely being good.

Motel Hell is a party serving up special meat products.

About Mark Sanchez 81 Articles
Oregon based media and communications consultant Mark Sanchez is on the fifth or sixth step of his recovery program from his career as a television news reporter. And that’s the way it is. Mark has been an Oregonian since the Reagan administration and shows no signs of leaving. He lives in Portland — a city that is famous for its transit system, its rain, its independent film community and, lately, for the TV series Portlandia, which Mark notes is about half-true, but to protect confidential sources he won’t say which half.

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