Checking back into Motel Hell over 30 years later

by Mark Burger

“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”

Such was the unforgettable catch-phrase for one of the looniest, most beloved shockers of the slash-happy ’80s:

Motel Hell (1980), starring Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons as the deliriously deranged sibling proprietors of the titular establishment, where guests check in but don’t always check out.

Farmer Vincent is also renowned for his succulent selection of meats, which have become a regional favorite. Might those missing guests be turning up on the dinner table? In his own warped way, Farmer Vincent’s doing his part to curb overpopulation and starvation.

Directed by Kevin Connor, Motel Hell has been released as a special-edition DVD/Blu-ray combo by Scream Factory/ Shout! Factory, replete with audio commentary, retrospective interviews, and other mouth-watering special features. (See review on Page 35).

For Julian Semilian, an assistant professor of film editing and sound design at the UNCSA School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem, Motel Hell marked one of his first feature credits, in which he was billed as “assistant editor.”

Semilian was born in Romania (formerly Rumania) during Soviet domination, his family spending eight years trying to leave, by which time “it was definitely time to go,” he chuckles in his distinctively mellow European growl.

For the young Semilian, movies were magic. “I wanted to be Francois Truffaut,” he says, and upon his arrival in the United States, he immersed himself in cinema. “I would sit through every film four or five times. Hitchcock, Bunuel, Godard, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Truffaut, Martin Scorsese “¦ I saw Mean Streets I don’t know how many times.”

Having basically talked his way into a job at the American Film Institute (AFI) – “I told them I was a very famous editor from Rumania but didn’t know how to use a moviola” (!) – Semilian’s career was launched. He toiled on some short films and television projects before checking in to Motel Hell.

Motel Hell’s editor was Bernard Gribble, a prolific Englishman whose big-screen works included Death Wish (1974), The Sentinel (1977) and Top Secret! (1984), with The Long Days of Summer (1980), Ellis Island (1984) and Emmy-nominated work in The Winds of War (1983) among his TV credits.

Gribble, who died in 2004, was both friend and mentor, says Semilian. “From Bernie I learned the means and the procedure, the work and the methodology. He essentially turned me into a professional editor. I learned how to behave as an editor.”

Semilian had the luxury of being in close proximity to Motel Hell during production, as it was filmed at Laird International Studios in Culver City. “The editing room was about 100 feet away.”

He enjoyed spending time with cast and crew, saying that Connor “brought a positive, creative energy and good humor. Very friendly, very congenial. I couldn’t wait to go to work each morning.”

As for erstwhile Farmer Vincent, “Rory Calhoun and I became friends,” Semilian says. “He was really funny and friendly. I have such a good memory of him.”

That includes the morning when Calhoun played a practical joke on him. As Semilian waved to the actor, Calhoun frowned, turned on his heel, and stalked off. Semilian asked a crew member if he’d somehow insulted Calhoun, but the crew member turned and walked away, too. This repeated itself until it dawned on Semilian what was going on – and who had engineered it, at which point a grinning Calhoun re-appeared, clapped him on the back, and said “Gotcha!” Semilian also recalls Calhoun, the star of countless Westerns, entertaining cast and crew between set-ups with his quickdraw skills and rope tricks. “He could really do those things,” Semilian marvels. “He walked the walk and he talked the talk.”

Motel Hell was a rarity for the time being released by a major studio, United Artists. Semilian doesn’t recall hearing anything about dealings with the front office, but that may well have been because the studio was otherwise preoccupied – with Heaven’s Gate. Jokes Semilian: “I think Motel Hell did better business.”

In his audio commentary, Connor vaguely recalls some give-and-take with the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) to secure an R rating but doesn’t remember the specifics. Semilian pauses, casting his mind back nearly 35 years. “I can’t be certain, but I think “¦ I think it’s the scene where they pull the people out of the ground with the tractor.”

In the film, victims are “planted” in a remote patch of the farm, their vocal cords having been conveniently cut. At “harvest” time, Vincent and Ida loop nooses around their necks and haul them out with their tractor, breaking their necks in the process. (Hard to believe the MPAA would have a problem with that.)

Rather than show the full “extraction,” the scene cuts to the tractor’s wheels digging into the ground, the front half lifting off the ground with exertion while fumes billow from the exhaust. The viewer doesn’t actually see the necks break, but there are some very audible snaps.

“I remember cutting back and forth to the exhaust,” nods Semilian. “I remember Bernie and I going over that scene several times. I think that’s the scene Kevin is referring to.”

And, Semilian notes, hearing the necks break is almost worse than seeing it, because it’s left to the audience’s imagination.

“You have to understand the spirit of the film,” he says, “and figure out ways to make it work. Sometimes that means reinterpreting the work.”

Motel Hell was released in October 1980. According to Wikipedia, the film grossed approximately $6.3 million (on a reported budget of approximately $3 million). Reviews, as they often were (and are) for horror films, were generally negative. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times opined: “It’s so totally inept that it plays like a protracted sick joke. To hell with Motel Hell.” The New York Times was scarcely kinder, calling it “a horror film that deserves its designation – which ever way you wish to apply it.” But Cinefantastique called Motel Hell “as manic and entertainingly sick a film as we’ve had in some time.”

The comic novelty of the film endeared it to horror fans, and Motel Hell became a cable staple for much of the 1980s. “That’s when it became this whole kind of cult thing,” Semilian says.

As a teacher, Semilian tells his students not to be complacent and rest on their laurels, but to embrace and even seek out challenges. He’s not embarrassed by any of his credits. Some turned out better than others, but he always savored the challenge of each one. “My karma has always been to work on films that I had to fix, where the editing (itself) became a character.”

Although he never did become Francois Truffaut, he’s indulged his passion for avant-garde cinema with his recent short films, including The Dream Life of Cleo De Merode (2010) and Gazing Oozing with Mendacity (2012).

Even now almost 35 years later, Semilian will be asked about Motel Hell. “From time to time, somebody finds out I worked on Motel Hell, but I have very warm memories. It was one of my most pleasant experiences.” !