Thriller (S5, E7): Murder Motel REVIEW

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You can check in any time you like, but you can never leave… No, we’re not talking about the Hotel California – RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES’ Thriller episode guide ends series five at the Murder Motel.

Thriller Episode Guide thriller uk tv series
Thriller Episode Guide

TITLE: Thriller – Murder Motel
BROADCAST: 24 May 1975
STARRING: Derek Francis, Robyn Millan, Ralph Bates, Edward Judd, Allan McClelland, John Hallam, Anne Rutter, June Watson, Gillian McCutcheon
WRITER: Brian Clemens
DIRECTOR: Malcolm Taylor

A weary traveller glances nervously into the rear view mirror of his Austin Maxi before he pulls into a Motel and checks-in. As he goes to settle into his room, the desk manager directs two other men towards it.

The guest begins to unpack and decides to take a shower. He’s hardly had time to start washing himself when the two men seen earlier let themselves into his room and approach menacingly…

Series composer Laurie Johnson resists any temptation to add Bernard Herrmann-style screeching strings at this point (not that he would be so crass), but the references to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) are already clear. However, where the Bates Motel was the abode of a lone killer, The Woodheath Motel has an unusual method of generating extra income: For a price, anyone wishing to have someone bumped-off can invite them to the Woodheath, where the dedicated staff provide a specialist service in murder and corpse disposal.

As the episode proper gets underway, Michael Spencer (Bates) arrives at the Woodheath to meet a work colleague he suspects of embezzlement, but he also has a notion that something is not quite right and takes the precaution of bringing his sister Helen (Rutter) along.

Helen gives the impression that she does not know Michael, and books into a separate room but that’s not enough to stop the seemingly kindly desk manager, Sam (Francis) from twigging to the subterfuge and adding Helen’s dispatch to the motel bill. His faithful staff are accordingly instructed to deal with both siblings.

Helen makes it to a phone box to alert Michael’s fiancée, Kathy (Millan), but the call is abruptly curtailed as one of Sam’s assistants tracks her down. Naturally fearing for the pair’s safety, Kathy heads straight for the office of Michael’s boss, Charles Burns (Judd) who, in the company of two police fraud squad officers informs Kathy that Michael is suspected of embezzling £20,000 from the company’s accounts.

Kathy doesn’t believe a word of it and nor does she let on that Helen was on the phone long enough to tell her where she and Michael were staying. Determined to clear Michael’s name, Kathy decides to check-in at the Woodheath Motel and enlists a seedy private investigator (McClelland) to assist, but it becomes difficult to work out who can be trusted and more bodies are going to pile up before the police catch up with the real embezzler…

Thriller (S5, E7): Murder Motel REVIEW 1
Robyn Millan finds something nasty in the freezer. Thriller: Murder Motel (1975)

Following the larger-than-usual cast for The Next Voice You See, Murder Motel also has an extended list of players but more striking is the surprising amount of gore on display. Sure, it’s not exactly at Friday The 13th levels but by Thriller standards it’s more than noticeable, be it running down a plughole or wiped from a killer’s kitchen knife.

The biggest weakness in the episode (and there’s no easy way of saying this) is Robyn Millan, who wanders through the episode like someone who’s only just come straight from Gatwick Airport with jetlag and isn’t even sure which country she’s landed in, never mind if she’s come to the right studio. It’s an odd performance to say the least (and it seems there is a reason for this – see the addendum to this article), and it unintentionally adds a somewhat absurdist edge to a tale which is already testing the audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief.

I’m not about to make any claims for Murder Motel as a series highlight, and to say it brings a generally superb series of Thriller to a disappointing end would be a fair point. Yes, it’s wildly implausible, the plot threatens to trip itself up, the lead clearly isn’t up to the task and everything just seems a bit off-kilter.

And yet, the horror fan in me, with a weakness for flawed but entertaining slasher/giallo flicks would argue that Murder Motel keeps its foot on the accelerator, has some excellent kills, doesn’t for one moment take itself too seriously (what would be the point?) and is certainly never boring.

Call this a guilty pleasure if you will. It may be no classic as a Thriller episode per se, but I can’t help but have a soft spot for Murder Motel.

I’ll see you soon in 1976 for series six: The last hurrah for Thriller.

TRIVIA NOTES: Playing Helen, Anne Rutter was the wife of director Malcolm Taylor.

Edward Judd was familiar to fans of Brit horror/fantasy with credits ranging from the classic (The Day The Earth Caught Fire, 1961) to the not-so-classic (Island Of Terror, 1966) but would become most frequently seen on TV in another project from 1975, as the face of the UK government’s road safety campaign: “Think Once, Think Twice, Think Bike!”

Another Avengers visual nod: A victim is found hanging from a tree next to Tykes Water Lake Bridge, an oft used location for the show’s Diana Rigg/Linda Thorson periods.

£20,000 was a lot in 1975 money – allowing for inflation, in 2021 terms that’s around £171,600.

ATV, of course also gave us Crossroads (1964-88), a very different tale of the goings-on in a Motel, and goodness knows what Meg Mortimer and family would have made of Murder Motel. It’s tempting to imagine a parallel universe where Noele Gordon was cast as the desk manager, with Benny and Amy Turtle acting as her murderous accomplices (or is that just me?)

SPOILER ALERT!: There’s a further nod to Psycho with one of the named leads being killed off as early as act 1 – since that actor is none other than Ralph Bates, the extra irony in the actor’s surname can’t have been lost on Brian Clemens. One has to wonder whether this had any bearing on his being cast in the first place.

ADDENDUM: Subsequent to completing this review, I became aware (thanks to Martin Marshall’s research) that Robyn Millan was in poor physical health and severe pain at the time from long-term accident injuries and dependent on a particularly potent painkiller with debilitating effects. With this in mind, it’s a marvel that she even made it to Elstree, and surely makes the viewer more forgiving of her performance – You have to question the judgement of whoever thought it was a good idea to put the unfortunate actor on the plane.

Millan’s appearances would be sporadic over the following ten years until she disappeared from view altogether, although it’s not clear if this was due to ongoing health issues. She passed away in July 2020.

3 COMMENTS

  1. A very fair summation of an episode that rarely engenders much love among the fans yet provides a lot of entertainment! Plausibility is absolutely *not* the aim of the game here – it’s a caprice on the level of the outlandish plot-line of ‘Good Salary, Prospects, Free Coffin’ from earlier in the same run and owes (in the ‘killers for hire’ plot thread) a lot to the playful style of ‘The Avengers’ and the episode ‘Murderville in particular. The black humour throughout is clearly intentional. Mr Taylor’s (surely a nod to the director’s surname!) nervous drive in the dark, glancing in his mirror, alongside the pre-title shower scene (with blood running down the plughole) is blatantly shot a la ‘Psycho’, although Peter McKriel is an ‘interesting’ substitute for Janet Leigh! Most of the remaining references to the Hitchcock classic not so much mirror but subvert its clichés. E.g. the runaway here *hasn’t* embezzled the company funds. Derek Francis cardigan-wearing performance, always ‘on the munch’, is a particular highlight – a nonchalant murder-arranger! An Anthony Perkins lookalike he certainly isn’t but read the original Bloch ‘Psycho’ novel and find more than a clue to his appearance. He also gets the best line, following the stabbing of one of the most oily private-eyes ever to grace British TV screens. Despite his tribulations with the leading lady, director Malcolm Taylor memorably stages a number of sequences e.g. a roving camera sequence through the detective’s office post his murder, finally settling on a filing cabinet labelled ‘discontinued cases’. Park your expectations of ‘reality’ and make allowances for Robyn Millan and there is a lot to enjoy in ‘Murder Motel’.

  2. After reading through Martin Marshall’s review of “Murder Motel” (in his excellent book, “A Thriller in Every Corner”), I recently revisited this episode, watching it now with a different viewpoint. In order to side-step Robyn Millan’s uneven performance, I now think to myself, “how would I react if I was in her situation?” Believe it or not, it now seems to work for me. Imagine if your fiance was missing, and you decide to investigate the case for yourself. Then you begin to suspect it might’ve been murder, and you were in the place where the killer (or killers) may be? Then the killing is actually confirmed to you by seeing a newspaper clipping? Wouldn’t you be similarly terrified realising the situation you found yourself in? Say what we want about Ms. Millan’s acting for the episode, but we have to admit, her range of emotions are all over the spectrum; joyous, worrisome, confusion, anger, and finally a portrayal of overwhelming frustration and mourning, that left her character scrambling about on the floor in her motel room, trying to gather her composure. Not to detract from the rest of the cast (especially since they definitely pick up the slack for Robyn), but now when watching the episode, I find even more compassion for the character of Kathy, and even though she lost her fiance, we can hope that in the end, at least she gained a closer relationship with Helen. I have to hand it to director Malcolm Taylor. I think Mr. Taylor knew just how to weave the straws he was dealt with this episode, and made the most of it!

    • Excellent thoughts there Carlos. The character of Kathy certainly had her reasons to go to pieces! One wonders how the role might have played out by another actress who wasn’t suffering the effects of a real life painkiller – e.g. a return of Alexandra Hay (from ‘A Place to Die’), probably the nearest elsewhere in the series to such a ‘vulnerable’ persona, or maybe Pamela Franklin? Robyn Millan is undoubtedly a fascinating watch. As to Malcolm Taylor, considering the pressures he was under (made clear to me in conversation back in 2011), he really shows flair in many aspects of the staging. His earlier story – ‘A Killer in Every Corner’ – was also another excellently directed episode. I’d certainly consider him among the top rank of directors on the series. A pity the travails on ‘Murder Motel’ maybe precluded a return in Series 6.

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