If a straightforward approach fails, rejection can sometimes be finessed by pretending that you were just kidding.

In show business, this subterfuge comes in handy when a show seems miscalculated or dumbfounding. The obvious explanation is that it's really a deadpan parody, intended to satirize the genre it appeared to be imitating so poorly.

"Motel Hell" has been preceded by rumors that it should be perceived not so much as a straight horror thriller but as a tongue-in-cheek spoof of horror thrillers. The evidence suggests that this interpretation grew out of the good old if-it-doesn't-play-as-a-drama-maybe-they'll-buy-it-as-a-comedy dodge.

The most perfunctory and least imaginative of the recent cycle of horror melodramas, "Motel Hell" may be credited with a fleeting wry touch, but it wears out its welcome by running a minimum of ghoulish stunts into the ground. The title refers to an out-of-the-way hostelry called the Motel Hello; the final letter on the neon sign begins. The owner, Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun, now gaunt and white-haired) is a cheerful psycho who uses his motel as a front for a subsidiary enterprise: the preparation of hickory-smoked meats whose savory fame has spread across the nation.

Farmer Vincent's wicked secret is that he not only slaughters the porkers one sees on the property but also lays traps for unwary motorists and visitors, who are planted in a secluded little garden before being butchered and processed into sticks of beef jerky. Farmer Vincent is assisted in his outrages by a stout, malign kid sister, played by Nancy Parsons. They have a kid brother -- a deputy sheriff played by Paul Linke -- who is ignorant of the foul commerce. However, Farmer Vincent sows the seeds of his destruction by taking a fancy to a potential victim, Nina Axelrod, whose ingenuous charms also attract his straight-arrow sibling.

If memory serves, the cannibalistic premise of "Motel Hell" was a staple of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Maybe kids will be able to respond to it as a chilling, diabolical novelty, but it seems to me that writers Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe (the sons of executive producer Herb Jaffe, evidently helping to Get the Boys Started) fail to dust off an accumulation of expository cobwebs or rearrange the creepy furnishings in any fresh or witty manner.

Farmer Vincent's rationale for his homicides is awfully flat -- he claims to be increasing the food supply while reducing the excess population -- and so is much of the picture. There are effectively grisly situations, like the garden of victims with their heads sticking out of the ground, struggling to cry out despite slashed vocal cords, or the dueling chain saws showdown between Farmer Vincent and his brother. However, the longer such spectacles remain in view -- and this movie has a bad habit of stringing everything out -- the more questions they raise and the less sensational they appear.

For example, if planting the live victims is meant to serve a purpose in the hickory-smoking process, it's never explained. The Jaffes haven't thought out the illustrative details contrived around the cannibalism gimmick.

Arbitrary and prosaic, "Motel Hell" conspicuously lacks the satiric logic that helped rationalize the weird, wacko killings in early Roger Corman diversions like "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Bucket of Blood." Not even the motel seems integral to "Motel Hell" when all is bled and done.