Enjoyably sleazy 1980s “women in prison/nuthouse” flick.
Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line has released on a two-disc
Blu-ray/DVD combo pack HELLHOLE, the 1985 thriller from Arkoff International
Pictures, co-written by Aaron Butler (credited as “Vincent Mongol”),
directed by Pierre De Moro, and starring Ray Sharkey, Judy Landers, Marjoe Gortner,
Edy Williams, Terry Moore, Richard Cox, Robert Z’Dar, Cliff Emmich, Martin
West, Lynn Borden, Dyanne Thorne, and Mary Woronov as “Dr. Fletcher.”
A better-than-expected cast (with Sharkey and Woronov in on the joke) and all
the WIP boxes ticked off, helps overcome some of HELLHOLE’s more obvious
problems...like its script, its direction, and its lead performance. HELLHOLE
finally comes to Blu after some cobbling together of a couple of prints, and
the results aren’t bad at all for the 1080p HD widescreen 1.78:1 transfer.
Extras, like an original trailer, are light, but there’s a brief new interview
with Woronov that’s a hoot.
Pretty blonde Susan (Judy Landers, THE YUM YUM GIRLS, SKATETOWN, U.S.A.) did just as she was told by her mother (Lynn Borden, WALKING TALL, FROGS): she hid the incriminating bank statements of her mother’s employer, Dr. Monroe (Martin Beck, GANGSTER WARS, FIRST STRIKE), somewhere in their home. Unfortunately for them both, Dr. Monroe isn’t going to just sit back and let those papers put him away for 10 years, so he has friend Rollins (Martin West, LORD LOVE A DUCK, ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13) hire S & M-clad hood “Silk” (Ray Sharkey, THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH, THE IDOLMAKER) to boost them. Silk’s a tad too enthusiastic, though, strangling Susan’s mother before he finds out where the papers are. Susan, seeing the murder, flees, where she’s chased to a construction site. She falls, and Silk thinks that’s that. However, Susan survives, and Dr. Monroe is able to get Susan—who now suffers from amnesia—into the Ashland Sanitarium for Women, a psychiatric hospital. Monroe sends Silk in as an orderly to determine if Susan’s amnesia is real, and to get the information on those missing bank statements. Susan, bewildered at her predicament, is comforted by kind, sympathetic Ron Stevens (Richard Cox, CRUISING, ZOMBIE HIGH), but Ron—working undercover for the State Board of Medical Examiners’ Dr. Hammond (Terry Moore, SHACK OUT ON 101, DEATH DIMENSION)—warns Susan never to mention “Hellhole,” a separate experimental lab run by Dr. Fletcher (Mary Woronov, EATING RAOUL, DEATH RACE 2000) and Dr. Dane (Marjoe Gortner, EARTHQUAKE, BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW). Patients who cause problems or who ask too many questions about “Hellhole” wind up there, where Dane experiments unsuccessfully with “chemical lobotomies,” and where Fletcher has sex with the crazed, murderous results. Will Susan escape Silk and the “Hellhole” torture chamber?
From what I gathered online, HELLHOLE’s Blu-ray release holds a bit of notoriety for fans of 1980s horror exploitation. Originally, Shout! Factory announced a 2014 release date, before issues with their cut’s completeness forced the title’s drop from the company’s schedule. As a pre-credit title card on this transfer reveals, the negative for HELLHOLE is lost (at least for now). Shout!’s inter-positive was, apparently, a TV print that was missing key nude scenes. Two years later, someone must have found another print that had those scenes, because now Shout! has combined the two for what’s stated as the most complete version of HELLHOLE available. I missed HELLHOLE when it first came out (it seemed familiar, though, when I watched it...I probably saw it back during those glory days of 1980s VHS horror rentals), so I wouldn’t have known what was missing or not (it’s easy enough to see now; just compare the differences in original materials used for the transfer). However, what is here is sleazy and amusing in a way that immediately takes you back to that particularly nostalgic period in ultra-low budget indie horror moviemaking.
It’d be easy to pick to death trash like HELLHOLE, especially if you’re looking for a straight-ahead suspense thriller (Arkoff International’s marketing angle to the contrary, the horror elements of the story are definitely subordinate, and limited just to the lobotomy experiments...which disappointingly, aren’t all that special). Anyone looking at HELLHOLE with an eye towards making sense of Aaron Butler’s (CHAINED HEAT) storyline (with additional dialogue provided by HOLLYWOOD HEARTBREAK’s Lance Dickson and TERMINAL VOYAGE’s Mark Evan Schwartz) is going to keep falling into plot holes, both shallow and deep, before giving up entirely just to wait for the next nude scene. None of the bank statement stuff makes sense, particularly when the script refuses to tell us what, exactly, is in them (if they’re worth killing over, we should at least have an idea, even if they function only as a Hitchcockian McGuffin). And with Landers being a rather blank heroine, it’s even harder to care about Sharkey following her into the hospital (not to be unkind, but Landers the actress, on her best day, doesn’t look like she knows which way is up—I think Dr. Monroe was safe). Now, someone please tell me how Cox and Moore go from state to state, exposing medical malpractice? She gets on state medical examiners boards how? And how, exactly, does Woronov get her jollies with the “Hellhole” rejects? It’s never shown (she seduces the regular patients here). She kisses a dead one (I think she’s dead, or is she the one later with the axe?)...is Woronov a necrophiliac? Dark mumblings from Gortner don’t help explain what’s what (to add to the confusion, Woronov drops that Gortner is sexless, and that’s the last we hear of that). Helping none of this is director Pierre De Moro’s curiously flat, herky-jerky handling of the material’s flow—he’s damn lucky he had actors who knew how to propel a scene; they’re the only thing giving HELLHOLE any sense of movement (De Moro directed just two other titles, both before HELLHOLE, and both family films, if you can believe it—SAVANNAH SMILES and CHRISTMAS MOUNTAIN—before he disappeared).
To be fair, though, we’re not looking for Orson Welles in something like HELLHOLE. This is exploitation at its most unapologetically crass (and thank god for that), something sensationalistic to occupy the drive-in viewer in between make-out sessions and those concession stand eggrolls with the cartoon Chinese guy on the wrapper. And as far as these things go, HELLHOLE’s cast is better-than-expected, and the situations are well within our demands from the WIP genre. As I stated before, Landers can’t do much with her character (and seriously: how uncool is it that she denies us nudity in a movie like this? If Scorsese asked her to, she’d flash those babies in a New Yawk second). Surprisingly, the talented Marjoe Gortner has only a few minutes total on screen, even though he’s third billed (you can see how bummed he is; eight years earlier, he was headlining a big AIP hit like BOBBIE JO AND THE OUTLAW, and now...). Richard Cox, a skilled, talented actor, has the thankless role of being the heroine’s bland savior, and to his credit, he manages to preserve his dignity despite the seriously stupid stuff going on all around him (too bad someone wasn’t clever enough to have him revealed as a villain in the final reel). Tiny little one-offs are cast with familiar pros who do exactly what’s needed of them, including Lynn Borden (“Hazel’s Employer Strangled!”), Terry Moore (airbrushed into oblivion just the year before in Playboy), Martin West, and Cliff Emmich (gets a laugh the first time he does his usual jolly-yet-harried shtick). Mary Woronov and Ray Sharkey, though, walk off with all the glory here. Treating HELLHOLE exactly the way it should be treated—as garbage to outrageously show off in—Woronov and Sharkey clearly understand they’re working at the bottom of the movie food chain, so they might as well camp it up, if only to amuse themselves. Woronov doesn’t have to do much to get our attention other than stalk around on those 50 inch legs, so fans of this cult actress won’t be disappointed when they see her seducing female headcases, jabbing giant needles into girls’ necks, and ad libbing left and right while trying to keep her camera-side eye from winking at us (if she didn’t come up with the classic, "You're not mentally ill, you're emotionally disturbed," then she should lie and say she did). Sharkey, all jangled nerves tamped down (barely) by his streetwise punk act, is hilarious as Silk. Either wearing shades and smoking in his orderly outfit, or stalking his next victim in S& M leather boy gear complete with studded dog collar, Sharkey is one part WAIT UNTIL DARK’s Alan Arkin, and one part proto-Andrew “Dice” Clay, getting big yocks snarling out lines like, “I’d like to rip your f*cking skull off!” before smiling to himself at the absurdity of the situations. It’s a big, outsized performance for this type of movie, and a memorable one.
Equally as important as its
cast, HELLHOLE’s determination to include most of the “women in
prison” conventions delivers the goods for fans of the genre. Lots of
nudity? Check. Shower scene? Check. Butch lesbian “warden”/hospital
administrator using her position to seduce young women? Check. Riots (or in
this case, freaked-out loonies scrabbling out of their cages)? Check. Fistfights?
Check. Torture? Check. Someone working undercover to expose excesses at the
facility? Check. Some poor inmate losing it, preferably at chow time (so lots
of food gets thrown around)? Check. A break-out? Check. Oh, and uh, yeah...girl-on-girl
action? Check and double check (the only one they missed was someone getting
raped by the guards, although it’s implied that happens). Add to those
stock elements HELLHOLE’s nude hot tubs and mud baths for the lucky prisoners,
prisoners sniffing glue, poppers, and crystal meth, patients “swimming”
in the sandbox (“I find sand more therapeutic than water,” Woronov
helpfully offers) before all hell breaks loose, with lantern-jawed “Hellhole”
guard Robert Z’Dar hilariously snapping, “All right, you f*cking
c*nts, knock it off!”), Sharkey making out with Russ Meyer’s
ex, Edy Williams, in his instantly-decorated psycho-bachelor hospital pad (Edy’s
built like a brick sh*thouse, but when she grotesquely coos, “Ooooo you
turn me on!” the only proper response is turning away), Gortner
literally shushing the babbling, screaming “Hellhole” patients to
utterly no effect (a highlight), ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS’s Dyanne Thorne
doing a bad WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE riff on Bette Davis, and my personal
favorite: those two absolutely unhinged, crazy Hispanic broads screaming and
clawing at each other—watch a doctor walk by laughing at them!—who
attack and fondle a genuinely shocked-looking Landers without any motivation.
With all of that going on, without the slightest bit of guilt or irony on the
moviemakers’ parts, who needs the entertaining-as-hell HELLHOLE to make
First, the difference between HELLHOLE’s two source prints. Both are the same aspect ratio. The missing nude scene footage and assorted other brief snippets do look a tad rougher in terms of color keying, scratches (there’s one very brief shot with two nasty green scratches running through), and contrast (on the whole, they look grainer and darker). I have to say, though, that eventually, you stop noticing: the breasts and the craziness divert your attention. The 1080p HD widescreen 1.78:1 Blu transfer of HELLHOLE looks pretty good considering the varying original elements. Colors on the whole are okay (if a bit muted at times), grain isn’t always tight but it’s not a distraction, contrast is acceptable (the image, no doubt due to the fast, cheap original lighting, is dark at times), and blacks are fine. Looks pretty good on Blu...and certainly better than those $50 fullscreen VHS copies that used to be on Ebay (don’t you just hate yourself for that?). The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track is serviceable, with a reasonably hefty re-recording level. Dialogue is clean. English subtitles are available (a standard DVD using the same transfer is also included). As for extras, along with the original trailer (1:54), there’s a new interview with Mary Woronov (4:54), and let me tell you something: she’s exactly the way you want her to be—quirky, funny, well-spoken, and highly, highly dramatic. She lets us know she ad-libbed most of her stuff; that she didn’t like having the lesbian angle always foisted on her exploitation characters, and that she had no idea anyone would ever see HELLHOLE, even though she loved doing it (when told there are fans from the off-screen interviewer, she responds, “I appreciate their good taste,”). The only drawback to the interview? It should have been ten times longer. (Paul Mavis)
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