‘Hellhole’ (1985): Sleazy & amusing, indie ’80s at its most nostalgic

Sleazy, thoroughly enjoyable 1980s “women in prison/nuthouse” flick.

By Paul Mavis

After watching the news, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate something-something to watch than Hellhole. A couple of years back, Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line released a two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo for 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 thankfully 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. Extras, like an original trailer, are light, but there’s a brief new interview with Woronov that’s a hoot.

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Pretty blonde Susan (Judy Landers) did just as she was told by her mother (Lynn Borden): she hid the incriminating bank statements of her mother’s employer, Dr. Monroe (Martin Beck), 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) hire S & M-clad hood “Silk” (Ray Sharkey) 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 then chased to a construction site. She falls, and Silk thinks that’s that.

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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), but Ron—working undercover for the State Board of Medical Examiners’ Dr. Hammond (Terry Moore)—warns Susan never to mention “Hellhole,” a separate experimental lab run by Dr. Fletcher (Mary Woronov) and Dr. Dane (Marjoe Gortner). 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?

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Hellhole‘s Blu-ray release held a bit of notoriety for fans of 1980s horror exploitation, back in 2016. 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 Shout! combined the two for what’s stated on the hardcase as the most complete available version of Hellhole.

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I can’t remember catching Hellhole at the drive-in or at our second-run houses back in ’85 (on viewing, though, it did seem familiar when I watched it…I probably saw it back during those glory days of 1980s VHS horror rentals). It’s easy to spot the found footage now, due to differences in print quality, but with no strong memory of the original release, I’ll have to go with Shout!’s assertion as to its completeness. Regardless; what is here is sleazy and amusing in a way that immediately takes you back to that particularly nostalgic period in low budget 80s indie horror moviemaking.

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It’d be easy to pick to death trash like Hellhole, especially if you’re anticipating 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 gory or special). Anyone looking at Hellhole with an eye towards making sense of Aaron Butler’s storyline (with additional dialogue provided Lance Dickson and 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.

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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” (would one line of exposition have killed them?). 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).

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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 mostly pro 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).

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To be fair with the carping, 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 (god I miss those…). 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.

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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 had asked her to, she’d have flashed 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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Add to those stock elements Hellhole’s nude hot tubs and mud baths for the lucky prisoners, inmates 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 any sense?

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