Pierre De Moro’s “Hellhole” (1985) – Girls Gone Wild

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Hellhole begins with mass confusion, and doesn’t really get better from there.

Let me be clear:

“Better” in the “coherent narrative” sense.

“Better” in the “these characters speak to me, and I can relate to them” sense.

“Better” in the “this film is Oscar material” sense.

It’s still a whole “hell” of a lot of fun. Ha ha. Ha.

When I spoke with cult icon Mary Woronov (Eating RaoulRock n’ Roll High SchoolDeath Race 2000) briefly at New Jersey’s Chiller Theatre Con a few years ago, she said this about her many memorable films: “Most of the scripts were crap, so we just made up our own dialog.”

A lot of characters in Hellhole are seen sneaking lines of cocaine and bumps of crystal meth; at one point, two of our nubile nudes sniff glue to get high. One can only wonder if these acts were simulated, and if the crew were also partaking of the supplies…

Because Hellhole is a glorious mess, albeit one rich in the currency of absurdity. It’s the type of film you watch in a slack-jawed daze, because it bears so little resemblance to a convincing reality.

From the poorly established plot to the jarring editing, it would kind of make sense if the film were the main character’s dream; but alas, it’s not that psychologically ambitious.

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Silk (Ray Sharkey) doesn’t take kindly to being held up for his Cruising audition. Image source: zombiesdontrun.net

In the opening scene, Silk (Ray Sharkey, in full-on Joe Spinell “ham & sleaze” mode) murders Susan’s (Judy Landers) mother. Susan is apparently hiding some “papers” containing ostensible dirt on a guy named Monroe (Martin Beck), who works for the Department of Health (or does he?). After a near-miss on the business end of Silk’s lethal scarf, Susan takes a fall that leaves her with amnesia and confined to an all-female mental institution. Presided over by dubious scientist and wicked warden Fletcher (Woronov), Susan gains the trust and possible affection of orderly Ron (Richard Cox – Cruising), who is also a covert agent for the Department of Health. Or maybe an undercover cop. Maybe both. Maybe neither. (In any case, it doesn’t really matter.) Meanwhile, the oily Silk infiltrates the institution as an orderly – which isn’t too difficult, given the corrupt security force (including Maniac Cop‘s Robert Z’Dar) – in an attempt to rattle Susan’s memory by force (and overacting). All of this leads to a ridiculous conclusion involving double- and triple-crosses, none of which make sense due to the plot’s poor establishment in the early going.

Part of what makes Hellhole so endearing, in spite – or because of – its inherent ridiculousness, is the commitment of the cast, who play their roles with a tricky mix of seriousness and snark. Given the lack of motivation and backstory, this feat is particularly impressive. While Sharkey is pretty distracting as the only actor going full ham, he is given moments where he comes off as a convincingly sleazy psycho; Cox makes for a likable hero; Z’Dar is properly repugnant as a rough, ‘roided-out guard; and Marjoe Gortner’s Dr. Miles is the sincere yin to Fletcher’s sinister yang. The ensemble element helps the film, as Landers’s blank-eyed lead performance is excruciatingly weak (though this does convincingly sell the amnesia angle).

Director Pierre De Moro does a good job of keeping the action moving over the 95-minute run time, and the fact that Scream Factory’s Blu-ray is something of a Frankenstein monster in its composition speaks volumes for the film holding together as well as it does (aesthetically, anyway). He includes some stylistic flourishes here and there, and has a penchant for using Argento-inspired lighting schemes (red for a basement boiler room; blue for a dank operating theater). Insofar as the obligatory exploitation passages are concerned, De Moro exceeds expectations in his depictions of shower fights; softcore lesbian coupling (including a scene in a mud bath…this institution has it all!); and shameless close-ups of T&A. Even within the confines of an R rating, the film brings the sleaze.

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Dr. Fletcher (Mary Woronov, right) performs unnecessary surgery in Hellhole. Image source: zombiesdontrun.net

But Hellhole‘s MVP is Woronov, who carved out her own unique niche within the cinematic avant-garde over the course of the ’70s and ’80s. What I feared would be a brief cameo is instead the film’s most prominent role; her sadistic experiments in “chemical lobotomies” (really just an excuse to get cringey with a lot of BIG syringes), coupled with her sexual appetites (in more ways than one, she’s not altogether different from Jena Malone’s character in The Neon Demon), leads to the type of villain who’s an extreme pleasure to watch. When her experimental rejects break free of their confines, the sequence has an impact comparable to the climax of Island of Lost Souls. (If you pick up the Blu-ray, be sure to watch the 5-minute interview with Woronov, which is one of the most entertaining supplements in the history of the medium.)

Oh, and she gets to deliver lines like: “At least I have sexual hang-ups; you don’t even have sex!” and “I’d like to rip your fucking skull off!” Great stuff!

The title may be Hellhole, but for aficionados of sleaze, exploitation, and horror/sci-fi crossovers, it’s an invitation to pure cinematic pleasure.

Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 7 out of 10