Written by: Aaron Butler, Lance Dickson, and Mark Evan Schwartz
Directed by: Pierre De Moro
Starring: Ray Sharkey, Judy Landers, and Mary Woronov
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Captives! Stripped naked and forced to submit to the ultimate experiment!
You have to hand it to Samuel Arkoff. After selling off what was essentially his life’s work in American International Pictures, he didn’t just ride off into the sunset, content in retirement. Instead, he considered it a “giant mistake” and swiftly un-retired by forming Arkoff International Pictures, a production outfit meant to remind the world what AIP really stood for. And if its sparse filmography is any indication, this iteration of AIP would make sure those three letters were synonymous with trash, gore, sleaze, and (mostly) nonsense (obviously, Larry Cohen’s Q is excused from some of these descriptors).
Arkoff had already spent decades riding the exploitation wave and was looking to do so again in a huge way with Hellhole. On a conceptual level at least, this one is a pretty wild grab-bag that stuffs a mad scientist, captive women, and sleazebag men together in a scuzzy, greasy display of unrepentant exploitation. This doesn’t mean that Hellhole is a great film by any means, but there’s something audacious about someone basically wondering aloud what One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest might look like if it were re-imagined as a grindhouse women-in-prison flick.
Before getting down to its nasty, grimy business, some exposition is required in the form of a mother (Lynn Borden) her daughter Susan (Judy Landers) having a cryptic but obviously important conversation about some incriminating documents concerning the mother's employer. Unfortunately, this scumbag is proactive and has sent a ruthless hitman (Ray Sharkey) to terrorize the women and retrieve the damning information. He is perhaps too overzealous, as he kills the mother and assaults the daughter, leaving her with amnesia, which lands her at a nearby women’s mental institution. Not only does she have to fend off the assassin (now posing as an orderly), but she also has to contend with Dr. Fletcher (Mary Woronov), a psychotic therapist whose unusual methods are only whispered about around the place.
And there’s a good reason for that—as it turns out, any kind of noncompliance results in patients being banished to a shady part of the institution called “Hellhole.” If the film does anything very well, it creates an ominous, lurid vibe about this hidden place. Hellhole isn't ever likely to be renowned for its restraint, but director Pierre De Moro and the screenwriters do an almost admirable job of building some sense of ominous menace to the titular compound, a nightmarish prison resting deep in the bowels of the asylum. Some hints—such as Fletcher’s ghoulish lobotomy process—are strewn about, adding to the intrigue until it’s finally unleashed in the climax.
Before that point, Hellhole has plenty of other schlock to provide distractions. As it’s a spiritual cousin to the women-in-prison film that Arkoff helped to pioneer, it’s no surprise that it leans heavily on that genre’s tropes, almost to the point of dutifully running through all of the expected motions. You will not be surprised to learn that its limp script attempts to propel itself on the backs (and chests) of its often very naked female cast. Whenever things start to feel just a little slow or dull, a pair of breasts is thrust onto the screen—or, hell, in the case of the obligatory locker room/shower scene, dozens of pairs are leered at by the camera. It is exactly the sort of sleaze you expect from this sort of movie, right down to a wonderfully, brutally choreographed brawl between two of the ladies being interrupted by the warden figure, a role here occupied with gusto by Woronov.
Seriously: despite how familiar and formulaic Hellhole might be, it boasts a distinguishing performance from Woronov. Proceeding with a wry but understated self-awareness, the B-movie goddess chews through every scene with a campy aplomb. She literally towers over her frightened patients, terrorizing them with so much as a glance in a magnetic turn that single-handedly justifies giving Hellhole 90 minutes of your time. Even her assistant isn’t spared from her snippy, ice-queen routine: when he accuses her of only exploiting her patients’ conditions for her own sexual hang-ups, she unloads on him. “At least I have sexual hang-ups…and sex," she shoots back, practically cutting his nuts off right there in their dingy, filthy laboratory that they’ve gone to great lengths to conceal.
Speaking of which, there is something of a plot that unfolds between all the sleaze. Most of it involves an undercover agent’s (Richard Cox) investigation for a State Board that shows hesitation even in the face of ample evidence. It’s not the most riveting subplot, especially when it involves Cox trying to convince his superiors to come take a closer look. Some dramatic irony is mined once they arrive to make an inspection, but there’s no real payoff—it looks for all the world like the lead investigator will wander off into Hellhole, only the film weirdly pulls a punch here. For such an otherwise nasty film, it does hold back on graphic violence more than you might expect.
By the way, Susan, the poor amnesiac theoretically at the center of this story, makes the occasional appearance (once you see her fleeing from a psycho in a garish 80s aerobics outfit at the beginning, you sense that the film has already carved out her biggest moment). She finds an ally in the undercover agent, but even he can only do so much to thwart the hitman that keeps attacking her in an attempt to recover the hiding place of those incriminating documents (which we never really learn much about, by the way). If anyone in Hellhole can possibly claim to be nearly the presence Woronov is, it’s Sharkey as this outrageously scummy, perpetually horny maniac. He even has his own den for having sex; even more surprising, an astounding number of women are willing to have sex with him. Like Woronov, he’s looking to devour whatever’s put in front of him anytime he’s on screen—you often find yourself wishing the entire movie were on the same wavelength as these two actors.
It’s no surprise, then, that Hellhole really roars to life at the climax, where all of these combustible elements find themselves in the same room, looking to rip each other’s throats out. Unfolding deep within the heart of Hellhole, this is a knock-down, drag-out sequence complete with strangulations, axe-murders, and the lobotomized patients (now resembling something like zombies). There’s little doubt that this stretch of the film is the closest it comes to living up to its scummy premise (not to mention its killer poster art). I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a film that disappoints given all the schlock working in its favor (which includes a cast comprised of exploitation stars), but it could use a bit more of a sustained sense of insanity. In one of the more surprising turns here, Hellhole is drowned out by too much plot that requires some untangling—not that the script does so gracefully, of course.
That’s fitting, though, since Hellhole never feigns at being a graceful picture—it’s unabashed trash delivered from one of America’s foremost junk cinema’s hucksters, and something tells me he wasn’t ashamed that it was among his last credits.
After a two-year delay due to missing elements, Scream Factory has finally brought Hellhole to home video via a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. A disclaimer about the film’s quality (its transfer splices together multiple sources) precedes the film, though it’s not the worst composite job I’ve ever seen (some of the more unseemly bits look a bit rougher, but it’s more than tolerable). The only extras are a trailer and a delightful 5-minute interview with Woronov, who’s in rare, fire-spitting form here.
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