Susan, a typical 80s teen (easily identified by her hot pink legwarmers), watches as her mother is murdered by the hired killer known only as Silk, whose nickname comes from the sweet-ass scarf he uses to strangle people to death. In trying to escape, Susan falls from a great height and develops amnesia, as one does.
Sinister forces behind the scenes have her committed to Ashland Sanitarium, trapped in an asylum where all the women have lost their minds, presumably from complications from breast enhancement surgery. Unfortunately, Susan doesn’t have time for any of that, as Silk is sent undercover to find out what Susan knows about some missing financial documents that implicate… oh, like it matters. The point is, there’s murder, mayhem, sex, drugs, and a mud bath designed to cure nymphomania.
Spoiler: it don’t work so good…
Hellhole, a Samuel Z. Arkoff production from 1985, is a hidden gem of exploitation goodness, with all the class and dignity you’d expect from the producer of High School Hellcats, A Bucket of Blood, and personal favorite Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. It’s a movie that practically trips over itself in its rush to get to the next outlandish twist or delightfully gratuitous lesbian makeout session.
It’s funny to think of the 1980s as a more innocent time for sleaze, but there’s something deeply rewarding and nostalgia inducing about how aggressively Hellhole insists on giving us sainted sickos exactly what we want.
Really: how can you not love a movie that starts with the main heroine’s mother repeatedly ordering her to go do her requisite shower scene, and has the presence of mind to include a topless catfight with an all nude audience that appears to take place in a room upholstered solely with high school gym mats?
If nothing else, this is a movie that knows what it’s doing, which is commendable. Especially since it seems like it’s doing pretty much EVERYTHING.
Because not only is our ineffectual heroine dealing with the attentions of the malevolent and ineffectual Silk, she also makes an enemy of the ineffectual Asylum Chief, Dr. Fletcher, played by the endlessly watchable Mary Woronov.
Fletcher is a bad person to be on the bad side of, seeing as how besides her gig as a sanitarium head, she moonlights as a mad scientist performing dark experiments in the hidden section of Ashland Sanitarium known only as… Hellhole!
Say, just like the title of the film!
Hellhole is an open secret at Ashland, where nearly anything you do will get you sent there: making out with girls, NOT making out with certain other girls, cat fights, doing the wrong type of drugs, stepping on food, and perhaps most damningly of all, having small boobs.
There’s a genuine sense of menace in all of this, which is all the more remarkable for the fact that nobody is even remotely competent at seeing their plans through. Unless their plans involve doing a bunch of drugs, in which case they’re god damned virtuosos.
To wit: the exciting finale boils down to a bunch of people setting a single goal for themselves, failing spectacularly to achieve that goal, and then being knocked out of murdered, usually by people who wandered in from other, totally unrelated plotlines.
Good times, yo.
Luckily, the performances carry is through the lapses in logic. Though she’s always been better as a light comedienne as opposed to someone we’re supposed to take seriously, Judy Landers makes a passable enough damsel in distress. But her knight in shining armor, the sensitive Doctor Ron (Richard Cox) is wildly miscast; there’s something deeply insincere and skeevy about his concern and his heroism here, to the point where it wouldn’t be surprising if he had originally auditioned for Silk and had to settle for Ron. But that latent, vaguely predatory subtext gives a bit of a charge to what winds up being a pretty thankless role.
The stock role of the scientist with something remotely resembling a conscience is played by Marjoe Gortner (Starcrash), of all people. We can tell he’s the “decent” one when it’s revealed he doesn’t even pop a boner around all these lobotomized zombie lesbians. What a weirdo…
An impossibly young looking, but still big faced Robert Z’Dar makes the most of his scenes as a malevolent security guard.
But in the end, its all about Dr. Fletcher and that sweet, sweet Woronov action.
Woronov, who for some reason is made up to look like Dr. Frank-N-Furter auditioning to be a Sears Catalogue cover girl, gives an unusually low key performance… or at least, as low key as Mary Woronov can get. Which is to say she does a remarkable impression of a robot programmed to fuck the freakiest thing in any given room. She is, as ever, a marvel.
It would have been impossible for me to imagine anybody being able to upstage Mary Woronov, but Ray Sharkey’s Silk does it with what the French might call a ‘je ne sais scum’, if they were particularly bad at navigating their own language. Simultaneously goofy and scuzzy, Silk is laughable up until the moment he decides to get violent, and then he’s utterly terrifying.
The movie is messy (the shoot turned out to be far more chaotic than anticipated), but Sharkey and Woronov provide a guiding star, steering the ship to port and providing all the fun and absurdist vulgarity one could hope for.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to bust this one out, but Hellhole truly is ridiculous mayhem at its finest.
SPECIAL FEATURES: An all too brief interview with Mary Woronov, who remembers the movie with a touching fondness.
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