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by Jack Sommersby

"A 'Hell' of a Clunker"
1 stars

If you're looking for some T&A, hey, no problem. Otherwise, avoid at all costs.

Four years prior to the atrocious thriller Hellhole, Ray Sharkey gave an electrifying performance in the title role of a live wire of a music-industry manager-promoter in Taylor Hackford’s The Idolmaker. It was his first starring role, and he flooded it with a fevered intensity that kept you riveted throughout; his character’s steadfast dedication in trying to get two up-and-coming singers to stardom matched up all too well with Sharkey’s desire to be taken seriously as a major actor. (His no-holds-barred verve left little room for appeal and likeability.) He followed that up with James Toback’s wildly uneven political drama Love and Money, and it was clear he was a most unorthodox screen presence -- no mainstream moviegoer could claim they could even remotely identify with him. As the psychotic killer in Hellhole he’s quintessentially hammy playing a flamboyant psychopath known as Silk, who not only has a fondness for strangling his victims with a silk scarf but for perversely singing nursery rhymes (like “London Bridge is Falling Down” and “Three Blind Mice”) as he’s carrying out his dastardly deeds. The movie opens at the home of a mother and daughter, the former of whom is a secretary for a crooked doctor who’s come into possession of incriminating bank statements that will land him in jail; so Silk, employed by the doctor (though what crime he’s guilty of we never know), unstable to say the very least, sneaks inside and impulsively kills the mother before she can divulge the location of the documents. And when the daughter, Susan (Judy Landers), stumbles upon them she runs and hides at the construction site next door, is pursued by Silk, and winds up falling off the second floor -- she’s mistakenly presumed dead by Silk and winds up with a case of amnesia and is sneakily transported to a women’s sanitarium by the crooked doctor’s closest medical associate. With unwieldy, longish black hair, Elvis-like sideburns, and black-leather clothing, Silk looks like an S&M homosexual right out of William Friedkin’s abominable Cruising, and because of his employer’s connections he’s able to get a job as an orderly, and he divides his time interrogating Susan for the whereabouts of the documents and seducing the pretty patients with his supposed irresistibility (though it’s nothing short of a mystery why any female would be susceptible to his lecherous self; and since Susan can’t remember anything prior to her mother’s murder, the effort at questioning her doesn’t make so much as a lick of sense). We eventually learn that the head of the institution, Dr. Fletcher (Mary Woronov), an overt lesbian, is subjecting the patients who cause trouble to horrible experiments in the gloomy basement of an adjoining building known as "Hellhole" in perfecting a first-ever chemical lobotomy while also having her sexual way with them. But Susan has a secret antagonist, Ron (Richard Cox), another orderly who’s working undercover to expose these experiments, only he’s consistently being undermined by his superiors worried over busting the institution before rock-solid evidence can be presented before going forth with an official inspection of the premises.

Aaron Butler wrote the pathetic script, which isn’t surprising being that he also wrote the women’s-prison exploitation flick Chained Heat, and with the numerous full-frontal shower and sex scenes including a dominating villainess on proud display here, Butler has served up something similar and merely changed the central locale. (There’s also a mud bath with two women lustily frolicking away in it. In an insane asylum?) The plotting is unbelievably spotty, especially regarding those incriminating documents, which are more or less a MacGuffin in that they’re all but forgotten in the story’s last-third and never do materialize. (Since the mother earlier told Susan she’d be going to the police with the documents the next morning, why couldn’t Silk, who had the house to himself after dispensing with the two of them, have located them?) We’re probably meant to draw a psychological correlation between Silk and Fletcher -- that they’re both depraved doppelgangers (right after Fletcher has fried the brain of one of her young subjects, she immediately plants a big kiss on the lips of the corpse) -- and maybe with a tighter story we could enjoy their shared insatiable appetite for malevolence, but since Sharkey and Woronov don’t share a scene together until well after the midway mark we only catch the tail end of this potentially-fascinating possibility. And on the flipside, since neither Ron nor Susan is even remotely interesting, and neither Landers nor Cox can so much as convincingly read a single line of dialogue (even taking into account the dreadful verbiage they’re hampered with), the movie has no core -- you could care less about the goings-on and how everything turns out even on the most rudimentary level. (In Chained Heat we at least looked forward to the appealing Linda Blair conquering John Vernon’s martinet of a warden and Sybil Danning’s dominatrix of a head guard.) Hellhole could’ve used some of the nerve-jangling intensity and macabre touches that enlivened the 1981 Hospital Massacre, which wasn’t any better written but at least was eerily enveloping from start to finish. (It also showcased nudity of its luscious star, the ex-Playboy-centerfold Barbi Benton, whereas the beautiful but priggish television actress Landers never sheds her duds. Bummer.) But for some unfathomable reason, the studio chose as a director the insult-to-composition Pierre De Moro, whose previous work consists of the family pictures Christmas Mountain and Savannah Smiles, and who displays zero ability when it comes to generating suspense. Whenever a scene is ripe for unbearable tension, De Moro’s inept staging kills it; and though the running time is relatively brief, it seems at least twenty minutes longer because the director hasn’t the foggiest idea how to propel a movie forward through fluid film language. So despite his sensationalistic luridness, Hellhole badly needs Sharkey. Make no mistake -- he’s truly awful, with his uncouth, avant-garde acting downright embarrassing, but he has more force than anyone else in the movie. He’s the nuttiest nut in the fruitcake, and as much as you want to damned if you can take your eyes off him.

Still no DVD release for it, which will disappointing only to the one or two fans the movie has.

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originally posted: 04/17/15 04:38:31
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  01-Mar-1985 (R)



Directed by
  Pierre De Moro

Written by
  Aaron Butler

  Ray Sharkey
  Judy Landers
  Richard Cox
  Mary Woronov
  Robert Z'Dar

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