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Retro Review: HELLHOLE (1985)

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HELLHOLE
(US - 1985)

Directed by Pierre De Moro. Written by Vincent Mongol (Aaron Butler), Lance Dickson and Mark Evan Schwartz. Cast: Ray Sharkey, Judy Landers, Marjoe Gortner, Mary Woronov, Richard Cox, Terry Moore, Edy Williams, Robert Darcy (Robert Z'Dar), Marneen Fields, Martin Beck, Cliff Emmich, Martin West, Dyanne Thorne, Lynn Borden, Lamya Derval, Natalie Main, Ann-Elizabeth Chatterton, Carole Ita White. (R, 95 mins)

A women-in-prison take on THE SNAKE PIT and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, the wonderfully sleazy and boundlessly stupid HELLHOLE was the first and last film distributed by the short-lived Arkoff International Pictures. Formed by Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918-2001) after his American International Pictures was acquired by Filmways in 1979, Arkoff International Pictures allowed the B-movie legend to keep the AIP abbreviation, but lightning didn't strike twice. Arkoff's new AIP produced a handful of genre titles that were acquired by others--UFDC released 1982's Q, Comworld released 1983's THE FINAL TERROR, and Orion released 1984's UP THE CREEK. But HELLHOLE, which played in theaters over the spring and summer of 1985, was also distributed by Arkoff and his son Louis, and it promptly brought the curtain down on Arkoff International Pictures, quickly and quietly closing a largely forgotten chapter of the famed drive-in and exploitation icon's storied career.







HELLHOLE was written by Aaron Butler, using the pseudonym "Vincent Mongol," with separate "additional dialogue" credits going to both Lance Dickson and Mark Evan Schwartz, an almost certain sign of script revisions during a troubled shoot. As "Mongol," Butler also wrote the incredible 1983 trash classic CHAINED HEAT, so that should give you some idea of what to expect with HELLHOLE. Aerobics instructor Susan (Judy Landers) witnesses her mother (Lynn Borden) being strangled by psychotic Silk (Ray Sharkey), who's after the location of some papers Mom had stashed away. Said papers go into all the details of the evil experiments taking place at Ashland, a sanitarium for women. Silk has been hired by Monroe (Martin Beck) and Rollins (Martin West), two corrupt members of the state board of examiners trying to cover up what's going on at Ashland. Suffering from amnesia after surviving a head injury escaping from Silk, Susan is transferred to--wait for it--Ashland, where kinky lesbian Dr. Fletcher (Mary Woronov) is using the scantily-clad patients as guinea pigs in an abandoned building on the grounds--referred to as the "Hellhole" by those in the know--for some brain serum/chemical lobotomy nonsense that apparently has a 0% survival rate. It's not a well-kept secret that Fletcher's up to some shady shit--crusading medical board chief Sydnee Hammond (Terry Moore, a long way from MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, her COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA Oscar nomination, and being Howard Hughes' alleged secret wife) already has an inside man, Ron (CRUISING's Richard Cox) conducting an investigation while working as an orderly. Also improbably brought on as an orderly is Silk, who's there to kill Susan after finding out what she knows about the location of her mother's papers. To pass the time, Silk manages to seamlessly blend in by acting like a complete psycho, sexually abusing some of the women, and using an empty room to create his own workplace S&M fuck pad (what do you expect from the same writer who gave us a warden with a jacuzzi in his office in CHAINED HEAT?) while somehow avoiding any kind of disciplinary action whatsoever from either Fletcher or the more altruistic, level-headed Dr. Dane (Marjoe Gortner). Just to give you an idea of how sordid HELLHOLE is, Marjoe Gortner plays one of the relatively nice characters.






Director Pierre De Moro (SAVANNAH SMILES) does a workmanlike job getting the film in the can, but HELLHOLE is definitely worth seeing for fans of the 1980s women-in-prison revival that gifted us such B-movie favorites as THE CONCRETE JUNGLE, CHAINED HEAT, CAGED WOMEN, WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE, THE NAKED CAGE, and REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS. The unusual cast gives it some cult movie cache, from the likes of Gortner, Landers (then a TV favorite with her older sister Audrey), buxom Russ Meyer muse/ex-wife Edy Williams, future MANIAC COP star Robert Z'Dar (billed as "Robert Darcy") as a hulking orderly, ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS' Dyanne Thorne in a small role as a crazed patient, and Moore, a fading '50s actress who, a year earlier at 55, became the oldest Playboy centerfold in their August 1984 issue. However, HELLHOLE is dominated by two competing batshit performances from Woronov and Sharkey. Woronov, who's interviewed on Shout! Factory's new Blu-ray release, clearly knows this is campy silliness and just has fun with it, as evidenced by the long, slow, wet kiss she gives her latest failed experiment (Marneen Fields) after torturing her to death.


But it's Sharkey who wins the overacting honors for HELLHOLE. Whether he's singing nursery rhymes or perpetually smirking or just standing there looking like a brainless dipshit, you can't take your eyes off of him, usually for all the wrong reasons. How many bridges did Sharkey burn to go from winning a Golden Globe for his breakout performance in 1980's THE IDOLMAKER to rolling around in a mudbath threesome with Edy Williams in a sleazy women-in-prison potboiler from the makers of CHAINED HEAT a mere five years later? Sharkey had a career year in 1980, with starring roles in THE IDOLMAKER, HEART BEAT, and Paul Mazursky's JULES & JIM remake WILLIE & PHIL, followed by a 1981 hosting gig on the ill-fated Jean Doumanian-led sixth season of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, but his momentum stalled and things quickly derailed when he opted to become a cautionary tale. Sharkey began using heroin not long after his Golden Globe win, and the downward spiral was depressingly apparent in the rapidly declining quality of work he was getting. By 1984, his career completely crashed and burned, and he was reduced to a supporting role in the Lorenzo Lamas breakdancing bomb BODY ROCK. And did anyone see the same year's patchwork clusterfuck DU-BEAT-E-O, a barely-released look at the L.A. punk scene from WELCOME BACK KOTTER co-creator Alan Sacks that starred Sharkey and Fear bassist Derf Scratch, along with a prominently-billed Joan Jett in six-year-old footage from an unfinished 1978 documentary on The Runaways? Relative to the projects he was being offered at the time, Sharkey probably saw a top-billed starring role in HELLHOLE as a step up.


Ray Sharkey (1952-1993)
He managed occasional guest spots on TV shows like MIAMI VICE, THE EQUALIZER, and CRIME STORY, and was lucky to score small roles in Brian De Palma's little-loved gangster comedy WISE GUYS and the Richard Gere-Kim Basinger thriller NO MERCY (both 1986), but it took several stints in rehab before he finally kicked his heroin addiction. His marriage ending in divorce over his drug use and multiple overdoses, Sharkey enjoyed a brief comeback with an acclaimed recurring role from 1987-1989 as mobster Sonny Steelgrave on the CBS series WISEGUY, and was such a prominent face at the network that he even did a drunk driving PSA for them after being involved in four drug-related car accidents a few years earlier. But offscreen, he replaced his heroin addiction with even more reckless and grossly irresponsible behavior. Though he managed to keep it secret for several years, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the late '80s after years of heroin use and shared needles. In complete denial of his medical condition, Sharkey continued having unprotected sex with scores of women--well over 100, according to his manager. By 1992, with his WISEGUY gig long gone and his career in the toilet, Sharkey was back on drugs and was busted by Canadian customs when a routine cargo inspection uncovered a package of cocaine and heroin being shipped to him from Los Angeles to Vancouver, where he was working on the CBS series THE HAT SQUAD. Vancouver police searched his hotel room and uncovered more heroin and he was arrested and fired from the show. The same year, his second marriage ended because of his drug abuse and his condition progressed to full-blown AIDS. When it became known that he was aware of his HIV-positive status and didn't tell his partners, he was sued by three different women who accused him of knowingly exposing them to infection. One of the women was model Elena Monica, daughter of Borscht Belt comedian and third-string Rat Pack member Corbett Monica. Elena Monica won a $52 million settlement against Sharkey's estate after he died in June of 1993. The ruling was essentially worthless, as the actor was broke by the time of his death, not living long enough to face judgment in any of the lawsuits filed against him. The 40-year-old Sharkey was reportedly down to 90 lbs when he died, and he looked gaunt and tired in his final film appearance as the bad guy in the Burt Reynolds kiddie comedy COP AND A HALF, released two months before his death. A gifted actor--even in junk like HELLHOLE--unable to control and conquer the demons that destroyed his life and forever changed the lives of at least three women, Sharkey's legacy is a tragic one: in 2015, his only child, Cecelia Sharkey, born in 1988 to Sharkey and his second wife, was charged with murder, accused of bludgeoning her boyfriend's mother to death with a baseball bat.

HELLHOLE opening in Toledo, OH on 6/14/1985


HELLHOLE playing at two local malls

James Spader sandwiched between DEF-CON 4
and NIGHT PATROL. This kid's goin' nowhere. 

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