The early-to-mid ’80s were the last great era of the women-in-prison film and producer Billy Fine cashed in on that trend in a major way, producing a couple of genre evergreens in The Concrete Jungle and Chained Heat.  His last entry in the genre was Hellhole: while it isn’t as well-remembered as his other chicks-in-chains Hellhole-bluoutings, it delivers a respectable onslaught of sleaze peppered with a sometimes surprising cast.

Like Fine’s other women-in-prison items, Hellhole revolves around the travails of an innocent woman thrown into an institution on bogus charges.  In the case of this film, Susan (Judy Landers) is an unfortunate soul who develops amnesia after witnessing the murder of her mother.  Her mother was on the wrong side of business interests who see it to it that Susan is sent to a ratty mental institution where her only ally is kindly attendant Ron (Richard Cox).  Unfortunately, said institution is also home to “chemical lobotomy” experiments presided over by Doctors Fletcher (Mary Woronov) and Dane (Marjoe Gortner).  To make matters worse, Silk (Ray Sharkey), the sleazeball assassin who killed Susan’s mother, gets a job at the institution so he can take out Susan.

If you look at Hellhole in conventional critical terms, it’s easy to pick apart.  Susan is a passive protagonist who never plays an active role in changing her plight, it’s never exactly clear while Susan’s mother is killed and the plot often seems like it changes direction based on the whims of who was in charge at a given moment (in addition to the credited screenwriter, another person gets credit for additional scenes and dialogue plus a third writer for yet more dialogue).  In terms of story architecture, it’s a mess that hurtles from sensation to sensation.

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However, Hellhole was not made to be looked at in conventional critical terms.  The reason to watch is the often-dreamlike onslaught of sleaze that flows freely through the running time.  It begins with a slasher movie-style opening sequence in which Silk wears fetish-y black leather gear that would make Rob Halford raise an eyebrow.  The floodgates fly open when you get to the institution, which has patients flipping out after getting injections from the evil doctor, a warden’s office with a hot tub (shades of Chained Heat) and inmates in sexy lingerie who constantly sneak off to sniff coke or glue before engaging in R-rated Sapphic heavy petting.  Silk has a ball here, setting up a makeout room to canoodle with the ladies and even getting in on a mud-bath threesome.

If the above sounds fun, rest assured it is.  Pierre De Moro seems like an odd choice for director, given his other big credit was the kid-flick fave Savannah Smiles, but he throws himself into his work.  He keeps the aforementioned sleaze front and center, giving the film an oddball primary-color lighting style that is half ’80s music video and half-Creepshow.

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Better yet, Hellhole has an amazing supporting cast.  Landers is bland in the lead role – she looks like she’d rather be on The Love Boat – but her thinly-drawn character is basically a plot device to facilitate the trashy antics.  In the “play it straight” category, Richard Cox of Cruising fame is a solid hero and Gortner plays a tormented man of b-movie science right out of a ’50s sci-fi flick.  On the campy side, Woronov gives a knowingly deadpan performance as a casually psychotic mad doctor and Edy Williams vamps it up like she was still in Russ Meyer flicks as a junkie-patient informant who aids and beds Silk. You also see Robert Z’Dar in a pre-Maniac Cop role as a nasty orderly and there’s even a surprise cameo from Dyanne Thorne of Ilsa: She Wolf Of The S.S.!

That said, the real heavy lifting in the thespian department here is done by Ray Sharkey, who gives a wonderfully loopy, Method-style performance.  He wears crazy clothes, struts like a young mobster, dives into the sleaze with glee and gives charmingly off-the-cuff, improv-style line deliveries that leave his castmates in the dust.  He knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in and has a blast as he snaps up each opportunity for sleazeball grandstanding like a kid in a candy store.

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In short, Hellhole is a fun little adventure in mid-80’s sordidness.  It was a fine close to Billy Fine’s career in women-in-prison flicks and a must for exploitation film buffs.

Blu-Ray Notes: Hellhole drifted out of print after the VHS era but has been revived by Scream Factory for a new blu-ray/DVD combo set.  It was a labor of love for the company, taking a few years to find a print source that could be used to patch in for missing footage in the main interpositive source.  Thus, there are occasional scenes that are a little darker and less detail-rich in the transfer but the overall look is solid and exploitation fans will be happy they made the effort.  It’s a nice rescue job on a par with Scream Factory’s work on The Final Terror.  The 2.0 mono track is presented in lossless form and does a solid job with the vintage mix, with only minor variances in quality during the patched-in scenes.

There is one new extra here with a quick Mary Woronov interview that runs just under five minutes.  Despite the short running time, it’s wildly entertaining as she gives her uncensored take on the film, why she did it and shares her amusement about various aspects of it.   The agreeably trashy theatrical trailer rounds the package out.