I was working at a low-end, not-even-close-to-respectable strip joint at the time. It was the kind of place where you couldn’t just cop a feel, but take one of the pretty ladies out back and have yourself a pretty good time if you had a few more bucks than the other miserable fellows.
Now then, before you ask: Let me tell you that I wasn’t a stripper. I knew my share of ‘em, sure, but I didn’t even actually work for this godawful, not-even-close-to-wheelchair-friendly strip club. I worked for the owner and had a ramshackle little office in his ramshackle little building where these ferociously funny, and typically quite sweet, women would shake their moneymakers in hopes of paying the electric bill, buying enough formula for the baby, or paying off that college tuition bill that would lead them, at least they hoped, to a better life in a better place.
I loved these women. I married one of ‘em, though I picked the wrong one and that sure ended badly. They loved me. Most days, my arrival would be greeted with loud squeals of delight and a collective of scantily clad women rushing to lift my wheelchair up the two steps into the place.
Those were the best of times. Those were the worst of times.
I think of those times a lot whenever I sit myself down to watch Hellroller — a 1992 straight-to-VHS indie horror flick starring Ron Litman, whose Tommy Wiseau-like performance as Eugene, a tossed-over-the-edge cripple with a bad attitude, is so epically awful that you’ll find yourself experiencing little baby orgasms for the rest of your life whenever you think about it.
I’ll never forget the feeling of sitting in my wheelchair in my local Blockbuster video, my weekly desperate search for the next hidden gem always taking my eyes up toward the upper reaches, far beyond the grasp of anyone in a wheelchair, where they not-so-conveniently placed their single-copy, low-budget indie-horror delights.
“What’s that?,” I would shout out.
Inevitably, one of their employees had watched it and usually returned my inquiry with “Oh, that? That’s awesome!”
So, there I was again on a late Friday night with my eyes quickly perusing that out-of-reach upper row when I spy something that looks a little different. “Is that a wheelchair?,” I say to myself.
Or I must’ve said it aloud because, yeah, that slightly amused Blockbuster employee shouted “Yep, that’s a wheelchair. That’s Hellroller. It’s awful … hilarious, but awful. That guy is hilarious.”
So, of course, I watched it and fell in love.
Hellroller isn’t a good film. Hellroller isn’t some obscure indie horror classic. It’s not some film that’s aged better with time. It’s probably not a coincidence that nearly everyone involved with the film is long gone from the Hollywood scene.
But, oh my, how I love Hellroller.
This was 1992 and long before the disability community’s “Nothing about us without us” prideful chant arrived on the scene. It was rare to see disability portrayed in Hollywood, and when you did it was usually some saccharine bullshit that didn’t look like any kind of life that I’d ever lived.
As a paraplegic / double amputee born with spina bifida, I wanted something resembling truth or at least some twisted variation of truth that would make me laugh or cry or have a baby orgasm.
I remember laughing with perverted glee during Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, when the guy in the wheelchair, Franklin was his name, gets, well, massacred.
Now that’s equal rights for ya.
So, yeah. I was primed for Hellroller, in which Litman plays Eugene because Eugene is a disabled-sounding name, a twitchy paraplegic who loudly proclaims “I’m handicapped!” to nearly anyone who will listen.
No one really listens. Abandoned as a child when his mother was raped and murdered by conjoined twins, Eugene has been raised by his aunt, played to delightful B-movie perfection by the legendary Mary Woronov (acting under the name Penny Arcade), whom he has grown up believing actually was his mother.
Eugene can’t help but reminder you a little bit of Michael Douglas’s William Foster in Falling Down, except Eugene can’t get back up.
Admit it. You laughed.
It’s not long before Eugene’s aunt meets the same fate, brutally slaughtered by a couple of hobos and leaving the rapidly deteriorating Eugene alone to fend for himself. He tries to get some help from David Sterry’s King of the Bums, but he only twists that knife deeper into Eugene’s psychological spine and sends him further down the spiral.
Finally, Eugene decides to take matters into his own spastic hands. Aligned with an emotionally disabled bum named Donald, played for nothing but laughs by co-writer / director G.J. Levinson, Eugene goes on a hilariously awful, frightfully rendered killing spree that is as disjointed as it is freakishly tasteless.
Y’all better not laugh at Eugene. He’s handicapped.
While Hellroller hasn’t exactly been a narrative masterpiece up to this point, from here on out it becomes purely nonsensical — a poorly edited mishmash of inexplicable killing scenes, including two that involve iconic B-movie actress Michelle Bauer and Indy’s own Hyapatia Lee, a former local stage actress turned porn star turned exotic dancer whose main reason for being here is to create a memorable shower scene.
The killings in Hellroller make no sense whatsoever, frequently occurring with a staircase nearby and me yelling at the screen “Just go up the stairs!” to the nearly naked victim who inevitably won’t quite make it.
Eugene’s pretty badass, ya know?
There are oddly placed scenes throughout Hellroller, such as a relentlessly heckled street preacher who has no relationship whatsoever to anything else in the film. But somehow they manage to give the film a sense of psychedelia that makes you feel like you’re trippin’ amidst the cinematic haze created by Levinson’s own lensing and Randy Greif’s synth-tinged original music.
Are some of the kills creative? Sure. One hooker gets cooked to death by an iron, and the killing of Eugene’s mother is magnificently recreated with an accompanying jazzy score that will make you feel like maybe you’ve stumbled into some ’70s art porn. I mean, seriously, who can argue with a seriously psychotic, badass paraplegic going completely whupass on a cold and uncaring world?
I know I can’t.
Of course, Hellroller tries to wind everything down by making some sense of it all.
You know? Maybe Eugene’s just having a bad dream. Heck, for a while, it even looks like Eugene’s gonna get his happy ending after all when he falls in love with a hooker.
Nah, that ain’t gonna happen.
Instead, Sterry shows back up in a dual role, this time as a mad scientist, and he and Eugene set out to turn all of L.A. into bums so that the “normal” will understand what it feels like to be one of the “freaks.”
I kid you not.
Somewhere around 2012, Levinson himself put together a 20th anniversary edition of Hellroller on DVD that you could find on eBay but pretty much nowhere else. It’s an obscure title, occasionally popping up in VHS clearances and video store clearance bins or at an occasional garage sale where I look at the homeowner with a gleam in my eyes and say in my best Eugene voice: “Don’t laugh at me. I’m handicapped.”
Then, we laugh. And I kill them before they can reach the stairs.
Equal rights, indeed.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
The Child’s Play Series — Salem
The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez
Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg
Scream — Heather Knight
The Witch — Rick Dossey
The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier
Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes
Unfriended — Austin Lugar
Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober
As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole
The Beyond — Nick Rogers
The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg
The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey