Thursday, December 30, 2010

Horror Hospital (1973)

Directed by Antony Balch
Starring Robin Askwith, Michael Gough, Vanessa Shaw
Rated R

This off-the-wall British production has mostly languished in obscurity for several decades, only recently earning a wider audience thanks to airings on the now-defunct Monsters HD channel, as well as a new DVD release this past summer. It has appeared under various titles -- including the appropriate Doctor Bloodbath and the misleading Computer Killers -- though Horror Hospital is the one by which it is most commonly known.

More a jaw-dropper than a heart-stopper, Horror Hospital is a mostly nonstop riot throughout the 85 minutes it takes to move through its absurd plot, some elements of which recall various Hammer horror tropes, here crazily exaggerated. The story is secondary, though, existing mainly to support the cast of outlandish characters, several buckets’ worth of over-the-top gore, a few flashes of flesh, and a catalogue of campy one-liners.

By the time Antony Balch came to direct Horror Hospital, he’d already built a lengthy résumé of exploitative and avant-garde fare, including a few ’60s collaborations with his friend William S. Burroughs. More a distributor than a director, Balch was responsible for bringing British audiences films by folks like Kenneth Anger and Russ Meyer (including Meyer’s Supervixens), as well as a number of other sex and/or horror titles from abroad.

In 1970, Balch teamed with producer Richard Gordon to direct the wild, weird anthology film Secrets of Sex. The pair would then reunite once more to make Horror Hospital, allegedly beginning with only the title, from which Balch and co-scripter Alan Watson built their wacky story.

The film opens upon a grim-looking dude with black gloves whom we’ll come to learn is the crazed, wheelchair-bound Dr. Christian Storm. Dr. Storm is played by the character actor Michael Gough, veteran of a few Hammer titles who’d later become known as Alfred the butler in the Batman films of the late ’80s and ’90s. With Dr. Storm in the back of a car is a diminutive sidekick in a cap, his dwarf assistant Frederick, played by Skip Martin (The Masque of the Red Death, Vampire Circus).

We soon see a man and woman, both covered in blood and bandages, seemingly running for their lives as the vehicle in which the pair rides follows them.

As they approach the couple, Frederick pulls a lever and a long blade emerges from the car’s side panel. In a flash, the blade swiftly removes the heads from the runners as they pass, conveniently catching them in an attached bag.

“That’ll teach them to try to run away from us!” says Frederick with wide eyes and a toothy grin.

The credits roll, giving the audience a moment to consider just what the hell they’ve wandered into.

Next we see a dude in drag laying in front of a rock band playing to a night club while enveloped in dry ice. “The mark of death is painted everywhere I go,” they sing.

Just off stage broods a pissed off Jason Jones, upset because the band has stolen his song and kicked him out. Jason is played by Robin Askwith, whose long ginger hair and sideburns make him look like a cross between Shaggy, Mick Jagger, and a Planet of the Apes extra.

Askwith would later become better known in the U.K. for starring in the wildly popular Confessions series of sex comedies during the 1970s, appearing in four altogether, including Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975). Askwith's goofy mug also pops up in 1970's Rated X romp Cool It, Carol!

After coming out the loser in a physical confrontation with the band, Jason is nursing his wounds when he is handed a flyer from a travel agency advertising some sort of health-farm-type getaway called “Hairy Holiday.”

Realizing he needs to relax, he decides to check it out, and following a weird exchange with the travel agent, Pollack, he ends up buying a package at a reduced rate. “Might be some nice birds down there,” Jason reasons. Indeed, he soon meets one right away on the train, the fetchingly short-skirted Judy Peters (Vanessa Shaw).

Judy tells Jason that she’s going to visit her Aunt Harris -- whom she’s never met -- to help settle the estate of Judy’s recently deceased mother. Aunt Harris has married this strange Dr. Storm, it seems, who is at the same facility to which Jason is traveling. Judy offers Jason a lift, but her ride fails to materialize and the pair is forced to hoof it.

It begins to rain, then two ominous-looking bikers arrive with signs on their rides -- “Storm 1” and “Storm 2” -- to take them to the health farm or hospital or castle or whatever it is where Dr. Storm has set up shop.

Weird little Frederick greets them and takes them to the receptionist, who it turns out is Judy’s Aunt Harris. She tells her niece she had written her to warn her not to come, but nothing can be done now. Further hassle -- there’s only one available room, which both Jason and Judy are going to have to share.

Frederick takes them to their room, joking that they look like a pair of runaways. Then he says something about how they’d had a couple of runaways that morning and laughs. Then they pass by an open door...

“I hope you’ll be tidier than the people who had that room!” says Frederick.

A phone call between Aunt Harris and the travel agent, Pollack, helps clarify what we already know to some extent -- the “Hairy Holiday” is a ruse, designed to draw unsuspecting young adults into some sort of ultimate tourist trap.

Judy and Jason are a little worried, but that doesn’t stop Judy from taking a shower...

...and Jason from inviting himself to join her. He’s ready to pursue their budding relationship even further, but the dinner bell rings and Judy suggests they get something to eat first.

Turns out the company at dinner is less than jovial. In fact, they’re positively anti-social.

All are ashen-faced with scars on their foreheads and utterly non-responsive. One girl then begins screaming and gets carried away, prompting Jason to ask “What the fuck’s going on here?!” Getting no satisfactory response, he and Judy race back to their room.

More weirdness ensues, including blood running from a faucet and an unsettling visit from Dr. Storm, Frederick, and Aunt Harris. The couple are pretty shaken up, but not so rattled that they can’t enjoy themselves a little.

Later they talk of escaping, and some late-night exploration uncovers more zombie-like patients.

The next day the travel agent Pollack arrives. It appears he wants money -- he’s blackmailing Dr. Storm. He’s given the money and sent on his way, but he doesn’t get very far...

Bad move, Pollack. Really should’ve kept quiet. And kept his head.

Having seen Pollack’s murder from his window, Jason goes to Dr. Storm demanding an explanation. The doctor gives him one, taking him on a tour of the gymnasium where he trains his post-surgical patients. “Just like puppets,” says Dr. Storm. “And I’m the puppet master!”

Why is Dr. Storm telling Jason all of this? Because he has similar plans to operate on him! And Judy, too! He shows Jason how he has Judy locked up, and Jason responds by fighting his way through Dr. Storm’s henchmen to flee outdoors. His escape doesn’t last long, brought to an end via a protracted, Easy Rider-ish hippie beat-down.

Doesn’t look good for our pair in peril. Nor for Abraham (Kurt Christian), yet another hairy hippie who comes to the hospital looking for his girlfriend whom he thinks might have come in response to the Hairy Holiday ad.

Looks so content does, Abraham. He has no idea.

Meanwhile, Aunt Harris is starting to become increasingly uncomfortable about the arrangment, and tells Dr. Storm she’s leaving him. “Very well,” he says. “If that’s what you want.” We know, of course, that leaving Horror Hospital is much easier said than done.

More complications follow as we watch to learn the fates of Jason, Judy, Abraham, Aunt Harris, and little Frederick (who also seems ready to escape the evil doctor’s clutches). Along the way, Dr. Storm tells the story of his medical background and former experiments “in human desire,” shown in flashback.

There are some unexpected twists, including a truly gruesome one involving Dr. Storm’s physical appearance. More than enough to keep the audience fairly riveted. And laughing, too, with a host of bizarre non sequiturs. Such as when Jason interrupts a deadly chase to have a bite in the kitchen...

Hey, what could he do? He was feeling peckish, and the food was right there!

All of which is to say, if you are feeling at all peckish for an utterly manic British horror-comedy from the swinging ’70s, Horror Hospital should satisfy.

- Triple S

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