Monday, 5 March 2012

Horror Hospital

As the sixties drew to a close, Antony Balch's film career began to gather momentum. In 1969 Balch wrote and directed the sex comedy Secrets of Sex for producer Richard Gordon. Secrets of Sex was an oddity, it's episodic structure owed something to William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and the novel's dense tapestry of seemingly unconnected routines. Balch in fact had been nursing his dream project to make a film of Naked Lunch for some time. While Brion Gysin was working on the screenplay, Balch began another collaboration with Richard Gordon, a horror comedy shot in 1972 about a Benway-esque surgeon who performs unspeakable surgical procedures on the brains of hippie dropouts at the secluded Horror Hospital...


A minor classic of British Horror, and a divisive one among fans, Horror Hospital is one of the more eccentric Horror films from the early seventies, a memorable mix of splatter, comedy and a notable streak of perversity. Horror comedies are best approached with caution but Horror Hospital is thankfully more Abominable Dr. Phibes than Bloodbath at the House of Death, and Balch deftly balances horror movie clichés with some memorable idiosyncrasies, like Doctor Storm’s car with its retractable blades that lop off heads of runaway patients (seen in the striking pre-credit sequence). Directed with imagination and flair, Horror Hospital was proof enough that Antony Balch had successfully made the transition from Underground Film to commercial Cinema. There’s some good fun to be had from the cast too. Robin Askwith looking like a Jagger wannabe equips himself well as the hero thoroughly disgusted with the lobotomized guests and bathroom taps that gush blood. Dennis Price turns up in two scenes and almost steals the show as an old queen who shepards victims to the hospital, while Michael Gough is excellent as the sinister surgeon, and so too is Ellen Pollock with that extraordinary face of hers, playing Storm’s partner-in-crime and ex-whorehouse madam, Olga.


Balch ever the cinephile includes some nods towards favourite films - the plot borrows from House of Wax, and Michael Gough plays Storm in full Bela Lugosi mode (Balch met Lugosi when the actor performed Dracula on stage in England in 1951, and allegedly had a copy of the lost Lugosi film Lock Up Your Daughters from 1959). The black leather clad motorcycle guards who patrol the hospital grounds remind one of Jean Coctaeu's Orphée, while Balch in perhaps a nod to Freaks cast midget Skip Martin as one of Storm's henchmen, the most sympathetic character in the film. Interestingly, Horror Hospital has certain similarities with Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Picture Show musical. Both feature a transvestite death-rock star, as well as similar plots - in Balch's film a couple arrive at the home of a mad scientist who keeps lobotomized zombies working out in the gymnasium, while in the musical, a newly engaged couple arrive at the home of a mad scientist who is engineering a muscle man creature. Horror Hospital's release predates the opening of Richard O'Brien's musical by just a few months, so it's perhaps best put down as one of those weird coincidences.


Horror Hospital was released in 1973 on a double-bill with The Corpse Grinders (although a more appropriate pairing would have been with Flesh for Frankenstein), and despite it's success, the film was Balch’s last directing gig. Balch had funnelled much of his own money into the Naked Lunch adaptation but the film was ultimately doomed - Brion Gysin’s screenplay became increasingly removed from Burroughs’ book with each successive draft. Burroughs himself described the screenplay as "long on burlesque and included a series of music-hall comedy songs". Other film projects fell by the wayside and Balch continued to work in film distribution, primarily sexploitation. As the decade wore on he became increasingly dogged by ill-health, eventually diagnosed as stomach cancer. Balch died in April 1980. Horror Hospital remains an important film in the cannon of British Horror Cinema, illustrating the sea change that was taking place with similar-minded independant films like Frightmare and Vampyres, which offered something decidedly more cutting edge than the "safe" entertainments of Hammer and Amicus.


Horror Hospital first surfaced on DVD way back in 2001 on the Elite label (which is the copy under review here), and featured an excellent 1.85 transfer. The print used for the DVD was sourced from producer Richard Gordon and was virtually flawless. The Elite edition contained one single extra, the amusing British trailer which was light on actual footage from the film but big on hyperbole. The Elite DVD is now OOP but in 2010 Dark Sky released their edition, featuring a more vibrant transfer and adding an excellent, comprehensive commentary track by Richard Gordon. Recommended.

7 comments:

  1. Great review, Wes,and very chilling images. Such a shame that Balch never made any more horror films. Reading your review made Britannia Hospital jump to mind - another kind of hospital movie for sure but every bit as perverse as Balch's film. I also caught an interesting glimpse of S.F Brownrigg's Don't Look in The Basement (aka The Forgotten) on youtube the other day. Not British but an interesting looking hospital horror.

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  2. Many thanks Jon. Yes, I thought of Britannia Hospital as well even if it was just in the title - shamefully the DVD of Lindsay Anderson's great film is OOP these days... Now that is funny that you mentioned Brownrigg as I was only thinking of the Texan auteur on the way to work this morning (yep, I was strolling along thinking of Scum of the Earth), and I would totally agree with you - definitely one of the moodier hospital films. Perhaps the bleakest one of the lot is Bridgewater State hospital, Massachusetts for the criminally insane, seen in Frederick Wiseman's long surpressed 1967 documentary Titicut Follies which I plan on covering one of the days. Tough film.

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  3. Great flick! The scene with Askwith wearing the armour in the bathroom is comedy gold. Has that great melting man monster at the end too. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

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  4. Hats off for this review, Wes. I saw this with memories of Towers Open Fire in my head and didn't really see a connection. It wasn't the same. It had Robin Askwith. I'd like to watch it again after reading this. Now I see the nod to Orphee. I had no idea about the Lugosi connection. It is more bizarre and imaginative than I remember. And Michael Gough is so memorable. This review made me want to see it. It does stand on its own; somehow related to Scream and Scream Again? ... I love Brownrigg's films, low grade and rough and nasty. I treasure my VHS of Poor White Trash 2, a realistic backwoods classic.... Looking forward to your view on Titcut Follies, Wes. I've heard of it... Great stuff.

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  5. Many thanks Paul and welcome to the blog! Yes, Poor White Trash II is one of the great undiscovered gems of American poverty row exploitation - I used to have the VHS as well, the old Intervision tape, but foolishly threw it out when I switched over to DVD. I tried to pick up a copy last year on eBay but it doesn't come cheap these days. Luckily I have a pretty good VHS rip of the film, but I long for the day when someone will put this out. There was a rumour that a major label was gonna put this out a few years ago (I can't remember which label, maybe Synapse) but it never materialized...

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  6. It's up there with Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn't it? Didn't Gene Ross play the doctor in Don't look in the Basement? He's brilliant in this. One of the best performances I've seen in a low budget horror. Deserves a wider release.

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  7. Yeah, it has a fantastic clammy terror. Gene Ross did appear in Don't look in the Basement, as well as Brownrigg's Don't Open the Door and Keep My Grave Open - Brownrigg had a tight repertory of actors that he liked to use and I think it adds a nice continuity to this films. Definitely a film maker in need of rediscovery.

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