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.