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Tuesday 14 February 2017

Hospital Massacre (1981)

Director: Boaz Davidson
Writer: Marc Behm from a story by Boaz Davidson
Stars: Barbi Benton, Chip Lucia, Jon Van Ness, Den Surles, Gay Austin, John Warner Williams and Lanny Duncan

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

With My Bloody Valentine being far too obvious a Valentine’s Day pick for my Horror Movie Calendar, I searched around and found this feature, which begins on Valentine’s Day and which is flavoured by it throughout. It was shot as X-Ray but released as Hospital Massacre, a much more salacious title. While the original isn’t exactly a name to reach out and grab us by the wallet, the new one unfortunately pigeonholes the movie into the slasher genre, which almost everybody seems to believe this is. I thought so too for maybe half the running time, but I gradually discarded that idea because the film makes precisely no sense as a slasher. Now, it is well within the bounds of possibility that director Boaz Davidson, who also wrote the original story which Marc Behm adapted into a screenplay, is completely inept and had no conception of how utterly ridiculous this really is. I don’t buy that and have a theory that allows everything we see to make complete sense. So settle down, kids, and let me explain.

Initially, it does follow the slasher template, right down to the flashback prologue that takes place in 1961. We’re at Susan Jeremy’s house and she’s inside playing with a friend called David and a train set. Another boy leaves a Valentine’s card at her front door, knocks to get her attention, then runs back to the window to watch her open it. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t go so well. ‘From Harold?’ David cries. ‘Oh my God!’ Susan adds. He screws it up and discards it as they laugh. So, during the brief time she leaves the room to cut a couple of slices of cake, Harold apparently sneaks in through the window, lifts David up high and impales him on a hatstand which stubbornly refuses to tip over, even with a ten year old corpse throwing it off balance. Little Susan screams and we leap forward nineteen years to 1980. Susan is all grown up now and looking rather professional in her red business suit. She has a daughter called Eva and a bitter ex-husband named Tom, but she’s off to hospital with her new beau, Jack, to get some test results.

So far, so good for a slasher movie, though we aren’t given any additional information here to help us along. We don’t know what the police thought about David’s gruesome demise, because we never see any. We don’t know that Harold was arrested and locked away in a psych ward like Michael Myers. We don’t know if he continued to obsess over Susan. We don’t really know much at all, just that Susan grew up and has to get some test results. And here’s where I’m going to depart from conventional wisdom and call a different tune. I don’t believe that Susan and Tom are divorced and I don’t believe that Jack exists. I do believe that it’s Tom who will drop his wife off at the hospital, before taking Eva home. I do believe that Susan is going to stress out about how scary her test results are going to be. And I do believe that she worries herself so much that her mind descends into a Kafka-esque nightmare of weird intensity that dredges up the suppressed trauma of David’s death. Keep that in mind and this will make a lot more sense.

The little disconnections from reality begin as they arrive at the hospital. Jack stops in the no parking zone and because Susan says that it’ll only take a couple of minutes, he stays there. He suddenly realises, totally out of the blue, that this was the hospital where some maniac ran amok the previous year. ‘Oh please!’ replies Susan. And into the hospital she goes to ask for Dr. Jacobs’ office, the doctor she’s been seeing for a few years now. The man with a mop drums his fingers in a notably creepy fashion, leering at Susan. Inside the elevator is a fresh corpse, propped against the wall, bleeding on her pristine white shoes. Ah no, it’s a sleepy man and a burger. He wishes her a Happy Valentine’s Day as he leaves. A trio of workers in gas masks and short sleeved shirts are supposedly fumigating the ninth floor, but they’re just hanging around the elevator to tell her she’s gone a stop too far. Then someone pulls a switch and stops the elevator. Just a few minutes, remember? Time never flows at the standard rate in our dreams.

While Susan is stuck in the lift, Dr. Jacobs is called up to the ninth floor for no apparent reason and with no apparent destination. It has to be said that she looks very young and very nervous, but perhaps that’s because there’s nobody to be found anywhere on the ninth floor; even the fumigators have disappeared. And we, up here in the cheap seats, can’t fail to pose a barrage of questions. For a start, I get that Jacobs walks up the stairs because the elevator isn’t responsive but, when she steps out of the stairwell and into a dark and hazy floor that’s clearly not being used, why doesn’t she assume this is a prank and walk right back down again? Does this junior hospital doctor have nothing better to do with her time than wander around a disused hospital floor in the dark wondering why she’s there? Why does she walk tentatively into a random room and then close the door behind her? Why does she pull back a sheet to expose a corpse? And why does she wander over to a locker to get stabbed to death by the maniac in scrubs?

None of this makes sense. It would make sense if she was a college student trying to grab the last few items for the scavenger hunt that might get her into a sorority in a slasher movie, but it makes no sense in this context. The only other way that it makes sense is if it’s the product of Susan’s nightmare. This sort of thing goes on and on. That creepy janitor from earlier discovers Dr. Jacobs hanging upside down in a locker, for no believable reason at all. When he tells the doctor hovering outside, he runs away and the janitor chases him into a room, somehow loses him in there and then stands around waiting for the maniacal killer to materialise out of nowhere and thrust his face into a conveniently nearby sink full of acid. Does anything here make sense at all? I should add that Susan’s fiancĂ©, Jack, is still parked in the no parking zone right in front of the hospital. Nobody has told him to move. Nobody has given him a ticket. He doesn’t wonder why Susan’s taking so long. And it’s so quiet that he even falls asleep.

The only thing that makes sense is that, amidst the creepy doctors, creepy nurses and creepy patients of this hospital, Susan finds one helpful soul to try to lever her out of the bureaucratic nightmare in which she’s found herself mired. And his name is Harry. It isn’t remotely possible that anyone can fail to figure out the killer in this movie; it’s no more difficult to guess who will murder his way through the credits in a new Friday the 13th picture. Yet, the introduction of friendly intern Harry doesn’t stop everyone else in this hospital from acting creepy. In one notorious scene, Dr. Dan Saxon submits Susan, who he has strip down to her panties, to an utterly awkward physical examination. In slow motion. We saw her X-rays too, though they looked more like a gorgon than an actual human body part, and they weren’t of her feet. Or her throat. Or her thighs. Dr. Beam isn’t any better and Nurses Dora and Kitty are there to enforce not to nurse. And these are just the employees! Just wait until you meet the patients!

There has to come a point where enough is enough. If we stubbornly persist in reading this as a straightforward slasher, it’s going to really suck. Sure, the score is impressive, full of choral weirdness and orchestral strains, courtesy of composer Arlon Ober, who had conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra, but the rest fails any test you throw at it. The quality of the acting ranges from capable on down. The cinematography is nothing to write home about. The editing seems off, with a few shots stubbornly refusing to end. The deaths are reasonably plentiful, at least, and the effects decent; one in particular took me by surprise, which is a strong compliment. But the script makes less and less sense as time goes by and the levels of surreality keep on increasing. Nobody seems willing to tell Susan what’s wrong with her, but they dump her into a ward anyway with three old women who rant and rave like a lunatic Greek chorus. I honestly wondered if she had found her way into a mental hospital by mistake.

Beyond the score, there are only two things that work. One is the performance of Barbi Benton as Susan Jeremy, which I must say is surprising because she was never the greatest actor in the world, as decorative as she is in films like Deathstalker. While she was more versatile than most expect, with a string of repeat TV roles and a brief career as a country singer (Brass Buckles reached #5 on the country chart in 1975), she was still primarily known in 1981 for her modelling career that had led her to the Playboy mansion. She met Hugh Hefner at the age of eighteen and he asked her out; when she replied that she’d never dated anyone over 24 before, the 42 year old mogul quipped, ‘That’s all right, neither have I.’ They lived together for seven years, during which time she graced the cover of Playboy three times and ‘photo-essays’ inside twice more. Even though it didn’t seem likely, she does everything here that she needs to do and she successfully sells the nightmare that she finds herself trapped in.

The other success is that nightmare. Halfway through, I stopped watching this as a slasher. I ceased waiting for the next kill to see how ingenious it would be. I quit throwing my hands up in disdain at how ridiculous each scene continued to be. I gave up bitching internally about how empty this hospital is, even when nurses whom we’ve never seen before are suddenly murdered in wild and wacky ways, like the one where the killer walks down a typically dark hallway with a sheet held out in front of him and his mobile light source. Instead I settled back and let the surreality wash over me. Watching this as a stress-driven, PTSD-fuelled nightmare doesn’t merely make sense; it also ups the creepy factor substantially. After she wakes up in the ward to find a horrific gift by her bedside, she runs off and opens the first door she finds, exposing three people in full body casts, flailing around like lunatics. That image is fleeting and utterly irrelevant to the story, but it’s glorious and it’ll stay with me.

There are other images that will stay with me too. At one point, Susan has to wait in Dr. Saxon’s office for a while and eventually her eyes wander to the pictures of wounds framed and hanging on his walls; I couldn’t help but remember how Will Graham told Dr. Hannibal Lecktor how he knew he was the killer he sought. There’s a patient with the same name as me, who looks rather like an intoxicated Quentin Tarantino; he crops up at points throughout the movie and always adds a little edge. A number of notable scenes involve privacy screens, almost like a fetish, and one in particular stands out for its nightmarish quality, the killer inviting Jack to ‘come closer’ to see what is presumably his fiancĂ©e collapsed in a wheelchair behind a privacy screen, all through a set of creepy whispers. As I write this, I feel I should set a reminder six months out for me to re-read this review and see which images leap right back to front and centre and which have faded over time. At this point, I’m interested to see how that comes out.

And so, this was utterly not what I expected. Yes, it’s a great movie for Valentine’s Day, with a snubbed young psychopath maybe re-discovering his crush a couple of decades later and murdering his way towards her; if he can’t win her metaphorical heart, he will just have settle for the physical thing, right? But it isn’t a slasher movie, it’s a trip into the subconscious of a young lady with trauma in her past and stress in her present about the possibility of bad news in her future. It’s a consistently wild nightmare of a movie, weird and wonderful and worthy of comparison to films like Possession rather than films like Halloween. Barbi Benton is the lead the film needs and the sight of her half naked is always welcome. The filmography of Boaz Davidson may not be particularly impressive in any way other than picture count, but this deserves to be remembered along with The Last American Virgin and the Israeli movies like Mishpahat Tzan’ani that provide his best IMDb ratings. It’s just not a slasher movie, folks.

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