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Horror Hospital (1973) at the NFT reviewed


A scorching hot day on the South Bank of the Thames, bright, bright sunshine reflecting off the concrete and a bottle of Australian Chardonnay to sustain us, me and my good lady picked our way to the NFT with two fellow mod era film fanatics to see The Flipside’s latest Brit Exploitation offering. With my admittedly limited knowledge of Anthony Balch’s film output, and my expectations a little on the low side I was surprised to learn what a varied career this director had. Starting out with the type of ‘beatnik’ films familiar to those of you who were regulars at the late, lamented Scala Cinema at London’s King’s Cross, he was one director who seemed to remain on the fringes of filmmaking, with Horror Hospital representing some sort of stab at a more popular genre.

The supporting shorts, Towers Open Fire and Kronhausen’s Psychomontage No 1', presented us with a typically free-form cut up of dissonant conversation and surreal situations, the former starring everyone’s favourite junkie uncle, William Burroughs and his stoned, disjointed ramblings. All made in the UK, they offered a peek into a world usually closed to the casual filmgoer and member of the public, and one he or she may not necessarily enjoy.

Balch made only a few films in his short career, the last one being Horror Hospital, a traditional shocker with a comedy base that is anything but healthy. The plot is as familiar as it could be; a young couple, thrown together by chance on a train, find themselves in a sinister hospital, run by a criminally insane Finnish Doctor with an obsession with young people’s sexual behaviour.

His deluded experiments have led to production of a zombie-like state in his subjects, the failures and escapees being dispatched by a fiendish blade secreted in the roof of his limousine, beheading them at a stroke. Played to icy perfection by Michael Gough, who is the only deliberately creepy character in the film, wheelchair bound and assisted by Skip Martin, another familiar face from the 70s, his diminutive stature helping to draw sympathy from the audience at his cruel treatment from the unpleasant medic.

The young couple are Robin Askwith, whose bare behind is probably just as familiar to cinemagoers of the 70s as is his face, and Vanessa Shaw, playing his lust object, Biba-booted and possessing all of the attributes you would expect of a girl in a horror film of this period. A storyline that takes us through a familiar landscape of science gone bad eventually being destroyed by the forces of good (young people and their carefree attitude to life) takes us back into the normal world, with a jokey shock at the end-of course.

To those of you who are not familiar with the UK horror/comedy genre, the nearest parallel would appear to be the USA’s The Evil Dead, what with blood inexplicably appearing from the bathroom taps, and strange, bloody bed sheets dismissed by the hospital staff with an aside; ‘I hope you’ll be tidier than the last people who had that room’. There is also some common ground with the previous night’s NFT offering, The Damned, in that both films seem to be having difficulty deciding what sort of genre they are destined for. In The Damned’s case, it was a toss-up between Biker/SciFi/future Shock, in Horror Hospital, Sick Comedy/Sexy-Light/Full on Horror, but this was many years before shows like ‘The League of Gentlemen’ and ‘Psychoville', and their cheerful mixing of genres and multi-layered storylines.

As a piece of Brit Exploitation, it works beautifully; there’s blood and guts for the gorehounds, a flash of flesh for the lechers, ‘Carry-On’ style laughs for the Saturday Night fun seekers and undertones of Nazi – style atrocities for the sicker and more twisted intellectual crowd. It didn’t win any Oscars, can hardly be looked on as a classic, but for those who love vicarious thrills, belly laughs and a touch of sleaze, there’s plenty here to amuse, and the film’s long availability on VHS/DVD will ensure its survival far better than if it was trying to court serious approval somewhere. It underlines why it is important not to accept only the scrawny offerings of a lot of modern mainstream cinema, but to cast the net a little further. A backward glance to that potent era of the late 60’s/early 70’s, when UK cinema was still capable of delivering a fun night at your local flea-pit; so thanks to Vic and Will Flipsider, for giving it a well-deserved big screen airing here.



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