Nobody likes a hospital. Vessels of disease and doom, they seldom contain good news unless a wee one is on the way. That built-in brutal ambience suits horror well; you don’t see nearly as many mad podiatrists as you do physicians, and the setting offers up untold instruments of pain (and more than a little bloodletting). This brings us to the giddy Horror Hospital (1973), a British production very much in the droll vein of Theatre of Blood and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.
To be fair, Horror Hospital takes place in a gothic manor that doubles as a relaxation facility/lobotomy factory, so it isn’t like a licensed clinic or anything, and yet their success rate is quite impressive (success, of course, equated with death). Released by Antony Balch Films in its native UK, the film slowly rolled out to the rest of the world, landing in the US in April of ’75. Initially seen as just another low-budget, lurid, British production (around 50,000 pounds), Horror Hospital has slowly positioned itself as a funny takedown of the establishment and a ribbing of the old horror guard as seen through the eyes of the young and disenfranchised.
We open with a bandaged couple on the run in a forest; chasing them in a Rolls Royce is Dr. Storm (Michael Gough – Batman) and his dwarf manservant, Frederick (Skip Martin – Vampire Circus), who make short order of the couple due to the car’s implementation of wing-like blades. Next we head to swinging London, where we find Jason (Robin Askwith – The Flesh and Blood Show) scrapping with the band that stole his song; needing a break from the city life, he signs up for a relaxation package from a skeevy salesman (Dennis Price – Theatre of Blood) and boards a train.
On the journey he meets Judy (Vanessa Shaw – Get Charlie Tully), who’s also heading to the clinic because her Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock – Who Killed the Cat?) runs it. Things appear askew right from their arrival; many of the clientele seem zombie-like as Storm proudly shows them off, instructing them to do backflips upon his command. There’s also a slime-covered monster prowling the estate, Storm’s motorcycle zombie goons, and the occasional cranial exploration. Um, The End?
Horror Hospital is seemingly a film without a purpose—there is a bit to Storm’s backstory, I suppose—that ends up being charming in its own scattered, ragtag way. The story doesn’t so much unfold as it does drop in your lap like a bag of dirty clothes. There is a sense of making it up and hoping for the best.
But isn’t that a refreshing change of pace? Especially in the British horror of the time; you could almost time the entrance of the killer, the hero’s big moment, the ironic comeuppance of the villain. Not so here; it feels more like a travelogue of the absurd where the next stop could bring tranquility or madness.
Well, perhaps a little too much tranquility. There are pockets of downtime that could have been clipped; not a fault of the story itself, but rather a too forgiving editor—there are scenes that just go on too long with too little purpose, and a judicious trimming could do nothing but help the flow.
Having said that, Horror Hospital is loaded with delicious bon mots and strange images to put the audience firmly on its side; it’s very much cut from the Phibes cloth in that it doesn’t take any of this business seriously. For instance, at the start of the film during the chase, Storm tells the driver to “be careful, as the car’s just been washed”; and if the sight of zombies doing backflips is supposed to be impressive or intimidating, it fails miserably.
This is the point, of course. Nothing is supposed to be scary in Horror Hospital, but rather a commentary on yet another time-honored trope: the Mad Scientist. As played by Gough, he’s a wheelchair-bound, deadpan purveyor of pain, with little in the way of sympathies offered or given. Naturally, this makes the humor work even better, with the shenanigans bouncing off of him with a weathered bemusement.
As our disaffected youth, Askwith and Shaw are delightful, especially Askwith, who plays Jason with a rakish charm and a disarming smile. Shaw is stunning and bright, and a pity she retired from acting after this film. (I’m hoping not because of it.) And as the story is told mainly from their point of view (with the occasional asides between Storm and Aunt Harris), it’s a big help in guiding the viewer through any rough spots (intended or otherwise).
Although it isn’t as tight or amusing as Phibes or Theatre of Blood—director and co-screenwriter Antony Balch (Bizarre) just doesn’t quite have the finesse—Horror Hospital is weird, bemusing, nonsensical fun. This is a checkup worth having.
Horror Hospital is available on a region 2 Blu-ray from Odeon Entertainment, and on DVD from Dark Sky Films.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: ORCA (1977)