I'm trying to go for a range of titles (verging on random, to be honest) and picked up Horror Hospital (1973). The image of UK genre stalwart Michael Gough on the cover drew me to it. The additional image of Robin Askwith on the cover sealed the deal.
Horror Hospital is a horror comedy, aiming for an exploitation feel (director Anthony Balch had previously been a distributor of exploitation movies in the UK) that seems to forget this mix and takes itself somewhat seriously at random points. The laughs don't exactly occur where they're intended to. The story follows Askwith's Jason Jones (got to have a bit of alliteration for the hero) as he abandons an attempted career in music for some time away at what he thinks is a health spa, all arranged by dodgy character Pollock of "Hairy Holidays" (a clearly frail Dennis Price who was consumed by alcoholism). En route he meets Vanessa Shaw's Judy who is heading to the same destination to meet her Aunt Harris (named so because she liked to wear Harris Tweed, something never ever referred to again afterwards) who is executor to Judy's late mother's will (something never ever referred to again afterwards).
|"All a bit rubbish, isn't it?"|
Upon their arrival at the "health farm" they are met by Skip Martin's dwarf henchman, Frederick, acting like an even weirder version of Richard O'Brien's Riff Raff. Martin, already famed from previous horror movies such as Corman's Masque of the Red Death, gives a wonderfully odd performance, at times seemingly not in control of his eyes or grin and at others like he's fighting back tears. A lovely man who everyone liked and was up for anything from all accounts on the Making Of doc on the disc. His character is pretty tragic. They soon discover other young people there, lured the same way Askwith has, now mindless slaves after brain experimentation. Cue the usual scenes of capture, amusing deaths and thwarted escapes until Askwith and late arrival Kurt Christian (who I recognised from Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) save the day with Frederick's help. Things go boom, there's a sudden monster and some smoking deadly quicksand (in the UK...) before deaths are forgotten about after a cheeky fright gaga from cheeky Askwith.
It was around 20 minutes in that I was compelled to pour myself a drink.
Askwith is channelling, well, Askwith. This was just before he embarked on the most popular/notorious section of his career with the Confessions films and his cheeky chappy persona is already winking his way through the proceedings here. His character starts out as an annoyed "cool" 20something who's after a shag (and so begins Askwith's career); he and Lewis have known each other less than a day before they're not only in bed but comforting each other as though they're Jonathan Harker and Mina Murray. Lewis' lack of acting experience is apparent, let's leave that at that. Askwith instantly develops into a heroic leading man when the film calls for it, which is, frankly, a very odd thing to see. During a big escape scene, two burly guards in biker leathers catch him, beat him with coshes and pull at his t-shirt as he screams like a child at regular intervals. I wasn't sure how deliberate this was and this confusion was further fuelled by moments where screams are quickly repeated over the same footage, which reeked of laziness as opposed to an intended effect. Some of Skip Martin's dialogue is just downright bizarre but which also makes his character the most interesting.
|Gough loses the Zero Mostel lookalike contest.|
British stage actress Ellen Pollock appears as the villainous Aunt Harris, channeling a combination of Norma Desmond and Irma Bunt. Her character's sudden and not at all believable change of heart results in an odd scene where she packs to leave, grabbing random objects from around her room and shoving them into a suitcase. She seems to have an unexplored love of creepy dolls.
The unevenness of these two scenes are reflective of the whole film which tries to mix spoof with a love of exploitation and z-grade films but ultimately fails. But part of the problem is director Anthony Balch's inexperience. This was only his second film after spending years making experimental films and collaborating with William Burroughs - it appears during that time he never really learned how to direct a narrative film. It's all inept stuff and you really wonder why Michael Gough is in this. Gough, you say? The same Gough who was daft enough to appear as a mad scientist in Konga? This sorry affair makes Konga look like King Kong. It's telling that Gough wouldn't speak about this film at all once it was finished. His presence does sometimes lift the proceedings and his character is directly derived from some of Bela Lugosi's characters from the sad end of his own career - director Balch was a Lugosi fan and asked Gough to watch The Devil Bat (1940) to understand what he wanted. Gough's mad Dr Storm is clearly inspired by Lugosi's mad doctor from Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster (1955) but his intentions involving the young people whose brains he's tampering with to create mindless slaves is never made all that clear.
Balch's use of music is equally odd and inept. The titles proudly proclaim the film's music to be done by De Wolfe, they being a music licensing company. Consequently, Balch's £22,000 budget has possibly squeezed his musical choices, but in any event his use of music is odd. There are moments where he lets the music define the cutting of some scenes, which does not work at all. The scene where Aunt Harris packs her suitcase has a long, sad score that suddenly ends while the scene continues for a bit longer. That is, until Aunt Harris is dispatched by the film's monster, a large misshapen thing seemingly made of wax (well, that's how it looks) and which turns out to be... maybe not spoil that bit, but the reason for this character's physical transformation is never explained. The use of De Wolfe, for this Monty Python fan, also fooled me into thinking that a fight scene in a leafy wooded area was about to be invaded by John Cleese and Graham Chapman's Black Knight and King Arthur. The inconsistencies of the music help no one.
Amusing trivia: the exteriors of Dr. Storm's hospital were shot at Knebworth House, the same location where Michael Gough would find employment as Alfred Pennyworth some 16 years later where it doubled for Wayne Manor in Tim Burton's Batman. Famed UK stunt performer Colin Skeaping, who doubles for Mark Hamill is the original three Star Wars films, also fills in several roles as various motorcycle leather guards and a lobotomised youth.
At the wrap party, leading lady Vanessa Shaw (actually called Phoebe Shaw) made a cake for the cast and crew. Laced with drugs. One wonders what had been passed around before filming started.
Horror Hospital is one for a late night and some booze. Maybe some small objects to throw at the screen. I mean, where else can you see Dennis Price decapitated by a Rolls Royce?