Horror Hospital (1973)
Horror Hospital is a wonder. A film unknown by the world at large, and pretty much unknown by fans of general horror films, yet rightly lauded by British horror film fans as one of the greatest - if not the greatest - horror films ever made on these islands.
How did such a low budget mess of a film, with all its plot inconsistencies, wooden performances and all-round crapness, manage to reach such lofty heights? How can a production awash with fake blood and lacking in any genuine scares possibly be as good as quality films like The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General? It’s a puzzle, alright. The only answer seems to be: "Because it is. And if you don’t like it, we know a bloke who can change your mind. Forever."
Part of the film’s charm lies with its willingness to give, and keep on giving. Although you’ll never relive the glorious feeling of bewilderment and shock you feel on seeing it for the first time (an experience only one other film - 1978’s Killer’s Moon - has ever replicated for me), you will get a different experience on repeated viewings. The first time, you’re astonished. The second time, you‘re laughing. The third time, you realise it’s actually supposed to be a comedy. Then you start showing it to your mates, and enjoying their reactions. And, like some Japanese horror film, the word spreads…
"So," you’re saying. "I’m intrigued, and not a little scared, by this gushing introduction. What’s it all about?" Well, hold onto your heads, because here we go…
A couple covered in bloody bandages are running through a scrappy-looking British scrubland. In a car nearby sit Doctor Storm (Michael Gough, in fine finger-cracking form) and his vertically-challenged helper, Frederick (Skip "we need a dwarf for this film" Martin).
"Now make a clean job of it, Frederick," murmurs Storm. "The car was washed this morning."
The couple run from Storm’s oncoming Rolls-Royce, but as it approaches, blades leap from the coachwork and their heads are sliced off in ridiculously gory close-up.
"That’ll teach them… to try and run away from us," says Frederick, poking at the heads, which have now been placed in a blood-soaked sack.
The scene shifts to a London nightclub, where a bunch of stoned hippies are watching a plodding prog-rock band. "Look at that," mutters an aggrieved Jason (Robin "arse moves up, arse moves down" Askwith) about the (male) lead singer. "That stole my song. A whole week’s work up the spout. Silly little red faggot, swirling around in her own smoke. Who does she think she is, Greta Garbo? Looks more like a lemon meringue pie on heat!"
The "silly little red faggot" takes offence at this, and gives the supposedly more macho Jason a good pasting. Now extremely annoyed, and with blood pouring from his nose, Jason staggers to his so-called friends, who suggest he goes away for a holiday and hand him a flyer for "Hairy Holidays - Sun and Fun For The Under 30s".
"I fancy something hairy," he concurs.
After visiting Mr Pollack the travel agent (Dennis Pryce), a predatory old queen who gives the young man’s crotch the once-over, Jason’s off via British Rail to Dr Storm’s clinic. On the train, Jason meets up with Judy, a young girl who just happens to be on her way to the clinic as well (gasp!). After literally seconds of silence, Judy offers him a bite of her apple.
"There’s no need to get so uptight about things," announces Jason at this act of unprovoked kindness. "I’m not going to rape you!"
"I’m sorry," she replies. "I always get so timid on trains. Would you like a piece of cheese?"
Judy goes on to explain that she’s going to the clinic to visit her Aunt, who used to run a brothel. She continues this candid theme, telling this complete stranger who’s mentioned "rape" in his conversation opener that she’s actually illegitimate, and that her Aunt, who she calls "Harris", isn’t actually called "Harris", but everyone calls her that because she wears a lot of Harris tweed (eh?).
The pair arrive at their destination, Brittlehurst railway station, to be greeted by a sepulchral guard, and after waiting for a lift which never arrives they decide to walk to the clinic. Halfway there it begins to rain, and the soaking pair turn around to find that their lift has arrived (better late than never) – two motorbikes bearing the legends "Storm 1" and "Storm 2" are waiting silently behind them.
On arrival at the clinic, Askwith appears to be filling for time while someone opens the door. "Cheery, isn’t it?" he mutters. "Jolly little place." The door is then opened by a comically surprised-looking Frederick, who deadpans: "My, you look like a couple of drowned rats… you’d better come inside."
Inside they’re greeted by Judy’s Aunt Harris, who also works for Storm.
"I’ve come from Hairy Holidays!" says Jason, cheerfully.
"I can see that." Mutters Harris, giving his Afghan coat and enormous sideburns the once-over.
There’s yet more apparent time-filling as the group make their way upstairs – it looks like Skip Martin has forgotten he’s supposed to be doing the talking, and everyone else is waiting for the next line. Then they walk past an open door, and Jason and Judy glance in to see a blood-soaked bed. "Nothing to worry about," explains Frederick, "we all have our little accidents, you know."
Horror Hospital has by now hooked you well and truly with its shabby charm. Jason and Judy are a likeable couple, very little so far has made much sense, and the gaps and unintentional pauses only seem to add to the magic. The opening double-murder and the sheer amount of blood on the bed are so ridiculously gory that they only elicit laughs, not horror. And in the next scene we’re treated to young Judy taking a very soapy shower, only to be menaced by Jason, who for some reason has stripped to his tatty y-fronts and placed a knight’s helmet on his head (if you can imagine such an image).
Despite his tomfoolery (and those pants) it looks like Jason might get his end away, but Judy isn’t that easy, and suggests they go down for dinner to try "some of this health food."
"There’s nothing healthier than… sex!" Leers Jason, but eventually concurs, paving the way for the film’s first tour-de-force scene.
On arriving for dinner in a grand hall, Jason and Judy are seated at a table with about a dozen zombies.
"They are advanced students," explains Aunt Harris. "They don’t speak again until they have been cured."
"Cured of what?" asks Jason, but before the old woman can reply, one of her "advanced students" (a girl called Milly) starts screaming uncontrollably and is forcibly removed by the still-helmeted bikers.
Jason jumps to his feet and shouts: "What the fuck’s going on here?" only to be put firmly in his place (with comic timing worthy of Ronnie Barker) by Aunt Harris: "There’s no need for bad language, young man."
The pair decide to skip dinner after this, and retire to their room. But when Judy turns on the tap to clean her teeth, it gushes thick scarlet blood. She screams, and the door flies open to reveal… Doctor Storm.
Storm is there ostensibly to greet his new guests, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s peeved with his diminutive helper at the same time (it turns out that Frederick has stashed an extremely messy body in the cold water tank, hence the blood – and that he failed to post a letter to Judy telling her not to come).
"Women can be very troublesome, Mister Jones," he tells Jason, referring to Judy’s recent screaming fit. "But then so can little men!" With that, he cracks Frederick one with his whip, in yet another moment of sheer comic genius.
It’s now night time, and Jason goes for an explore the mansion. Judy, left alone, decides to do some investigating of her own. She ends up in a ward full of lobotomised patients, and sees something horrible. So does Jason, shortly before he gets clonked on the head (not the first time Askwith has been subjected to a beating in this film, and by no means the last, either).
At this point, Pollack the travel agent (remember him?) turns up and tries to blackmail Storm, but finds himself at the wrong end of the Rolls Royce. Jason sees his decapitation from his bedroom window, responding with a reasonably reserved: "Jesus! Are you people going out of your minds?!"
He grabs Frederick and tries to pump the little man for information ("Let me go! Let me go! I’m just as much a prisoner here as you are!") before Storm arrives to give Jason the grand tour.
They make for the gymnasium, where we’re treated to the hilariously gay sight of camp Doctor Storm testing out his lobotomized males by punching them in the stomach as they do exercises, and making them do multiple backflips at the touch of a button.
On hearing that he’s next under the knife, Jason makes a break for it (accompanied by what sounds like the music from Where Eagles Dare on the soundtrack). He has a huge fight with a guard, which ends with his foe drowning in a handy swamp, and is then approached by two more, one raising an iron bar… But that’s not the end of the scene. Just when you think it’s going to cut to something else, we’re treated to the view of Askwith getting the kicking of his life. It’s pure comedy gold, and Horror Hospital should have won an Oscar for that scene alone.
Jason is thrown into a cell and gassed to sleep, his dream giving us a recap of the film so far (just in case we haven’t been able to keep up). Meanwhile Storm is performing a messy operation on one of his "students", Aunt Harris telling him that she’s decided to leave.
Outside, another young traveler has turned up – his name is Abraham, and he’s got massive hair and his own funky porn-music theme. He’s also looking for Milly, his girlfriend (the screamer at the dinner table), but he’s not given a chance to explain much more before he, too, is twatted over the head, given a good kicking and thrown in the cell with Jason.
While Aunt Harris is packing, she is attacked and killed by a monster seemingly made out of silly putty. In the cell, Abraham is explaining who he is to Jason: "I came to find my chick. What’s going on here?"
"Our only chance," replies Jason, "is a freaky dwarf they’ve got here."
I’m sorry, but I’ve got to interject here. At what point previously has this been discussed? I’ve watched this film a dozen times, and this still doesn’t make any sense – Jason hasn’t had anything but contempt for Frederick up until this point, and apart from one brief outcry when being strangled by Jason, all Frederick has done is kill innocent people – he’s hardly what I would call an "only chance".
But their "only chance" he is – at this precise moment he’s busy cooking the pair some suspect-looking porridge and spiking their guards’ drinks.
On giving the hairy pair their breakfast, Frederick is greeted with some stilted ad-libbed lines ("Blimey! How many times has this been eaten, eh?" / "I thought I ordered two Wimpy’s!" oh, my aching sides). There’s then an interminable bit of slapstick when the guards collapse after drinking their green liquid, and Frederick piles them on top of each other so he can reach the door’s lock (Audience: "There’s a bucket behind you, you daft little twat! Stand on that!").
Of course, even with Frederick’s help, it’s not long before the two boys get caught again, and this time Doctor Storm uses the power of flashbacks to give us a bit of background – he was tutored by Pavlov, and worked under Stalin. He also hates students (don’t we all?) and once ran his own zoo. But he quickly discovered that animals weren’t his forte, and he needed to work with humans (cue a naked couple resolutely failing to shag in a fishtank).
Frederick offers a totally unwarranted interruption at this point: "Cow’s brains torn from their mother’s womb before they were born! VIRGIN brains, never had a thought in their whole lives!"
Storm ignores this, and carries on with his tale of how he narrowly escaped dying when his surgery was burned down. Then Jason and Abraham get yet another kicking and are locked up with Frederick ("A lot of use you were!").
They decide on another half-arsed plan – Frederick is small enough to fit through a window, although he protests half-heartedly at this: "I won’t do it! I won’t do it! I absolutely refuse! I won’t do it! No, I won’t do it!"
Jason: "Well, it’s either do it or have your head sliced off, too."
Frederick: "(Gulp) Alright then."
He makes his way round and belts a guard with an axe (cue lots more blood), but during the escape finds himself thrown bodily down the stairs. In a moment of tried-for pathos, he expires, but manages to ask Jason: "I was almost the hero… wasn’t I?"
Jason and Abraham then set out to try and rescue the girls and destroy the doctor’s "ridiculous machines", stopping only to receive yet another pasting from the guards. There’s a rather wonderful bit amongst all the obligatory gore and flames (got to have a flaming climax – it’s a British horror film after all) when Jason pauses mid-flee to stuff his face in the kitchens.
Horror Hospital is actually a lot more generic a horror film than it would like to be – it does tend to trade on its reputation for being a bit avante-guard, but it ends with some great poetic justice for the chief baddie, and a typically illogical open-ended "twist", just like so many of its ilk. What raises it above its early 70s peers is the sense of fun to be had – it’s that strangest of things, a comedy horror which succeeds. Director Anthony Balch has somehow managed to make every joke seem unintended, giving the whole thing a slapdash feel despite the obvious talent at work. If it was made today, a modern audience would know that it was taking the piss. But back then, there was no such thing as irony or post-modernism. Truly, Balch was a man ahead of his time. What a shame he died before he had the chance to make another film.
If you don’t believe me, try finding a negative review of Horror Hospital. For something which seems so low-brow on the surface, it has always been hugely popular amongst its limited audience.
"Man, it’s such a fantastic story, they’d never believe it…"
Last updated: February 23, 2010
What the... 31k
Abraham's theme 53k
Delightfully cheesey sub-porn music