Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The A-Z of Britsploitation Cinema: H is for Horror Hospital (1973)

Believe it or not, not everyone knows what I’m banging on about when I talk about Britsploitation (not that I tend to start conversations about it in the street with complete strangers, you understand). Well, if I could pick one film to show to people that sums up 70s Britsploitation in particular that film would probably be the glorious Horror Hospital. I try to avoid using words like archetypal and iconic because they’re clichéd and make people sound tosserish, but Horror Hospital really is the archetypal 70s British horror and its stars are two of the most iconic: Robin Askwith and Michael Gough, in their accustomed roles of hapless hero and demented villain respectively. Askwith fans (if you’re out there) take note that he spends a large part of the film topless. Not that this is anything unusual.

The movie’s directed by Anthony Balch, who started out making avant-garde shorts with William Burroughs and then drifted into the realms of sex ‘n’ horror with the mind-boggling anthology film Secrets of Sex (also known, very appropriately, as Bizarre) in 1969 – in its own sleazy way as strange and obscure as any art film could hope to be. As I’ve indicated, Horror Hospital is much more of a typical British horror flick, but it’s still magnificently bonkers.

It’s an especially gory outing (by British standards of the 70s at any rate), and starts as it means to go on with a pre-credits sequence that introduces us to black-gloved, knuckle-cracking Dr Storm (Gough), his dwarf helper Frederick (Skip Martin) and his car, which has a blade that emerges from the roof at the flick of a switch, ready to behead any would-be escapees from his sinister country house health farm. It even has a neat little basket to catch the heads in. Gruesome decapitation and credits over with, the film gets the obligatory embarrassing nightclub sequence over with straight away and introduces us to disillusioned musician Jason Jones (Askwith), fed up with dodgy glam acts stealing his songs – ‘Who does she think she is? Greta Garbo? Looks more like a lemon meringue pie on heat!’ he spits in rage. Deciding he needs a break, Jason spots a promising advert for Club 18-30esque Hairy Holidays. Our first indication that the tour company may be slightly dodgy is the man who runs it, sinister old queen Mr Pollack (Dennis Price looking very much the worse for wear) who can’t keep his hands off Jason’s crotch. It turns out that the holiday destination is Bricklehurst Manor in Hampshire, the site of the decapitation we saw earlier, where Dr Storm claims to have invented a cure for any and all hang-ups.

On the train there Jason meets Judy (Vanessa Shaw), who’s going to the Manor to visit her Aunt Harris (named, oddly enough, for her taste in Harris Tweed suits), a former brothel madam. They’re greeted at the station by a sinister station master (the brilliantly named Kenneth Benda) and are driven to the Manor by a pair of leatherclad motorcycling zombies. Aunt Harris (the uniquely sour-faced Ellen Pollock) meets them there – she’s now ditched the tweed in favour of a succession of eye-catching outfits including a snakeskin tunic and an all-red ensemble complete with turban. She’s married to Storm and is reluctantly helping him in his nefarious plans. But what are said plans? Well, he’s transforming the manor's libidinous young visitors into zombies who do his bidding at the flick of a switch. Why? Well, that’s not absolutely clear but what’s important is that our hero and heroine are next for the brain-altering treatment… and as if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a hideous lumpy monster roaming around with a particular interest in poor Judy. But there’s insubordination in Storm’s ranks: The ill-treated Frederick dreams of revenge and Harris wants out (‘People twice my age have managed to make ends meet!’ she claims, an apparent reference to prostitution which seems particularly disturbing considering Ellen Pollock was in her 70s at the time) – will one of them come to Jason and Judy’s aid in time?

Look away if you don’t want the end spoiled but… it turns out that the lumpy monster is actually Dr Storm himself – not confined to a wheelchair due to a hideous laboratory fire as we’d been informed, just hideously deformed and wearing a lifelike Michael Gough mask (I wish I knew where to buy one of those) to hide it. In fact he’s very agile, as he proves at the end of the film by jumping out of a window and running through the grounds of the manor before Jason beheads him with his own death-car. So why exactly he’s been pretending to be paralysed throughout the film (other than because the filmmakers had seen Mystery of the Wax Museum or House of Wax and liked the idea) is another mystery. Even more bizarre is the very end of the movie. After being treated to the unique sight of Robin Askwith in a Michael Gough mask, we see Storm’s headless body seeming, somehow, to return to life, and a final shot of Benda lying dead and bloodstained on the train track. What?! Oh well, this sort of narrative incoherence would probably have been praised in Balch’s more avant-garde work, and the sheer madness of it all just adds to the film’s delirious feel.

If you want an authentic 1973 experience (and I can’t think why you wouldn’t) you should really watch Horror Hospital back to back with US trashfest The Corpse Grinders, which it was partnered with on its original release. Directed by Ted V. Mikels, also behind such classics as The Astro-Zombies and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, it’s a prime example of early 70s grindhouse fare, with production values that make Horror Hospital look like Lawrence of Arabia. As great double bills go it’s not exactly The Wicker Man/Don’t Look Now but it’s a perfect illustration of 70s exploitation cinema on both sides of the Atlantic.

OK, I promise this is the last time you’ll see me use the words archetypal and iconic. It’s not the last time you’ll see either Mr Gough or Mr Askwith around here though…

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