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Horror Hospital

In Film on May 29, 2010 at 7:11 pm

“You’re too old to run a whorehouse”
– Dr. Storm

Horror Hospital is one of my favorite movies. Ever. After all these years, I cannot believe that something so daffy, so dry, so coyly queer has fallen under the radar and that more people have not fallen victim to its queasy charm.

Robin Askwith plays Jason, a down-on-his-luck songwriter in Swinging London. When he discovers that another band has stolen one of his songs, he lashes out at the transvestite frontman (“Silly little red faggot!”), only to get his nose bloodied by the blue-lipped, cross dressing princess. Bruised and defeated, Jason takes advice from a group of partygoers to take a vacation. Hairy Holidays Sun and Fun For The Under 30s proclaims the flyer. He leaves the party and discovers the travel agent in a back alley corridor – Mr. Pollack (Dennis Price); the portly, pale-faced, poof responsible for placing the ad. After glancing down as Jason’s bulging Big Ben, Pollack cuts him a special deal for Doctor Storm’s Health Hospital.

Jason politely sidesteps Pollack’s advances and hops a train to begin his holiday in the countryside. While en route, he meets Judy (Vanessa Shaw) and the two strike up a conversation in the train car. At the end of the line, the pair end up together, abandoned at an isolated train station. Rain drenched, the two are whisked away to Brittlehearse Manor – the stately home of Doctor Storm (Michael Gough) and his aging hag, Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollack). What ensues over the next 70 minutes is a demented fever dream of homoerotic, zombie muscle-men and blood soaked brain surgeries gone haywire. I could explain the details, but I’m not sure they make any sense – and they don’t need to.

Horror Hospital is the masterwork of Antony Balch; a crucial figure in British film history. A confessed horror fanatic, Balch was particularly fond of the films of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and it shows, not only in the movies that he made, but also in the films that he distributed early in his career. In the mid-sixties, Balch met “Naked Lunch” author William Burroughs in France and the two collaborated on two experimental short films together: Towers Open Fire and The Cut Ups (both are included on the Synapse DVD release of Balch’s Bizarre aka The Secrets of Sex and well worth watching). At the same time, Balch became friendly with leading avant-garde filmmaker and “Hollywood Babylon” scriber Kenneth Anger. Balch soon assumed exhibitor duties in two major theaters in London and Anger was key in helping Balch nab the rights for Tod Browning’s Freaks for distribution in the UK – lifting a thirty year ban on the controversial film. Other movies ranging from Kaneto Shindo’s horror masterpiece Onibaba to Russ Meyer’s bra-busting Super Vixens continued Balch’s reputation with his theater audiences. During his tenure as a film distributor, Balch was single-handedly responsible for exposing British audiences to a smorgasbord of never-before-seen exploitation and art house movies. A gay man, Balch’s movie selections for his theaters catered as much to the working class raincoat crowd, as it did to the usual cavalcade of Quentin Crisps.

Balch met pioneering independent producer Richard Gordon at the Cannes Film Festival while the two were searching for new product to distribute on their own. The two men forged a partnership and returned to the UK and collaborated on The Secrets of Sex in 1970 – Balch’s first feature film as director. (American distributor New Line Cinema changed the film’s title to Bizarre for its US release) The movie was a rambling anthology horror spoof with soft-core sex scenes and narrated by a mummy, but it turned a hefty profit. It played for six months straight at Balch’s theater in Piccadilly Circus and re-cooped its entire investment at that theater alone.

Gordon and Balch re-teamed for Horror Hospital in 1973 and the final film stands as the director’s crowning achievement and was his greatest financial success. It would however, be the final film that he would make. In April of 1980, after a series of failed attempts to get another film made, Balch died of stomach cancer. He was 43.

In an age of ironic horror comedies – with actors winking at the camera, knowing full well that it’s all a joke – Horror Hospital remains refreshingly hip and intentionally camp without going overboard. The film effortlessly walks such a fine line of seriousness and fruity absurdity – that its hard to tell if the people involved know how silly it really is. And that’s precisely its genius; Horror Hospital may be one of the cheekiest horror films ever made. But here’s the catch for contemporary audiences; the filmmakers knew it from the beginning.

Dark Sky Films will release Horror Hospital on June 15th, 2010 and is a vast improvement in picture quality over the previous Elite release. But don’t go throwing out your old copy just yet, this new release does not have the incredible trailer.