The hilarious, Michael Gough-starring Brit shocker makes a quietly delightful worldwide HD debut from Odeon.
It’s been far, far too long since hilarious homegrown shocker HORROR HOSPITAL (1973) (aka Computer Killers) has graced these shores. Last available as part of VHS distro Sovereign’s cult horror arm, Satanica, at the turn of the millennium (alongside kinky cheese-fest Mausoleum (1983) and several Norman J. Warren flicks), a physical copy of this deliciously nutty ’70s item has been tough for us Brits to come by outside of the second hand tape or import disc market, with Dark Sky’s 2010 region one DVD the best package for those after this late night BBC favourite. Well, it was the best package anyway…
A strange, out of place title flicker thirty-two seconds in aside, Odeon’s Horror Hospital Blu-ray continues the company’s House of Mortal Sin (1976) upswing after their utterly disastrous Burke & Hare (1972) and A Candle For the Devil (1973) sets. A worldwide HD premiere, their satisfying transfer, presented at 1.66:1, is a quiet delight with vibrant colours and a pleasingly naturalistic grain structure. Though background details and blacks are sometimes a mite soft and lack any real texture (the patterned wallpaper during the dinner scene fares particularly badly), it’s a mostly canny eye-popper; vivid enough to make it difficult imagining this low-budget treat ever looking any better. Sound comes via a robust LPCM 2.0 stereo track, which finds director Antony Balch’s carefully selected cuts from the De Wolfe library filling the speakers.
A collaborator, close friend, and rumoured lover of William Burroughs, Balch was a leading figure in British sexploitation distribution, his early fascination with horror and exploitation nurtured by an epiphanic meeting with Bela Lugosi as a child. Encouraging Horror Hospital‘s villainous lead, Michael Gough, to model his lip-smacking turn as the nefarious Dr. Storm on Lugosi’s performance in The Devil Bat (1940), Balch’s love for ’30s and ’40s scare fare is slapped wickedly across every frame. The film’s producer, the late Richard Gordon (Tower of Evil (1972)), delights in pointing out such nods and winks in his terrifically insightful commentary, ported over from Dark Sky’s disc and expertly moderated by Gordon’s biographer, Tom Weaver (although the Rondo Award-winning author is, annoyingly, miscredited as David Del Valle on Odeon’s sleeve).
Of course, to even imply that Horror Hospital is merely a patchwork spoof would be of grave disservice to Balch’s fabulously off-kilter sense of humour. With all but the scene-stealing Skip Martin, and Kind Hearts & Coronets (1949) star Dennis Price (in one of his last appearances, fresh from Theatre of Blood (1973) and pre Jess Franco) playing it completely straight, Balch mines the comedy from his absurd re-appropriation of cliche; his uproarious, surreal riffing on classic-era fright given a subversive edge through his liberal use of crayon red gore and outrageous camp shtick. After all, if Balch and co-scripter Alan Watson’s arch dialogue doesn’t tickle a rib, their inspired roster of biker henchman, zombified youths, and Dr. Storm’s decapitating death car will.
However, it’s Horror Hospital‘s unsung influence on two of the decade’s biggest cult hits that makes it a truly fascinating experience. Starring the hero of the Confessions of… series, Robin Askwith (who gives a lively, anecdotal interview in Odeon’s cool extras), as a wannabe pop impresario duped into a stay at Storm’s hellish countryside mansion-cum-health spa, Balch’s B-movie infused, rock n’ roll dabbling predates both The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974); a notion Weaver steadfastly stands by too. There’s no musical numbers (beside bogus psychedelic group Mystic’s early nightclub warble), but Horror Hospital would sure make the perfect opening feature for a schlock-opera triple.
A wildly entertaining jaunt as striking and as important to post Hammer British genredom as anything by Pete Walker or the aforementioned Norman J. Warren, Horror Hospital was Balch’s second and final feature following his aptly named portmanteau, Bizarre (1970). A true one-off, perhaps if Balch hadn’t passed away from stomach cancer at the all-too-young age of 42 in 1980, we’d have already begun discussing Horror Hospital and his career in similarly revered tones.
The film’s original theatrical trailer and a splendid, just shy of half an hour making of round out Odeon’s highly recommended, bargain priced peach.
HORROR HOSPITAL is out now on UK Blu-ray via Odeon
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