Exquisite Tenderness (1995): The Doctor is In(sane)

Matty looks back at one of his favourite hospital horror flicks. Featuring a few words with scripter Patrick Cirillo!

Ah, the ‘90s: a time when every horror flick post The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was described as a ‘thriller’ or ‘suspense picture’ by filmmakers frightened to embrace a supposedly disreputable genre (the more things change…). EXQUISITE TENDERNESS (1995) is an excellent case in point: the film’s director, the late Carl Schenkel, nearly had a kitten when Fangoria visited his Vancouver set — Riverview Hospital, a real, then-still-functioning mental institution — in spring 1994 and uttered the dreaded ‘H’ word.

“It’s not a hospital horror movie. It’s not a horror movie to begin with,” he sternly told journalist Steve Newton. “It started out as one of those, but then we turned it into a thriller. It’s a pure suspense thriller, and some of it takes place in a hospital, that’s all.” [1]

Pish posh, Schenky-baby: Exquisite Tenderness is horror through and through. Own it! Distributor A-Pix certainly did when they picked the film up for its U.S. cassette release in October ‘96, retitling it ‘The Surgeon’ and pimping it with the tagline “First Jason… Then Freddy… Finally, a professional”. However, with its exaggerated tone and medical footing, Exquisite Tenderness isn’t a teen body counter in the Friday the 13th (1980) or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) tradition. Rather, it’s a solid supporting feature to a pair of lesser — but no less beloved — cult epics with mad quacks at their centre. At its goofiest, Schenkel’s lively romp calls to mind Manny Coto’s sprightly caper Dr. Giggles (1992). At its sharpest, Exquisite Tenderness veers close to the berserk brilliance of Brian Yuzna’s The Dentist (1996) in terms of twitchy tension and succulently strange details.

The film’s increasingly daft plot sees Sean Haberle’s disgraced physician murdering his way through a teaching hozzy with a giant Cronenbergian syringe that he uses to extract pituitary gland fluid. Naturally, said brain goop is rendered all the more potent if the victims are terrified beforehand. Isabel Glasser and James Remar are the noble docs trying to stop him, and Charles Dance and Malcolm McDowell ostensibly occupy three roles apiece: camp-y side dressing, red herrings during the brief moments the plot is presented as a mystery, and meat for the grinder when the whole thing descends into joyous hack-’em-up histrionics. Incidentally, Exquisite Tenderness is but one of three kooky hospital hair-raisers McDowell would appear in in close succession. It’s bookended by Disturbed (1990) and Asylum (1997) (which, for the record, are both nowhere near as much fun). 

Amusingly performed, thoroughly entertaining, and featuring a gentle smattering of nifty make-up FX designed and created by Steve Johnson, Exquisite Tenderness actually managed to bag a fleeting city-screen theatrical run (London, Birmingham, Liverpool) here in the U.K. in November ‘95; a fact that delights the film’s scripter, Patrick Cirillo. 

“We had a good budget for a horror film — about six to eight million — which was provided by Willi Baer and Capella International,” says Cirillo. “I had heard that when Willi was forced out at Capella, new management wanted nothing to do with Exquisite Tenderness and dumped it, which is why it ended up going straight to video in the U.S. I can’t tell you if that is absolutely true because I wasn’t in the room for any of it, but the film deserved better.” 

“I was very closely involved with Exquisite Tenderness, even though I received an adapted credit. ‘Bernard Sloane’ is actually a pseudonym for a very well-known writer who had just won some awards and — yep — didn’t want to be associated with horror. I was sworn to secrecy about who it really is but if you look at the winners of the Best Screenplay Academy Award between 1990 and 1994, it might be one of those guys… [2] Carl invited me to Vancouver to fix the script. It really should have been a shared credit between me and ‘Bernard’ but, due to some WGA rules on the use of pseudonyms, I got sole credit based upon his screenplay. I went to all of the film’s preview screenings, sat with Carl during editing, and casting McDowell was my idea.” 

[1] Horror in Vancouver: Seeking Out Exquisite Tenderness at Riverview Hospital by Steve Newton, Fangoria #134, July 1994.
[2] The suspects: Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society (1989)); Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost (1990)); Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise (1991)); Neil Jordan (The Crying Game (1992)); and Jane Campion (The Piano (1992)). As for who it is exactly, circumstantial evidence points towards Schulman: he and Exquisite Tenderness’ co-producer, Dennis E. Jones, crossed paths on the Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) franchise.

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