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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Slashback: The Hospital Horrors of 'Visiting Hours' (1982)

Once in awhile, a random remark on a message board prompts me to revisit a film that memory proves to have distorted over time. Watching the slasher film poll here on the blog, I was surprised that someone cast a vote for Visiting Hours. Even more surprising, when I traced the vote back to a poster on the Shocklines message board, the author recalled seeing the film with his mother and having a great time. It’s one of those slasher flicks you remember more for the concept than the execution – in this case, it’s always been categorized as “the hospital slasher” in my mind. But the enthusiasm for the flick by that message board user prompted a trip to the DVD library and a stroll down slasher memory lane.

Released in May 1982 at the height of the slasher craze, Visiting Hours at once attempted to rise above the slasher genre while rooting its narrative structure firmly in the popular stalk-and-slash formula. Much like The Fan the year before, Visiting Hours was unique for what it tried to be – a slick, stylish thriller – versus what it really was – a formulaic slasher. And like The Fan, which thought it could disguise its slasher roots by employing Oscar nominee (later an actual winner for The Mirror Has Two Faces) Lauren Bacall, Oscar winner Maureen Stapleton, TV mainstay James Garner, and a young Michael Biehn (as the killer) in the roles usually reserved for Canadian unknowns, Visiting Hours likewise attempted its own high-brow casting with Oscar winner Lee Grant, TV mainstays William Shatner and Linda Purl, and a young Michael Ironside (as its killer). But a well-dressed girl does not a debutante make, and the film’s marketing campaign (complete with its original, sublime tagline “So frightening, you’ll never recover”) soon confirmed suspicions that Lee Grant was simply slumming it in final girl territory, reserved more for up-and-comers like Jamie Lee Curtis than “legitimate” actresses like her or Bacall.

The story also attempted to circumvent its slasher pedigree with a decidedly more overt political commentary than its slasher brethren. Like the countless slashers that came before and after its release, Visiting Hours told a cautionary tale – in this case, the dangers of intensifying feminism in a man’s world. Grant plays Deborah Ballin, an aggressive TV newscaster whose on-air campaign defending a battered housewife accused of murdering her husband draws the attention of misogynic janitor Colt Hawker (Michael Ironside, who uncannily channels both Jack Nicholson and John Saxon here), who works in the studio. Background checks, anyone? Ballin’s feminist views are apparently too much for the clearly unhinged Hawker, who steals away to the unsuspecting newscaster’s house, dispatches with the maid (off-screen), and then brutally attacks Ballin in a tense, well-directed sequence reserved for (and worthy of) a third act chase. A bruised and bloodied Ballin eludes death and is carted off by ambulance. Before you can say Halloween II, Hawker follows Ballin to the hospital and the carnage begins.

The roots of Hawkers’ deep-seeded misogyny are eventually revealed through childhood flashbacks in which the budding psychopath witnesses his mother lobbing a pan of scalding oil on his father’s face. A seemingly random subplot in which Hawker solicits, then brutalizes, a hooker (played by almost-scream queen Lenore Zann of Happy Birthday to Me, Def-Con 4, and Murder by Phone infamy) further cements his issues with women and comes nicely into play later in the film when her connection to the nurse (then TV-movie queen Linda Purl) caring for Ballin supplies a pivotal shift in the action.

It’s interesting to see the then 54-year-old Grant taking on the final girl role, and she demonstrates that even Oscar winners can chew on the scenery with the best of them, raising the bar on histrionics exponentially. Yet she proves as capable of running, tripping, staggering, and hobbling down hospital corridors as Curtis in the similarly hospital-set Halloween II the year prior, and one laughs out loud in campy, nostalgic delight when she pummels Ironside’s hands with her shoe heel as he attempts the clich├ęd reach-inside-the-closing-elevator-doors trick. Sadly, in the midst of the prevalent ageism that shadows Hollywood today, one is unlikely to find as mature a slasher heroine. Shatner’s contribution here is in name and face recognition only, and it’s underwhelming to watch Captain Kirk reduced to yeoman’s work as he assumes the decidedly non-juicy role of dutiful friend. Purl looks characteristically spacey and bored throughout the proceedings, and she moves so slow throughout the film that you find yourself grateful that she’s not a real nurse. Ironside proves himself a capable and menacing villain, perhaps so much so that he would go on to be typecast as the heavy throughout much of the rest of his career. Zann is the standout in her small but decisive role as Lisa, the hooker who finds herself reluctantly doing the right thing.

It’s always interesting to watch how filmmakers try to cloak a film’s slasher facade…fascinating to see how they tweak the formula to thinly veil the slicing and dicing at the film’s core. I’m always captivated by what they choose to leave in, what they choose to switch up in their quest for slasher anonymity. In Visiting Hours, gore is virtually gone, replaced by the brutality of Hawker’s modus operandi in photographing the painful grimaces on his victims’ faces as he twists the knife into the chest cavities of the nurses and patients who fall inconveniently in his path. He’s an early predecessor to the later brutality of Rob Zombie’s Firefly clan in House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects or Greg McLean’s demented Crocodile Dundee crossbreed Mick Taylor in Wolf Creek. Setting is also sacrificed in the attempted slasher switcheroo, with a large metropolitan hospital offering little of the remoteness that an understaffed small-town clinic like Haddonfield Hospital does in Halloween II. Indeed, it’s hard to connect with any palpable sense of dread here, knowing that the place is crawling with doctors, nurses, security guards, and other patients. You just know that the only way Hawker is going to actually get Ballin is through a carefully orchestrated set of clearly-defined circumstances rather than the rampant opportunity that genuine isolation affords. But what the film lacks in gore and setting, it finds in plot intricacy, with the film augmenting the usual stalk-and-slash blueprint with converging subplots that add an element of authentic suspense. It was a somewhat bold departure for the time period, one clearly meant to lure an older demographic – and one that would inevitably disappoint slasher fans eager to meet the next Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees.

All things considered, director Jean-Claude Lord and scripter Brian Taggert are to be commended for trying to infuse the proceedings with a sense of class. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are you’ve got yourself a duck. In the end, Visiting Hours is a duck that tries to gussy itself up as a goose. Waterfowl analogies aside, the film is a respectable entry in the slasher genre for the variation it attempts and even manages to pull off in spots.

Slasher Nerd Tip: See if you can spot actor Neil Affleck - he played Axel Palmer in My Bloody Valentine ('81) - in the credited role of "police officer."

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