Horror Hospital 1973 deserves its status as a British horror cult classic, writes ANDREW ALLEN
TITLE: Horror Hospital aka Computer Killers
DIRECTOR: Antony Balch
CAST: Michael Gough, Robin Askwith, Vanessa Shaw, Ellen Pollock, Dennis Price, Skip Martin, Kurt Christian, Barbara Wendy, Kenneth Benda
Review of Horror Hospital 1973
Some films either leave you a bit cold or indifferent on a first viewing, or worse still, you quickly forget almost everything about it.
One such film for me was Antony Balch’s Horror Hospital, which I first viewed as a young teenager back in the 1990s, having persuaded my nan to ignore the “18” certificate on the packaging and purchase a VHS copy for less than a fiver from our local Food Giant supermarket.
Having developed a massive fondness over the preceding three years for the gothic charm and plushness of all things Hammer, the modern day setting of Horror Hospital combined with no Peter Cushing and no wooden hero called Paul, left me struggling to enjoy the film and therefore consign it to the deepest corners of my memory for almost 30 years.
Therefore when the opportunity came up to review it for Spooky Isles, I thought “you know what, I’m a fully rounded grown-up now, let’s give that one another chance.”
Shot on a tight budget over four even tighter weeks in the autumn of 1972, Horror Hospital was produced by British-born New Yorker Richard Gordon, and directed and co-written by Antony Balch.
Balch wrote the part of Jason especially for Robin Askwith, who had appeared in Gordon’s earlier production Tower of Evil, and who was carving out a successful career for himself as an upcoming likeable star of low budget British comedies and horrors, with a passing resemblance to Mick Jagger.
Perhaps partly explaining just how nuts this film is, a famous anecdote about the end of filming party tells the story that most of the cast and crew got wasted on hash cake provided by lead actress Vanessa Shaw.
The film begins with a fairly amusing pre credits sequence featuring horror veteran Michael Gough, Skip Martin and an unconventionally pimped up Rolls Royce, which results in the questionably convincing decapitation of a couple of unnamed strangers.
Post titles, we meet Jason (Askwith), who gets himself into a bit of a scuffle and decides to visit a deliciously seedy travel agent (Dennis Price in one of his final roles) to book a bizarrely named Hairy Holiday.
After an unnecessary close-up of Askwith’s tightly denimed groin, the story begins in earnest, with Jason embarking on his trip to a health farm in the English countryside.
On his wonderfully 1970s British Rail journey, he encounters the pretty and inoffensive Judy (Shaw, who was never going to win an Oscar), who just happens to be en-route to the same holiday destination to visit her elderly aunt.
Sadly for our two heroes, the health farm is no Champneys, and is actually a front for Dr Storm (a suitably sinister Gough in revolting pallid make-up), who uses the house to perform experiments on hippies that transform them into brain-dead zombies.
He is assisted in his non-Hippocratic work by Frederick the Dwarf (Martin) and Judy’s Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock in a fabulously camp Pat Butcher-esque turn).
But wait, this dodgy trio are no match for our dynamic duo, and eventually, partly thanks to Frederick seeing the error of his ways and changing teams, the gruesome set-up is brought to a fire ravaged and bloodthirsty end.
Running at a satisfactory (and fairly standard for its time) length of 90 minutes, the plot coasts along nicely at a decent pace.
Gough steals the show in his turn as the head villain, putting in a genuinely sinister performance with more than adequate support from the majority of the cast.
The heavies on motorbikes are a nice touch (coincidentally echoed in Hammer’s Satanic Rites of Dracula which was in production at the same time), and the script strikes the right balance between frights and intentional laughs.
The film is now deservedly regarded as a cult classic, and when watching it you do become fully immersed in the sheer Britishness of it all.
On the whole, the production looks more expensive than it is, and is a fabulous alternative to the cosy (but still marvellous) offerings of 1960s Hammer.
Perhaps one reason for the stark contrast to Hammer’s offerings was that by the early 1970s, Hammer were struggling financially and their gothic style was sadly starting to be regarded as a little passe.
I am really pleased to have revisited this film and to have had my opinion of it changed.
A great way to spend an autumn Saturday night, and after a lockdown holiday at a Haven site on the south coast, I can also say that it is an accurate representation of the British tourist industry.
Tell us your thoughts about Horror Hospital 1973 in the comments section below!
ANDREW ALLEN SAYS: “I’m 44, I live in Staffordshire and I work in mortgage lending. I am a huge fan of all things horror, in particular British horror from the 50s, 60s and 70s. My entire left arm is a tattoo of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Carry On Screaming. In my spare time, I can be found at the gym, at my local Odeon using my limitless pass, or walking my daschund Digby.”