Some twists are so obvious you don’t see them coming. Or, in the case of Hospital Massacre, you do see them coming, but by the time that twist arrives you’ve forgotten all about it thanks to the 80 minutes of unreserved madness crammed in-between. Come to think of it, there is no twist in Hospital Massacre, just a blatantly obvious set-up and a plain-as-day pay-off. From what I can gather, we’re supposed to suspect a plethora of possible culprits, but the face of our semi-masked killer is so visible it’s clearly none of the candidates dangled so clumsily in front of us. It’s all so blatant, misguided and ineffective. If you want to know how to take one of film’s most basic sub-genre’s and fuck it up beyond all comprehension, ask Golan-Globus and the gloriously second-rate Cannon Group, because this is one of the lamest, silliest slashers ever committed to celluloid. It’s a total laugh-riot.
Made during the sub-genre’s golden age, Hospital Massacre is another slash-by-numbers feature buried beneath the reams of explicit VHS tape, one that retains a certain charm thanks to its impossibly beautiful leading lady, Barbi Benton, a former glamour model who smoulders so hard she threatens to melt the screen. It also possesses that ‘so bad it’s good quality’, the kind that has left stoners and movie geeks spellbound for decades. Due to its cheap and derivative nature, the slasher has always provided its fair share of giggles, as have cult B-movie distributors Cannon, who even in their late-80s commercial pomp, a brief period that saw them team with Sylvester Stallone and run the Superman franchise into the ground with the notoriously crappy Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, were always glorified purveyors of bottom-rung sleaze. Cannon aren’t particularly synonymous with a sub-genre that suits their cheapskate business model like an expert tailor reduced to working for a high street brand, with only Schizoid, New Year’s Evil and Hospital Massacre to their name during the genre’s initial boom, but as proven here, when you put the two together you get pure, dissonant gold.
Tobe Hooper’s wholly self-aware The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 notwithstanding, the slasher proved but a footnote in Cannon’s eye-wateringly abundant back-catalogue, a rather underwhelming one, but you can’t argue with the business logic. When Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus bought the cash-strapped Cannon Group at the turn of the 80s, they had a very different business model in mind. Founders Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey had peddled soft porn before upping the stakes by producing larger scale movies on a tight budget. They had been prudent and it had failed. But Golan-Globus had bigger ambitions, and in the burgeoning home video market they saw their chance to get off the ground. Ultimately, it was the niche martial arts genre and patriotic, low-budget action vehicles that proved their bread and butter among a myriad of transparent derivatives, and even an Oscar-nominated venture in Andrei Konchalovsky’s Akira Kurosawa-devised action thriller Runaway Train, but it was the slasher, perhaps more than any other genre, that fit their bargain-basement profile.
As well as being both cheap and hugely popular, the slasher was also rather straightforward from a production standpoint ― at least in principle ― and was certainly one that ticked all the right commercial boxes. Slasher fans don’t have high expectations from a critical perspective, but they demand certain staple ingredients, the kind Golan-Globus and director Boaz Davidson, a last minute replacement for an original director who reneged on some production funding, got mostly right. For a genre that thrives on skimpily-clad beauties, the casting of Benton, who was more than happy to shed her skimpies for the screen, was something of a masterstroke. So irresistible was Benton in her nubile prime that she purportedly persuaded perennial ladies man and glorified pimp, Hugh Hefner, to buy the Playboy Mansion. No mean feat.
Despite a serious lack of time and effort in terms of his appearance, Hospital Massacre also features a rather memorable killer, a psychotic of the highest order who succumbs to such fits of rage it often borders on parody, and believe me, it’s not always intentional. We also get a series of rather nasty kills (the amount of blood flying around is just priceless) and an Omen-esque score by B-movie composer and future anime dabbler, Arlon Ober, but the film’s problems lie elsewhere: namely, its lack of craftsmanship.
In hindsight, such creative negligence has worked in the movie’s favour. From the film’s script-by-numbers set-up to some of the most ludicrous plot developments and WTF moments I have seen in a long time, this is silly, harebrained stuff, but that’s what makes it so memorable. This is a straight-up cash-in with a single-minded goal, an impudent, fallacious punt at commercial glory that is so complacently conceived it leaps hurdles of tedium and races for the delirious hills. The movie fails quite astonishingly as an exercise in horror, but in pure Golan-Globus fashion, it is crammed with so many brainless moments you can’t help but be charmed by it. I’ve seen some seriously naff slashers, the kind that serve little more than to bore you to tears, but Hospital Massacre aka X-Ray, aka Ward 13, aka Be My Valentine (even the task of naming this film was an exercise in pure chaos) isn’t one of them.
That final title, Be My Valentine, is an interesting one, since the movie’s aforementioned set-up takes place on Valentine’s Day. In a genre renown for cheaply cashing-in on holiday titles, this seemed like the perfect chance to stake a claim, but the concept fizzles out almost entirely. There are a couple of nods going forward, and our killer literally aims to cut out our protagonist’s still-beating heart, but they hardly make it central to the film. It’s like they chose a concept and a conflicting setting and couldn’t decide which should take centre stage. Personally, I’m glad they decided on the hospital, which is so sterile and befitting of the genre. The fact that Hospital Massacre was actually shot in an abandoned hospital is also a godsend for such a humble outing. A crappy set would have killed this movie.
Once again, our killer’s motive is rooted in childhood. The story begins in 1961, when a young Susan (Benton) finds a Valentine’s card from admirer, Harry, only to mock his sentiment with another male friend. To the detriment of that little blighter, Harry is not the most stable of children, and after his prepubescent frame somehow finds the height and strength to hang his love rival from an eight foot hat rack (presumably he found a chair to aid his deed in the seconds his unrequited love was absent from the room), his grinning face sticks around long enough for Susan to establish him as the guilty party.
Twenty years pass and Susan is a happily married mother of one who fails to exhibit even a morsel of mental scarring, laughing off her husband’s reminder of a recent massacre that took place in the Los Angeles County hospital where she is due some test results, and on Valentines Day no less. This may strike you as pretty careless behaviour, but despite her gruesome past she does have a point. I mean, what are the odds that two massacres would take place at the same location in as many years. Pretty slim, right? As are the chances that one of the hospital’s staff would share the name of the demented child who had changed her life irrevocably, who despite being fingered for his juvenile crime has somehow evaded prosecution, landing a job as an intern in a profession where victims and sharp implements are plentiful. Talk about negligence!
Harry, who is very obviously the killer from the outset (trust me, spoilers mean nothing here), then sets about offing a whole host of victims for no other reason than to fill the running time of Cannon’s rushed-into-production, slasher boom cash-in. Instead of simply killing Susan, Harry decides to prolong her stay by tampering with her test results, somehow producing an X-ray of the patient’s intestines that any competent doctor would identify as an error instead of strapping her to a gurney for being mad and attempting to perform an operation on her for a condition that couldn’t possibly have been diagnosed. It looks like one of the giant worms from Tremors burrowed its way in there, for Christ’s sake!
In light of these findings, Susan is forced to spend the night on a hospital ward with three croaky old hags who ooze foreboding like the three witches of Macbeth, and the lunacy doesn’t stop there. As hospitals go, this one is a veritable nuthouse, a building under partial fumigation where drunks and perverts wander the corridors unchallenged and rapey doctors operate with impunity. Susan’s nude examination courtesy of John Warner Williams’ Doctor Saxon will send shivers down the spine of any watching female. It’s so perversely intimate and drawn-out and without reason, a jaw-droppingly transparent punt at commercial titillation that has to be seen to be believed.
Ultimately, what makes the film so engrossing is its refusal to bow to any kind of coherence. Elements such as plot, logicality and general creative integrity are neither here nor there. Golan-Globus were looking to tap into a burgeoning market, and in doing so read the ingredients on the back of the packet. It’s like they threw the sachet of spices into the pan and turned on the heat before adding the instant noodles, or even the water to boil them in. It’s audaciously undercooked at times, burnt to a crisp at others, an acquired taste that will likely please scholars of mindless schlock no end.
Is this essential viewing for serious slasher fans? Perhaps not. But it is essential viewing for anyone fascinated with Cannon’s inimitable thumbprint, which elevates the movie above the realms of mediocrity, resulting in a goofy delight that will either leave you grinning from ear to ear or shaking your head in disbelief. Possibly both. What a wonderful time to be a horror fan.