Jun 4, 2014
Call me a softcore Anglophobe, but I have an acute aversion to British comedy, especially if it is blended with the horror genre (another genre the Brits seem to have a keenness for making rather banal), with a film like Shaun of the Dead (2004) reflecting the height of retarded aesthetic repugnance to me. Needless to say, I have never seen a single limey horror-comedy that I actually enjoyed, at least until recently after inadvertently discovering the strange and largely forgotten figure of Antony Balch while doing research on the Fernando Arrabal-penned S&M-themed erotic arthouse flick Weird Weirdo (1969) aka Le grand ceremonial directed by Pierre-Alain Jolivet. Balch was originally a film distributor who created catchy English titles for cult, arthouse, exploitation, and foreign sex films like Weird Weirdo and Don't Deliver Us from Evil (1971) aka Mais ne nous délivrez pas du mal and screened them in the various movie theaters he ran. A personal friend of many important filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, Balch got his start in filmmaking collaborating on shorts with junky literary outlaw William S. Burroughs, who he met at Madame Rachou’s Beat Hotel. Indeed, after collaborating with Burroughs (who gave the auteur a ‘special thanks’ in his cut-up 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded) on a couple experimental avant-garde shorts like Towers Open Fire (1962–1963), The Cut-Ups (1967), and the abandoned documentary project Guerrilla Conditions, Balch decided to take up the curious cause of feature-length exploitation filmmaking after hooking up with horror producer Richard Gordon (Fiend Without a Face, Radley Metzger’s The Cat and the Canary). Working with an incomplete script, Gordon and Balch (who provided half of the funding for the film) created the genre-smashing erotic-exploitation-horror-comedy hybrid Secrets of Sex (1970) aka Bizarre—an offbeat film anthology mocking sex that is narrated by an Egyptian mummy and was co-penned by no less than five people (Burroughs’ bud, Brion Gysin, was also apparently involved)—which was a huge success in the UK. It was not until his second and final collaboration with Gordon, Horror Hospital (1973) aka Computer Killers aka Doctor Bloodbath aka Frankensteins Horror-Klinik, that Balch managed to direct his first somewhat ‘straight’ horror flick. Of course, as a work directed by a queer dandy of sorts who was described in Barry Miles’ Burroughs bio as being, “gay, well dressed with dark hair and an eager smile. After a few drinks he could be quite camp: ‘The trouble with fish is that they are so fisheee!’ he once shrieked in a restaurant,” Horror Hospital is far from your typical UK horror flick, as a conspicuously campy work that mirthfully mocks the counter-culture generation and wallows in witty and playful forms of iconoclasm. Written by Balch and his comrade Alan Watson at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival (the director came up with the alliterative title first before actually dreaming up a storyline), Horror Hospital ultimately evolved into a sardonically campy Gothic horror flick that would predate similar yet much more successful works like Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Indeed, a fiercely farcical film that seems like it was directed by the Bela Lugosi-obsessed British bastard son of Andy Milligan and Paul Morrissey, Horror Hospital is like the Performance (1970) of horror comedies, as a work that even features its own Mick Jagger clone (interestingly, Balch’s dream-project was to adapt Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, but the film apparently fell apart when its star, Mick Jagger, was concerned that the director might be coming on to him).
Jason Jones (Robin Askwith) is a long-haired rocker with a rather dubious IQ who bares a striking resemblance to Mick Jagger (but acts more like Brian Jones) and who made the major mistake of joining a band with a prissy tranny degenerate as a singer (as portrayed by the film’s co-writer Alan Watson in an uncredited role). Indeed, the band stole Jason’s song and kicked him out of the group, or as the songwriter complains while watching the band perform his song without him, “Look at that. They stole my song. A week’s work up the spout.” Jason also makes sure to verbally ream the gender-bending meta-man singer with the following hilarious remark, “Silly little red faggot swirling about in his own smoke. Who does she think she is? Greta Garbo? He looks more like a lemon meringue pie in heat,” and he is subsequently beaten by the tranny rocker due to his disparaging remarks. Undoubtedly, Jason is in need of a vacation and after seeing a flyer for a travel agency called “Hairy Holidays,” he meets up with a sleazy and exceedingly effete gay travel agent named Mr. Pollack (portrayed by Dennis Price, who is best known for starring in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and who died the same year Horror Hospital was released), who gives the rocker a discounted price to an ostensible health farm called Brittlehurst Manor (the exteriors of the building were shot at English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s home) after getting aroused after looking at the bulge in the young man’s pants. While riding on a train to the health farm, Jason meets a hot young chick named Judy Peter (Vanessa Shaw), who seems somewhat uneasy around the rocker, at least until he calms her worries by remarking, “There’s no need to get so uptight about things. I’m not going to rape you.” As Judy explains, she is also going to the heath farm, albeit to visit her Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock), who works there. Judy has never met Aunt Harris because her mother refused to allow her daughter to meet her sister due to the fact that she ran a whorehouse in Hamburg, Germany right before the Second World War. Unfortunately, little do Jason and Judy realize that Brittlehurst Manor is not a health spa, but a house of horror where a wheelchair-bound mad scientist modeled after Bela Lugosi’s character from The Devil Bat (1940) named Dr. Storm (portrayed by Hammer horror star Michael Gough, who is probably best known for portraying ‘Alfred’ in all four films of the Hollywood Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman films) does experimental brain surgery on hippies and turns them into mindless yet obedient zombies. Naturally, Dr. Storm has a couple of henchmen, including a Jewish midget named Frederick (Skip Martin) that always sports a yarmulke, Judy’s Aunt Harris aka ‘Madam Olga’, and a legion of leather-jacket-adorned Droog-Gestapo biker zombie thugs.
Upon arriving at Brittlehurst Manor, Judy is berated by her Aunt Harris for coming (apparently, she wrote her niece a letter telling her not to come, but she never received it, as wily dwarf Frederick disposed of it) and she and Jason are given a room to share together, even though they are not lovers. Needless to say, Jason and Judy soon become hot and heavy lovers, though they both feel a bit uneasy about staying at the health farm, not least of all because they spotted a bloody bed in another room only minutes after arriving there. When Jason and Judy go to eat dinner with the rest of the hippies staying at the health farm, they notice that their comrades are pale, mute, seemingly braindead, and have giant scars on their foreheads. After one of the female guests is subdued by the biker zombies after she has a violent freakout, Jason and Judy go back to their rooms, only to discover that blood is coming out of the sink in their bedroom. After being horrified by the rather unconventional sight of seeing blood flying out of faucets, the two lovers are visited by Dr. Storm, dwarf Frederick, and Aunt Harris, who warn them not to leave their room. After having hot and steamy sex for the first time, Jason and Judy make the major mistake of leaving their room, thereupon resulting in both of them soon being captured by the leather-bound biker zombies. The next day, travel agent Pollack attempts to blackmail Dr. Storm, so the good doctor has him decapitated with his Rolls Royce, which features a large blade on the side that cuts off people’s heads. When Jason sees Pollack’s corpse from an upstairs window of the mansion, he violently grabs Frederick and demands that the imp tell him what is going on around the health farm, with the dwarf confessing, “I’m just as much a prisoner here as you are…I’ll talk to you later.” After that, Jason is given a tour of the health farm gymnasium where the mindless zombie hippies do back flips and accept torture without complaining. As Dr. Storm explains regarding his patients, “You see…Just like puppets, and I’m the puppet master…puppets who feel no pain.” Dr. Storm then reveals that he has drugged Judy and he plans to give her, and eventually Jason, brain surgery. Naturally, Jason runs away and Dr. Storm yells to him, “It’s no use Jason. You won’t get very far.” Of course, Dr. Storm is right, as while Jason manages to kill a zombie biker by knocking him into quicksand, two other zombie bikers capture him and put him in a dungeon room where he is tortured with “knock out gas” that causes him to hallucinate. Meanwhile, Aunt Harris begins getting paranoid that the police might find out about their experiments, but Dr. Storm warns her that no one gives a shit about young hippies disappearing, stating, “As for these young people, they come and go like flies these days. Dirty ones at that. Their disappearance will hardly be noticed.”
When a swarthy hippie dork named Abraham Warren (Kurt Christian aka ‘Baron Kurt Christian Von Siengenberg’) shows up at the hospital of horrors looking for his girlfriend, Aunt Harris decides to quit and is soon killed by a grotesque monster that looks like a humanoid turd. Of course, Abraham is also thrown in the dungeon with Jason, but the two young hippies are soon freed when dwarf Frederick gives two zombie biker guards neon green drinks spiked with ‘Mickey Finn,’ steals the guards' keys, and unlocks the door to the prison cell. Of course, they are caught again after Abraham spots his girlfriend Millie (Barbara Wendy), who has been turned into a zombie, in the company of Dr. Storm and his leather-fag gestapo agents. As the good Doctor explains to his prisoners/guests during dinner, he used to be a handsome lady’s man that was the disciple of a revolutionary scientist named Academician Pavlov, but as Storm states, when Stalin came to power, he installed “many young scientists, stupid adolescents who didn’t know what they were doing. Very soon my laboratories were overrun by these young turks, and I was made to leave.” Dr. Storm decided to go to Helsinki, Finland where he established a zoo where he experimented on animals, but he soon got bored working with furry creatures and began experimenting on humans instead, using Aunt Harris as a means to procure German prostitutes that he used as guinea pigs, explaining regarding his experiments: “In one of my experiments I applied Academician Pavlov’s theory of conditioned reflexes to sexual behavior. In my view, Freud had failed. I succeeded in controlling human desire, but there was still a missing link. My subjects could not yet fulfill the desires I had created in them. They were not a very pretty sight after the operation.” Dr. Storm also explains that he became a cripple after a “hunting man had the impertinence to enter my fortress” and accidentally set the place on fire, thus paralyzing the deranged doctor in the process. After dinner, Jason, Abraham, and dwarf Frederick are locked in a room together, with the latter revealing that he is the bastard son of one of Dr. Storm’s Hamburg hookers and he has been the mad doctor’s “whipping dog” ever since. The three manage to escape after Frederick jumps out of a window, kills a zombie guard by hitting him over the head with an ax, and unlocking the door for his two new friends, but the brave dwarf, who always dreamed of being a hero (this is one of the many long running jokes throughout the film), is subsequently killed after he is thrown down some stairs by one of the biker guards. Before he dies, Frederick attempts to tell Jason and Abraham something about Dr. Storm. Indeed, as the hippies soon learn, the Doctor is really a human monster (the ‘humanoid turd’ I mentioned before) who lost all his skin during the same fire that left him paralyzed. Ultimately, Jason and Abraham catch the undead Doc in his naked fecal-matter-like monster form sexually brutalizing Millie. The boys decide to give Dr. Storm “some of his own medicine” by decapitating him with his own killer Rolls Royce. In the end, Jason, Judy, and Abraham manage to get away and Dr. Storm’s decapitated corpse and head sink into quicksand, but somehow the monster mad scientist manages to come alive again, thus setting up for a sequel to Horror Hospital that was never made.
While Horror Hospital was the most successful movie that Antony Balch ever made, the rather idiosyncratic auteur never made another film, though he apparently had a number of projects in mind before he died, including an unkosher comedy entitled The Sex Life of Adolf Hitler and a horror flick co-written by Hammer horror screenwriter Christopher Wicking, who once commented regarding a meeting with the eccentric filmmaker in a 1988 interview with Shock Xpress magazine: “I had a crazy meeting with him, when he wanted to do some picture or other. He spent most of the time walking across the furniture. Languorously, he would walk across three or four chairs. He went into another little world. He was a sad figure in a way, because he was well before his time.” Indeed, rather unfortunately, Balch succumbed to stomach cancer at the premature age of 42 in 1980, thereupon putting a permanent end to his all too brief filmmaking career. Undoubtedly, Horror Hospital demonstrates that Balch were certainly a filmmaker that was ahead of his time, as a sort of Werner Schroeter of trashy high-camp horror comedies. In fact, Balch was actually deemed an important enough filmmaker in France that a frog writer named Adrien Clerc recently released a book about his life and career entitled Guerilla Conditions, la folle épopée cinématographique d'Antony Balch avec William Burroughs, Richard Gordon et tous les autres (2014). Retarded enough in parts to work as a stoner flick but also rather scathing in its depiction of hippie potheads, Horror Hospital is like an anti-Head Head flick that makes one big clever, if not intentionally corny, joke about the counter-counter generation and related subcultures while at the same time totally deconstructing virtually every single classic horror movie cliche. Heavily influenced by Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and the works of Bela Lugosi (Balch owned various prints of his films and would screen them at his home) yet set in the post-Beat counter-culture era, Horror Hospital ultimately demonstrates how much society, culture, and cinema has degenerated since the end of the Second World War, even if that was not Balch’s intention. Featuring the killer queen among killer queens as the main villain (Dr. Storm may proclaim to be rampantly heterosexuality, but he acts like a bitchy old cabaret dancer) and some of the most ludicrous murder and sex scenes of its era, Horror Hospital is an excess-ridden exercise in combining the elegant with the risqué and even lowbrow, thus demonstrating that auteur Antony Balch was the foremost dandy of exploitation cinema. Call me crazy, but I think Balch would have also made an adaption of Naked Lunch that would have put Cronenberg’s version to shame.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 9:52 PM
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