HORROR HOSPITAL (1973) Blu-ray
Director: Antony Balch
Odeon Entertainment

Produced by Richard Gordon and directed by legendary British sex/art film distributor, Antony Balch, HORROR HOSPITAL allows the team to deliver an even dose of high camp, black humor and a befitting amount of sex and blood to make for a very memorable contribution to the genre. Balch, who died of cancer in 1980, previously directed the strange SECRETS OF SEX (aka TALES OF THE BIZARRE) for Gordon, which was released on DVD by Synapse a few years ago. Previously released on DVD by Elite Entertainment and more recently Dark Sky Films, the U.K. company Odeon Entertainment now gives the ghastly experiments of the mad Dr. Storm a much appreciated facelift on Region Free Blu-ray.

The pre-credit sequence introduces us to the wheelchair-bound Dr. Storm (Michael Gough, HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, KONGA, and so many others) and his dwarf helper Frederick (Skip Martin, VAMPIRE CIRCUS) who are tracking down two young, blood-soaked escapees in their black Sedan. You see, the car has a retractable blade that neatly slices off the heads of its victims, catching them in a basket. This clever apparatus – the brainchild of screenwriter Alan Watson – is later used in several key sequences during the film. After the credits – complete with a streak of blood flowing down the center – we cut to a dingy club where a longhaired rock band is performing on a smoke-filled stage. Standing in the audience is Jason (the darling of the 1970s British sex farce, Robin Askwith, here looking something like the late Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones) who is enraged that the band ripped off his precious song. They perform a little ditty called “The Mark of Death,” sounding and looking a bit like a hybrid of The New York Dolls and Spinal Tap. The drag queen leader (who turns out to be screenwriter Watson according to Richard Gordon in the commentary), donned in yellow fright wig, red dress, and glitter make-up, resembles "Beef" from PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, as he lays on-stage like a corpse during the performance.

Jason starts uttering insults to his outlandish foe (“Who does she think she is, Greta Garbo? Looks more like a lemon meringue pie on heat.”) and it soon erupts into fisticuffs. Surprisingly, Jason turns out to be the weaker of the two as he ends up with a busted nose and a face full of blood. Realizing that he has to get away for a while, some stoners alert him to an ad in a magazine about “Hairy Holidays.” Jason goes to the travel agency where he meets up with the eccentric Pollack (Dennis Price, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN). After staring at the bulge in the young man’s denims, Pollack sends him to what promises to be a relaxing health farm. On the train, Jason encounters the pleasing Judy (Vanessa Shaw) who is headed to the same destination. It turns out that her homely Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock, WHO KILLED THE CAT?) is married (or so we think) to Dr. Storm and helps run the clinic. When they finally get there, they are hastily greeted and forced to share a room, allowing for the inevitable hanky panky and spicy nude scenes. Strange happenings include a blood-soaked bed, blood pouring from a faucet, and an array of pale, hippie zombies with huge lobotomy scars on their foreheads. It turns out that the host, Dr. Storm, is performing surgical mind-control experiments on young victims who show up at his residence, and Jason and Judy are next in line.

As Judy is being prepped in the lab, Jason is locked up in a cell which can fill up with knockout gas. Another poor soul with high hair, Abraham (Kurt Christian from THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD and SINBAD AND THE EYE OF THE TIGER) shows up on Dr. Storm's doorstep looking for his "chick," only to be locked up with Jason. They are able to escape with the aid of the pint-sized Frederick, but Storm's biker boys (zombified toughies dressed in black leather and crash helmets) recapture them. After being told the bizarre history of Storm's experiments, they discover his dark secret and get away, tearing out of the horror hospital amidst flames and explosions.

Many other plot ingredients beef up HORROR HOSPITAL, including flashbacks to Nazi Germany where Storm abducted female victims from Aunt Harris’ bordello. There are plenty of decapitations, fight scenes and chases to keep things colorful. Most of the performances are a delight, including hammy Gough (whose lead starring roles in horror films are too far and in between), the always likable Askwith as the hip young hero, and the puffy-looking Price with his usual comedic flair. Best of all is Skip Martin who adds a stroke of dark humor to his role and practically steals every scene that he's in (“Don’t forget to brush your teeth!”). Veteran character actor Kenneth Benda (also seen in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, as well as the earlier Gordon/Balch collaboration SECRETS OF SEX/TALES OF THE BIZARRE) is a creepy, long-faced train station master (who delivers such simple lines as “Your tickets please” with hammy aplomb).

Also known as COMPUTER KILLERS (when it was first released in the U.S. in 1975 through Hallmark/AIP), HORROR HOSPITAL’s score is comprised of library music from the De Wolfe library (some of which could also be heard in Michael Armstrong’s earlier THE HAUNTED HOUSE OF HORROR). Most of it is really befitting, giving a frenzied NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD-like feel to the campy proceedings. At least once, the music is amusingly inappropriate. A good example of this is when Abraham shows up strutting along the clinic’s entrance while a blaring tune that resembles the theme to "The Dating Game" plays in the background (this piece of music was more recently used in an American spaghetti sauce commercial, proving that the De Wolfe library really does get around!). One interesting fact about this film is that the two actors who portray the main Biker Boys, Martin Grace and Colin Skeaping, went on to become very prominent stunt men in major motion pictures. Grace did stunt work on most of the Roger Moore James Bond films, as well as the entire "Indiana Jones" series, and Skeaping worked on some of the "Star Wars" epics.

In the early 1970s, the British horror film cycle was witnessing the demise of Hammer (though certainly not in terms of quality), the rise of Pete Walker's thought-provoking carnage programmers, as well as black horror comedies like THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and THEATER OF BLOOD. HORROR HOSPITAL aptly fits in the later category, albeit more exploitive in terms of outrageous gore and naked flesh. Simply put, it’s a low budget yet amusing little gem that rightly deserves its place in the genre.

As mentioned, HORROR HOSPITAL was previously available on DVD twice in the U.S., and with no Blu-ray release in sight in this country, Odeon’s Blu-ray is well-worth purchasing as an import. Presenting the film fully uncut at a fitting 1.66:1 aspect ratio, it has been remastered in 1080p HD, now looking better than ever, as those alluring 1970s colors never appeared better. Fleshtones are superb, grain is filmic and well-maintained and detail is exceptional (wait until you see the Fall foliage during some of the outdoor scenes). The elements used for the transfer were in mostly excellent shape, with minimal lines and other slight markings occasionally relegated to the sides of the screen. Also, the transfer seems to have more picture information on all sides when compared to the previous U.S. DVD releases. Some purchasers of this Blu-ray noticed that around the 0:00:33 mark, the picture goes to black for a split second (on close observation, it looks to be part of the title card with the black background), but if this is some kind of error, it’s a “blink and you’ll miss” situation and happens during a transition and is nothing at all to fuss about. The English LPCM audio is perfect for this film, with dialogue being clear and the noisy library music also having good fidelity. There are no subtitle options on this disc.

Extras include an audio commentary with producer Richard Gordon (who passed away in 2011) originally recorded for the 2010 Dark Sky Films DVD (the moderator is writer/film historian Tom Weaver). Gordon touches upon every single facet of the film, from director Balch, the cast, the locations and sets, the make-up, stunts, distribution, etc, and reveals some stuff about it that’s probably never been publicly known until now. Weaver and Gordon have done a number of fine commentaries in the past, and this one ranks right up there, thorough and most enjoyable, especially for long-time fans of the film. Gordon mentions that HORROR HOSPITAL was the most fun he ever had making a film, and he believed that it shows in what’s up on the screen (and I agree with him 100 percent). There’s a new lively interview with Robin Askwith (10:52) where he talks about getting a call from Gordon with a script that was written for him and that Balch didn’t have to give him much direction as he knew he would play the part just as it was written (and that he played it straight). He got on well with his co-stars (telling a great anecdote about Price) but felt that Gough distanced himself from the film, and Askwith also adds how he requested to do his own stunts. “Operating Out of Battersea - The Making of Horror Hospital” (27:10) includes interviews with director of photography David Macdonald, associate producer Ray Corbett, editor Robert Dearberg and stunt coordinator/biker boy Colin Skeaping. Since HORROR HOSPITAL is not a film that’s overly-discussed, it’s great to see some of the key players interviewed here, and they all have clear recollections on their contributions to the film, and there’s also some interesting insight into what Balch was like as a director. Such topics as the budget, the locations, and the shooting schedule are also touched upon. The British theatrical trailer is also included, which has it on a double bill with Ted V. Mikels’ THE CORPSE GRINDERS! (George R. Reis)