Director: Jean-Claude Lord
Anchor Bay Entertainment

A taut if occasionally melodramatic addition to the ‘slasher’ sub-genre, VISITING HOURS is a surprisingly intelligent psychological thriller, exchanging suspense for gore in a believably written and well acted story of obsession. Arriving in the midst of a field more often noted for its ‘creative kills’ than characterization, this story of madness was devoted to suggestion and the terror of emotional isolation when its competition was concerned with graphic violence. VISITING HOURS more closely resembles the polished, eccentric thrillers of early Brian De Palma than a true slasher, celebrating structural conventions of the genre even while deviating from its gimmicks. Filmed in Canada, it also exchanges the crass adolescent mentality of ’killer teen’ films for such emotionally penetrative themes as fixation and media irresponsibility. Disturbing as a surface story, it’s just as effective as an attack against the self-satisfied culture of the 1980s. The result is a dramatically superior thriller compensating for lack of blood and breasts with carefully maintained suspense, and a story as combative in its use of politically charged themes as it is thrilling in its sparse but effective scenes of dread.

The simplistic (and occasionally over-sentimental) plot achieves broad, generic scares with misdirection and, as the narrative progresses, atmosphere. Journalist Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant) publicly denounces domestic violence on her television program, attracting the attention of an unstable, woman-hating psychotic (Michael Ironside). Returning home one evening, she is attacked by the knife-wielding, bared-assed psycho. Luckily she escapes. Unluckily, she’s brought to a hospital with ridiculous security measures, where this discontented deviant attempts to finish her off. As a number of staff are offed in uninspired if effective fashion, Deborah bonds with her nurse (too much so, I have to admit, for my own tastes, as halfway through I felt like I was watching an epsisode of "30 Something" rather than a horror film!). The tension grows as Ironside finally gets around to stalking his real target.

While the broad dramatic structure is fairly generic, resembling the major plot-pattern of dozens of other psychological horror films, from an over-dependence on the ‘fixation’ motif to the gradual murder of the hospital staff, one by one, the story digs past this formula to find a deeper human interest, focusing on Deborah as a strong, firm-willed ’modern’ woman. Sympathetic and likeable, Deborah isn’t our average bubble-headed party girl (a type-cast already apparent by the time the film was produced), nor is she typical sickeningly innocent ‘final girl,' delivered from a tragic fate because she resisted temptation. Rather, she’s no less than a professional woman whose opinions just happened to trigger the rage of an already sick mind. On the plus side, this lends fresh perspective to the violence, and certainly a greater level of emotional depth to the story. We care what happens to her, and, in a more twisted fashion, find the psychopath of more interest -- not simply as a symbol of death or of the unknown (ala Jason) but as an emotionally troubled, decidedly dangerous human monster who, in a way, is just as much a victim as he is a victimizer.

On the minus side, the story tends to focus an overly long period of time on the relationship between Deborah and her nurse, diluting the effects of the carefully paced murders, and, at times, threatening to minimize the simplistic, primal tension of the central conflict. The script can’t be blamed for seeking to create believable, sympathetic characters. It can be criticized, however, for diluting the effect of situational suspense -- an element that these films naturally depend upon -- with too much chatting between characters. Excepting this complaint (and lack of on-screen bloodshed), VISITING HOURS evokes impressive heights of tension by playing with our sense of expectation, lending to the basic unease of Ironside’s murderous mission and our universal sense of dread and mistrust of hospitals whose sterile yet emotionless corridors provoke as much suspense as any killer.

Made in 1982 during the height of the slasher craze, following in the wake of such splatter icons as Michael Meyers and Jason Vorhees, VISITING HOURS is perhaps more of an exception than the rule of this controversial sub-genre. Owing more to the stylized suspense sequences of the early Giallo (if not its attention to poetically depict violence) than to the wet and rowdy splatter fests with which it is often mistakenly lumped, its focus on suspense by implication lends it an emotional foundation lacking in many body-count films. A cast of devoted thespians helps combat the aforementioned lapses in tension, including Lee Grant, Michael Ironside, Linda Purl and William Shatner. A disturbingly lifeless atmosphere pervades the hospital, while French Canadian Jean-Claude Lord’s serviceable if uninspired direction captures the ‘stalk-and-slash’ structure with proficiency. Far from a macabre masterpiece, this socially conscientious thriller delivers a handful of solidly crafted shocks. More impressively, it creates characters whose ability to snag our sympathy makes the scares, when they come, more effective.

VISITING HOURS is itself lent a satisfying widescreen transfer (1.85:1), enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Clean and concise, the picture preserves carefully shot shadows and the moody gloom of the setting without any noticeable grain or other blemishes. Considering the limitations of age and budget, the presentation is quite admirable. Audio is offered in Dolby Digital 2.0, and is crisp and clear.

Extras are lean if attractive, including five television spots, a radio spot, and previews for THE ANNIVERSARY, THE ENTITY, QUICKSILVER HIGHWAY, GHOST IN THE MACHINE, and BAD DREAMS. While not expounding upon the cultural or aesthetic context of the film, nor increasing our knowledge or appreciation of it (a commentary with cast and/or crew would have proved interesting), Anchor Bay’s presentation of this overlooked addition to the stalk-and-kill sweepstakes is reason enough to purchase it for the DVD library. (William P. Simmons)