by John A. Riley
I’ve been captivated by cinema since I saw Superman split into his constituent good and evil parts to do battle in a junkyard. Growing up, I devoured anything I could, from blockbusters to Hammer Horror, to Welles and Hitchcock. As a university student, I was exposed to world cinema and the avant-garde too. But it wasn’t an academy-endorsed masterpiece that made the biggest impression on me; it was a chance encounter in the bargain bin of a cash and carry that resulted in me seeing a VHS of Horror Hospital.
Horror Hospital is part Carry-On, part Hammer, but mostly just authentically strange. Londoner Jason Jones, having burned his bridges in the music industry, is convinced by a sleazy travel agent to visit a health farm in the English countryside. When he gets there he’s drawn into a plot that stretches all the way back to the pre-Stalin Soviet Union and a Hamburg freudenhaus; a plot that involves blackmail, decapitation, a dwarf, offal, experimental brain surgery and mind control. It’s riotously funny, with genuinely beautiful cinematic moments jostling with jarring cuts, ridiculous music (from the same music library used by Monty Python for their Holy Grail) and a bathetic deflation of well-known adventure clichés.
It was this last that stayed in the mind long after the student guffawing at a so-bad-its-good aesthetic. The film seemed to stab, at the misanthropy, misogyny and laziness that bubble under the surface of British society and culture. I gradually came to realise that the film was directed by Antony Balch, avant-garde filmmaker, associate of William Burroughs and an inventive film programmer to boot. It’s a remnant of a time when the camp aesthetic was not just a resigned acceptance of kitschy tropes, but held a real critical force. It’s shot through with genuine outsider disdain for the callousness of mainstream culture.
At the moment I work in a fourteen floor office block overlooking Merton Park, where parts of the film were shot. Walking through the park each lunchtime I think of Balch’s curtailed career and his early death, and I half-hope to see Dr Storm lurking amongst the reeds, scalpel in hand.