Our next writer in this year’s series is Jason Fabeck. Jason, like quite a few others contributing to this year’s event, is someone that I knew nothing about prior to his joining this year’s list. Quite honestly, I still know extremely little about him. Normally, this is where I’d make up things about him in the attempts to sound clever and witty. However, as Jason has already beat me to the punch in that area, I’ll just find something else to talk about.
Instead, let’s talk about the film and character being discussed in this piece. 1973’s Horror Hospital is undoubtedly one of the lesser known films on the list. That said, I expect more than a few readers to check out the film after reading this piece, if they haven’t done so already. Much like this series’ earlier piece on the character of “Deke Slade“, part of what I find so fascinating about this series is its ability to introduce readers to new films and experiences that they may otherwise miss.
Without further delay, here’s Jason….
Dr. Storm in Horror Hospital
By Jason Fabeck
I first came across Antony Balch’s Horror Hospital at a friend’s house one night last winter. The cover was crazy, caught my eye, and I immediately wanted to know more about it. Upon a cursory search online for Horror Hospital, you will find that the film isn’t the first thing that pops up. The top result is an indie computer game by the same name. That’s because the official title of Horror Hospital (according to IMDB and Wikipedia) is actually Computer Killers. The movie features no computers and it is unclear why that is the title, but it intrigued me even more. As I began to research, I found that the star and main villain was none other than Michael Gough. Gough is probably best known for his role as Alfred Pennyworth in not only Tim Burton’s two Batman flicks but also the two Schumacher installments. He is the only actor to cross over into a second Batman franchise playing the same character. My interest was piqued, to say the least.
After some more digging, I found that Gough had a long and illustrious career (he died in 2001 at the age of 94, not a bad run). He got his start with outputs by Hammer Film Productions, a well-known British production company best known for their Gothic horror films back in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. He appeared in Horror of Dracula (1958), starring Christopher Lee in the titular role as well as Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Along with minor roles in The Legend of Hell House, The Serpent and the Rainbow, and even Top Secret! (marking the first collaboration Gough would have with Val Kilmer before his two Batman films), Gough kept working up until the year before he passed away. In between all the screen acting, he even secured multiple Tony Award nominations, eventually winning for Best Actor in 1979.
An amazing and fulfilling career aside, the real reason we are all here is for his role in Horror Hospital, of course. Gough’s performance as Dr. Christian Storm is a favorite of mine and is also one of the most memorable 1970’s B-Horror villains (outside of the obvious ones) of all time. ‘Why haven’t I ever heard of it?’, the young children cry out. Keep in mind this came out in 1973, a year before Phantom of the Paradise and almost two years prior to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Why does that matter? After a single viewing, you can clearly see how HH was a clear influence on both of those movies. Sadly, HH went the way of Myspace and was soon forgotten in favor of its successors. Nonetheless, the movie is a testament to the interesting range Gough had and how a scrappy little British horror became a muse for future filmmakers.
The movie opens on Dr. Storm, adorned in all black, in the back of a car with his assistant. A nice summer drive soon takes a weird turn when we see two bloody youths running along the side of the road. Storm barks an order and a large blade pops out from the side of the car, lopping the heads off the two unfortunate victims. While the gore isn’t impressive or even really scary, that opening gag sets the entire tone for not only the rest of the movie, but the mentality of the demented Dr. Storm as well.
Hefner ain’t got shit on me
The movie’s main non-villains consist of Jason, a British hipster going on vacation (and also happens to look like Mick Jagger’s younger brother that drinks too much) and a smart, young woman, Judy, who is off to visit her aunt. They meet on a train out to the country and both end up staying at Brittlehurst Manor, a supposed health farm which happens to be owned by Judy’s aunt and her husband, Dr. Christian Storm.
Once the two make it to the Manor, it turns out they only have one open room left. Big surprise. Storm’s assistant from before shows them to their room and on the way, the couple see some strange things afoot including a bed covered in blood and other guests milling about, drained of color, with large facial scars. A conversation between Judy’s aunt and the travel agent that set up Jason’s trip shows them to be clearly in cahoots recruiting patients for the good doctor and his wife.
I can’t get no satis-OHMYGODIMGONNADIE
The captives, adorned in all white, are next seen arranged around a long dinner table. Silent and dead-eyed, they never speak. Judy’s aunt explains to our stars that they are advanced students of the doctor and Everything. Is. Fine. Back in their room, the two are clearly frazzled and confused by what is supposed to be a routine getaway.
We finally get a second glance at Dr. Storm when he is wheeled into their room in a ridiculously dramatic entrance. He makes a joke about ‘little people’ and then smacks his assistant in the face with a wooden rod (did I mention his assistant was a dwarf?). The doctor is clearly not a tolerant man. There is something spooky going on at the Manor with the patients and Jason and Judy are told to stay in their room until further notice.
Part of the reason why I’m enamored with Dr. Storm is he’s not really in the movie that much. At least not until the end. We see all of his mad ideas implemented by his lackies: the small, cryptic assistant, the cold Mrs. Storm, and two mysterious biker thugs who never take off their leather jackets or helmets. The set dressing allows secondary characters to breathe and keep us in suspense for the ‘main event’ that is clearly coming in the third act. In between more patient outbursts and weird events around the Manor, we see Dr. Storm taking calls in his study and meeting with Jason’s travel agent. Unfortunately, after displeasing Dr. Storm, the agent soon becomes yet another victim of the ol’ car blade. I forgot to mention the blade sticks out from under the side-view mirror and couldn’t possibly reach the necks of any victims, save small children. Realistic, this is not. Not that it matters, but I’m still not sure how that placement of the blade made it past the planning stages, ha.
Dr. Storm is again dramatically wheeled into the next extravagant set piece. This time it’s the gymnasium/laboratory (because that’s a real thing, apparently) in the basement of the Manor. He showcases the real appeal of his patients. Once operated on, they are in peak physical condition and impervious to pain. A zombie army, essentially. Jason is petrified to find Judy, comatose and locked up. He soon realizes that the two of them are going to be the next to receive surgery. Jason attempts an escape and in a scene longer than the alley fight in They Live, he is slowly dragged back by the motorcycle twins. Imprisoned, Jason is haunted in his dreams by Gough’s droll voiceover, blithely spouting exposition of his plans. A short, great scene follows with Storm operating on a patient with his wife as he casually refers to the young people he entraps as ‘dirty flies.’ In what is a pretty small role, Gough’s cadence ensures it’s memorable.
In an inexplicable third act turn, a boyfriend of one of patients shows up looking for her. He looks like a cut-rate Erik Estrada and is soon captured. Thrown into a cell with Jason, it’s clear that he exists solely to help successfully defeat the bad guys at a later time. Meanwhile, maybe the darkest order by Dr. Storm takes place but is given little-to-no screen time or after thought. Distraught at the idea of the doctor operating on her niece, the aunt is murdered by one of the deformed patients. Dr. Storm awakens Judy and, in response to her asking where the aunt is, simply responds, ‘She’s gone away.’ It’s these little moments with Gough that really make his performance.
We soon see the rest of Dr. Storm’s entourage either turn on him (the assistant helps Jason and pseudo-Erik Estrada escape) or come to their own demise. The third act culminates in a lightning-filled dining hall monologue by Storm explaining that he wasn’t always crippled and that he used to be quite the ladies’ man. Because that’s an important plot point, right? The origins of his mad scientist antics reveal he studied under Pavlov and became an expert in human conditioning. After Stalin came to power, apparently Storm’s laboratories were overrun with young, dumb lab students so he left to start his own lab and the human experiments began.
While ‘villain explains his entire exposition and plan to the hero’ is quite the over-wrought trope, in the case of low-budget fare (at least B-Horror), it doesn’t really make a difference in how great a film like this is received. It’s a welcome camp element that only helps build up to a chaotic conclusion. Now that we fully understand the extent of Storm’s madness, the real horror can finally begin.
Once his plan is laid out, he looks for answers. How did our heroes escape? The answer is obvious and the poor assistant is dragged off. While 3rd act boyfriend and Jason are helping the assistant break free, Judy is off in Dr. Storm’s Magical Mystery Basement being prepped for surgery. While ultimately the assistant doesn’t make it, Jason & Co. find their way to breaking Judy free, but Dr. Storm is nowhere to be found. We soon find out the deformed creature that murdered Judy’s aunt was, in fact, Dr. Storm in a mask, hiding his deformities. As Storm escapes outside, a fire breaks out in the Manor (because, why not?) and our trio make their way to the doctor’s car to speed away. As they head down the winding road, we come full circle with Storm’s neck meeting the business end of his own car blade and Jason tossing his head into a swamp. Dr. Storm finally meets his end. Or does he? The movie ends with a shot of a hand slowly reaching out of the swamp.
Holy Hospital, Batman!!
While this certainly isn’t the most iconic or revered horror to come out of the 1970’s, it sticks with me. Most of the acting and effects are pretty terrible, but Gough’s portrayal of Dr. Storm sticks out like a bloody, lopped-off thumb. The BAFTA-winning actor has a storied career that was built on the bones of his early horror work and this role could have been easily forgotten with the wrong actor. It’s believed that the writers created this part with Gough in mind and that says something. When a low-budget horror film creates a role for a specific actor, that actor usually has something special. Gough could have turned down the silly role, but I like to think he knew there was something lasting to be made. Something that would add to his legacy once he was gone. As Alfred Pennyworth states in Batman & Robin:
‘There is no defeat in death, Master Bruce. Victory comes in defending what we know is right while we still live.’
Jason Fabeck lives in Chicago and likes warm socks. He camps occasionally but is terrible at making a fire. When he isn’t half-finishing novels, he enjoys cooking in between watching Nicolas Cage movies. You can learn more about him at http://jfab.me/.