Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Visiting Hours (1981)

Visiting Hours opens with simple titles on a neutral blue background, while a piano theme runs on the soundtrack. The melody is simple, but the weight and repetition of the notes recall the sound of an EKG monitor: the neatness of the visuals and the quality of the score appropriately suggest the clinical horror of Visiting Hours, a film which, like Cronenberg or Coma, is concerned with the alienating and intimidating nature of the hospital and of health-care. In fact, the perception of an anti-somatic, body-fearing quality in industrial medicine and treatment (a micro for Capitalism’s macro perhaps) is emphasized repeatedly throughout the film, so often as to risk becoming a theme which feels clumsy and overstated.

Yet Visiting Hours, a horror film first and foremost, does not let the hospital alone be the predator, and that’s where Michael Ironside comes in. Ironside, as I’m sure Samurai Dreams readers know, is a fantastic character actor and a formidable presence in films such as Scanners, Total Recall and The Machinist. Ironside is a gift to this film, exuding heavy menace in every scene. Ironside’s prominence seems to offset the film, for better or worse; the supposed protagonist of the film, TV host Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant), competes with Ironside for dominance throughout.

Ironside is here a loner who decides to murder Ballin, after her commentary affects the outcome of a high-profile murder case in which a woman has killed her abusive husband in self defense. Initially, the audience is provided no details about Ironside’s character, or his motives. Ironside emerges into the film both figuratively and literally from parts unknown, attacking Ballin from behind her shower curtain with a knife, nude and wearing her jewelry. This nightmare image establishes Ironside’s thus-far-unnamed character as an almost supernatural presence, completely relentless and single-minded. Ironside’s assailant is able to critically wound Ballin, but she survives the attack. The remainder of the film concerns his attempts to silence Ballin for good, as he stalks her in her hospital bed.

Yet, an interesting thing happens (and this is why I maintain Ironside competes with Grant for the film’s focus): the film begins to follow Ironside’s character from the hospital back to his apartment; he is allowed to exist outside of the hospital, outside the context of typical slasher anonymity. As the audience follows Ironside’s character’s life “outside,” more is revealed about his life (including, eventually, his name: Colt Hawker), and an interesting dichotomy develops: the anti-somatism Ballin observes in the hospital (macro), and the anti-somatism of the character of Colt (micro). The complexity of Colt’s psyche is slowly revealed, subtly: Ironside understands the importance here of understatement.

Among Colt’s hobbies: writing angry white-supremacist editorials, visiting his ill father in a rest home, and picking up underage girls at greasy spoons to bring back to his apartment. Colt doesn’t rape his victims—he batters and photographs them. Colt’s anti-somatism is so great that his attraction to female flesh must be mediated; he even wears his camera on a belt at crotch level. Colt’s ownership of and mastery over women is achieved not through sex, but through violence and its preservation via his camera. In Colt we find a man of intense hatred, hatred for both himself and others (on this point the feeling of the filmmakers are made explicit: when a young woman Colt has battered asks a nurse if she works at the Free Clinic to “see how the other half lives,” the nurse responds: “There is no Other half.”). Colt’s reasons for hating Ballin are essentially ideological; his obsession with Ballin comes from emotions which run much deeper. Colt’s anti-somatism is so intense as to ensure he values death over life. While this assumption is usually explicit in the mind of most film killers, not often is the assumption given any thematic weight. The micro of Colt, one person struggling to live up to gender stereotypes within a sexist culture, and the macro of a hospital’s beauracratic, mechanized anti-somatism, merge in the film’s final reel, as Colt, wearing scrubs and a lab coat, wields a jack-knife like a syringe over Ballin’s helpless drugged body in her hospital bed.

Despite what Visiting Hours does right, the film is in many ways flawed. Specifically, the film suffers from uneven pacing and underdeveloped supporting characters, including Ballin’s nurse Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl), whom Colt is also obsessed with, and William Shatner (in an atypical even-handed performance) as Ballin’s boss Baylor. Yet while the structure of the film suffers in some ways from the demands of the complex relationship developed between Colt and Ballin, this central element is substance enough to warrant a raw, intelligent, interesting and overlooked film.

While often films of the “body-horror” genre reach the same conclusion about the nature of western cultural assumptions, rarely does the body-horror film provide a counterpoint. In Visiting Hours, the counterpoint is clear: Colt’s ideology of misogyny, hatred and death (engendered, the audience comes to learn, by his own idealized vision of his abusive father)—as apposed to Ballin’s progressive, holistic ideology—is poison. While Visiting Hours is imperfect, its message of acceptance of the flesh triumphing over the fear of the flesh—the dichotomy embodied by Ballin and Colt—is loud and clear.


Bemis said...

This just went right on my Netflix queue - I remember a trailer from the head of the Cemetery Man DVD, but your review seals the deal. Many thanks. Michael Ironside rules.

Endless Greg said...

If you look over Ironside's resume, you find mostly supporting parts. This is unfortunate, as he has the chops to carry a movie for sure.

Visiting Hours is good, but be warned that it is very trashy, in the make-you-feel-a-little-sick kind of way. The VHS copy I watched looked like crap, I'd like to know if the DVD is a good transfer and if there's any extras. Who's ditributing? Anchor bay?

Bemis said...

Anchor Bay it is.