The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Hospital Massacre AKA X-Ray

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Taking a stab at…

Details:

Directed by Boaz Davidson

Featuring Barbi Benton, Charles Lucia, Jon Van Ness, John Warner Williams, Den Surles

Released 10/16/1981

IMDB Synopsis (via Matt Patay) Divorcee Susan Jeremy goes to a local Los Angeles county hospital for a routine exam and finds herself stranded there while a maniac, dressed in a doctor’s surgical mask and clothing, goes around killing all the staff are associated with her. Could it possibly be the psycho Harold, who killed a friend of Susan’s on Valentine’s Day 19 years earlier?

Minutes of Interest:

00:30- This film has multiple titles (X-Ray or Hospital Massacre) but this opening title card seems to reconcile the two quite well. Or it is the genesis for this split? Either way, there are heart monitor graphics overlaid with a skull x-ray. Hospital and x-rays. Got it.

00:32- Cut to a crotch x-ray. Perhaps foreshadowing nudity?

01:33- “Susan’s House 1961” What a remarkably descriptive and precise location.

01:41- This is where a clear example of Cannon Films’ infamous “translation errors” embodied by studio regular Boaz Davidson. Susan and boyfriend David are super excited about a model train set, almost to the point of ecstasy. They’re jumping up and down and Susan (very enthusiastically) keeps yelling “faster, faster,” and “come on, come on.” But it seems so incongruous with the tone of this scene. I’m getting a young love vibe from the direction of the actors (who seems three/four years too young for the mildly suggestive tenor) but it’s focused on something a five-year old plays with in the basement. Shouldn’t they be jamming along to a juicy piece of vinyl to be this excited? Not playing with a train set that keeps going in circles? And not an impressive set at that, more like something that goes around a Christmas tree.

02:04- Yeah, hi, Harold. I see you peeking through the window.

03:16- Hi, again, Harold

03:31- I imagine David is Susan’s childhood sweetheart but, in another translation error, he’s acting like a teenage jock by tearing up Harold’s Valentine Day card. He looks eight but is acting as if he’s eighteen in a John Hughes/John Landis film.

03;40- “I’m going to get some cake.” Well said, Susan.

03:50- That’s the biggest cake knife I’ve ever seen! And where are the parents? I’m getting a Halloween vibe here of a little kid toying around with a comically big knife. There’s even a musical sting as Susan brandishes the blade like a the littlest samurai before carving the cake.

04:20- Color temperature change. Orange to green.

04:33- First kill of the film. A little boy kills another little boy. Oh boy. But the killer (Harold) is strong enough to murder David (very quickly by strangulation) and then string him up on a coat rack that doesn’t topple over due to the weight? Without any struggle? Eh….

04:37- Also, wouldn’t the face of the killer (Harold) be branded in Susan’s brain? That’s a face you don’t forget.

04:57- “19 Years Later.” If you have to make a chronological jump that big in a film, just skip it and get to the present. It’s the problematic transition from Phantom Menace to Attack of the Clones sort of issue. Too overly deterministic and summary laden. Yes, Halloween did a similar jump but it was properly sighted solely on Michael Myers and not Laurie Strode.

05:10- “You’re early, Tom.” For what? I imagine these visitations are court ordered.

05:20- “Can’t you get anything right?” Yeah, Susan! You embody early 80s divorce cliches.

05:36- “Take good care of her.” Susan needs to remind her ex-husband, the father of her child, to take care of said child? And, wait, wasn’t she supposed to watch the kid that night but she’s skipping out to get test results, something she could have done over the phone? And isn’t Susan the one dating a shlub in a tiny car? I wouldn’t trust him with my kid.

05:51- This location looks remarkably like the hospital from Death Race 2000.

06:00- “What an asshole.” Oh you mean your ex-husband who is picking up the daughter you’re supposed to watch tonight?

06:18- Three things: the hospital Susan is going to is named, simply, “Hospital”. Also, if her ex-husband Tom is an asshole, her new boyfriend is doubly so because he complains about how long it’ll take for her test results. All he does is sit in a tiny car in a tweed jacket. Girl, swipe him left! Finally, there was apparently “trouble” at this hospital (according to boyfriend) but, what? Really? What does that have to do with anything? And how could he recognize this hospital out of all the others? Finally, and I guess fourth, boyfriend parks in a no parking zone but settles into the car for a nap?

06:49- Oh, no! someone is leering from several stories up. He must have great eyesight.

07:06- That janitor…Move along! Patient privacy, right?

08:10- This entire sequence is strange. Susan walks into the elevator but doesn’t notice a mental patient with ketchup on his face? She also pushed the button for the 9th floor, though she was told to hit the 8th floor, yet stops at the 9th even with the button still illuminated, for some reason?

09:19- The Shining theme?

09:53- Returning to the elevator sequence: who are these guys in the masks? They look like Combine troops from Half-Life 2. And an entire floor of a hospital is being fumigated? And my elevator stops at that floor even though I didn’t push the button for it and, conceivably, the fumigators didn’t either since they’re warning anyone from stopping there. Get. Out. Now.

10:48- Fire doors work best when they’re drawn in chalk. Also, Dr. Jacobs reports to a floor that she doesn’t know is being gassed?

12:08- Did someone leave a vase behind?

13:40- Second kill. Could anything be more passive? Some blood spurts but no suspense, no music stings, not even the jump scare works. Also, this isn’t the most effective way of accomplishing the killer’s goals. More on this later.

14:13- “Doctor Carpenter, please report to the front desk.” Nod?

14:59- This doctor’s office (bland walls, human anatomy posters, a killer lurking) seems more like where you go in middle school for sex education.

15:25- Smoking! In a hospital! Ah, the 80s.

17:01- The sting of the second kill’s reveal takes WAY tooo long. One quick shot, Boaz. Much better than the slow pan from feet to face. *Yawn*

17:13- Run, janitor!

17:33- Yeah, follow that creepily masked man into a darkened room on a floor of the hospital no one is supposed to be on after discovering a dead body. And how did you lose him so quickly, janitor? You were right behind him.

17:51- Nice water dripping effects, though. Ominous sound design.

18:05- Third kill. The janitor sounds like a frightened chicken when getting strangled.

18:33- I like the intensity of the killer’s freak out scene but I’m having a hard time linking it to his persona. He seems to regret killing the janitor but he killed Dr. Jacobs in cold blood. And if he’s really such a psychopath, why have any concern at all for a guy that mops up puke? And, And, how’d you get through medical school as a Patrick Bateman psychopath? You know, Hippocratic Oath and all that.

18:51- Bat-phone! But seriously so many odd translation things here. Why is the ex stabbing an orange so fervently and not answering the phone? And why does he threaten his daughter with a knife? Why is the doctor behind Susan standing like he’s in line at the DMV?

19:38- “Doctor Davidson” Did the director put himself in his own movie?

19:51- What’s the time frame of this film? Is this a Dusk to Dawn sort of thing? It’s clearly night so a few hours have passed since Susan was dropped off. The boyfriend is still taking a nap in a tow zone?

20:20- Yeah, hi…

21:17- I get the atmosphere but it’s really starting to push the boundaries of belief.

21:49- Bait!

22:05- OK, here’s the killer (Harry). He’s the little boy now all grown up. You’d think his face would be seared into Susan’s memory after he murdered her preteen sweetheart. Even if it’s been 19 years you can still recognize someone, especially after something so traumatic, and with the same name.

22:28- “Hang around all day”? It’s already been all day. It’s night.

23:30- The x-rays Susan’s been searching after finally revealed. But what do they show?

24:10- Bait! (again)

25:36- What is that inside her? Worms? Intestines? Sponge paint?

27:34- This exchange between Susan and Eva does clarify the ex’s character (I guess he is an asshole) but it seems like a backwards way to confirm a bit of exposition. Usually you’d get this scene first then you’d get called out on it later.

27:58- What sort of doctor has pictures of horribly disfigured appendages posted around his office like awards or bowling trophies?

29:21- “Now, get undressed.” Talk about bedside manners.

30:02- Dr. Creeper.

31:32- Oh, I was premature. Now he’s Dr. Creeper. Handsy, too. This nude sequence goes on way too long. It’s a bit despicable even though this is clearly core Cannon MO.

32:54- Does a woman really need to be topless to get her blood pressure taken?

33:12- And does this doctor (or director Boaz Davidson) have a foot fetish (feetish)? Man, he’s groping those toes.

33:56- Oh, for fuck’s sake. Who does a nude examination and leaves the window to the hallway open? More bait, I guess (it’s a threepeat). His name is Hal, after all.

36:32- A nicely composed shot but this is taking up too much time.

37:08- That needle draw might be the most terrifying shot of the whole film. Very well done. Nice and tight. Spurt of blood is perfect.

37:33- Another color temperature change.

39:20- Love how the hospital loudspeaker announces to “have a Happy Valentines’s Day.” Way to rub it in the patients’ faces.

39:31- Just a mental patient drinking openly from a bottle of booze. Nothing to see here.

40:37- The medical stenographer seems very agitated to be doing her job instead of getting coffee, likely from a dirty employee lounge. Is Susan’s case really that big of an imposition you can’t wait to get your gas station swill?

41:25- Fourth kill. Where did he get a butcher knife from? It’s a hospital so I’m sure there’s plenty of knives but a kitchen knife? From the break room?

42: 55- “Christ, this is practically a fucking death warrant.” Amazing line.

43:12- Fifth kill. Death by stethoscope!

43:29- Ha! Just shove that dead body perched in a wheelchair anywhere.

44:45- Old ladies ganging up on a confused young woman. Certainly a translation error. More later.

46:31- Quadruple bait!

48:10- Another establishing shot of “Hospital”. Wake up, boyfriend!

49:54- That guy doctor looks like a Luke Wilson prototype.

52:08- “There’s a bench outside of my office.” So, the boyfriend goes to this bench for more information. Fun fact, though: he never got the doctor’s name yet found it. I bet he’s going to take a nap here too. Oh no, somehow the loud speaker knew he was there and told him to answer the phone.

54:41- The old ladies appearing out of the fumigation smog might actually be the most terrifying shot of this film. Spooky. Almost Lynchian. Reminds me of the old couple from Mulholland Drive. Nightmare maker.

56:22- Room 9-11. Talk about visual storytelling.

56:52- Oh. You want me to come over there? Closer? As you whisper to me on a fumigated abandoned hospital floor? I’ll do that.

58:06- Sixth kill. Boyfriend looks so unimpressed when he sees the bone saw, the instrument of his death. Strangely, this kill is very bloodless. Only two quick spurts silhouetted against a dressing curtain.

01:00:24- Looks like the boyfriend is the one giving head this Valentine’s Day! *groan*

01:00:41- Genuinely terrifying with sting of the men in full body casts.

01:04:02- “Go ahead, check it now.” Acting, everybody!

01:06:19- Beautiful hiding place. Might as well be behind a coat rack.

01:06:50- Do hospitals stock tomahawks?

01:10:01- Does this hospital have problems paying its electric bill?

01:11:19- Seventh kill. How did Dr. Saxson not hear that guy? He’s a bit of a mouth breather.

01:12:30- “Going to have to operate”? What!

01:14:08- Oh, no! A tarp is coming at me from half a mile away! Lead up to the eight kill. Was this supposed to be a character from earlier that got her scenes cut?

01:16:11- Bait to the 5th degree!

01:16:22- Ninth kill. Looks like someone ate Chipotle.

01:18:31- Nice lighting.

01:19:32- “It’s not Harry, It’s Harold. Remember?” The big reveal that’s done somewhat well. There was actual mystery around the killer’s identity.

01:20:24- Old ladies to the rescue!

01:23:35- Storing flammable liquid in an open jar on the top shelf in a room full of wooden shelves and unnamed (ostensibly flammable) liquids? Sounds good to me.

01:26:54- There needs to be a catchphrase here.

01:27:13- Oh, no! Harold’s turned into a flaming dummy! And lands with a thud like a garbage bag full of diapers.

01:27:37- “Mommy! Mommy!” What a strange ending with the ex and the daughter showing up. That subplot went nowhere.

Reflection:

I have a deep appreciation for Boaz Davidson. Admittedly, that comes from his warm presence and candor in Electric Boogaloo but he obliquely represents the ideal of the “schlock-auteur”: a director ready at a moment’s call, capable of operating on a shoestring budget, with an imperfect ear to the ground of cinematic trends. Davidson was a last minute replacement for the original Hospital Massacre (AKA X-Ray) director after financing fell through.

With that in mind, I think Hospital Massacre is a fine effort but it gets bogged down in the details. More importantly, Hospital Massacre suffers from the wonky phenomenon of “bad translation” that dogged a number of Cannon productions. It isn’t as strange as a Troll 2 or The Room, films that feel like they were made on a different planet, but this is a film crafted by a mind not fully in sync with the norms and mores of Americana. It sort of makes sense, but it sort of doesn’t.

The highest point of praise for Hospital Massacre stems from my prior critique of New Year’s Evil. In the latter, the audience was aware of the killer minutes into the film. The game was up. We followed him as he stalked victims. We saw his face. There was an aborted attempt to engender suspense but it became deflated because so many of the lingering questions (who’s the killer? what will he do next? where will he pop up?) that suspense thrives on were rendered inconsequential or short circuited by giving away far too much.

With Hospital Massacre, there is an attempt to craft suspense by withholding the identity of the slasher inside the hospital. The costume (scrubs, hairnet, surgery mask) obscures the identity of the killer and it turns into an almost Scream-like whodunit mystery. There’s a whole roulette wheel of candidates and the back and forth between those potentially culpable adds to the terror of the film. In that way,, the film succeeds.

However, going back to the bits of translation wonkiness, much of this is undercut. The most egregious example is the opening scene set at “Susan’s House 1961”. This is a blatant rip-off/retelling of John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween. I’m OK with that. Most of Cannon (really, most films) rip-off larger cultural touchstones, repackaging and re-purposing what worked. Charles Bronson built Cannon with his Death Wish sequels. Tobe Hooper (perhaps the preeminent Cannon director after Menahem Golan) did Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and a number of remakes for the company. Norris, Dudikoff, Stallone, and Van Damme embodied up Hollywood trends.

Yet, this initial scene sums up what’s not quite right with this film. There are three things: two are minor and laughable, one is major and important:

  1. Susan and her “boyfriend” David are playing with a train set but it scans weird. Not to be a Humbert Humbert but the connotations of the scene are sexual on a number of levels. Susan is bouncing up and down, yelling “faster” as the locomotive circles around and around as David fondles the controls, heeding her request. The function of this scene is apparent but the age of the actors are wrong (FAR too young) and the concrete stand-in for their emotional ecstasy is just off. Yes, the actors are too young for the sexual undertones, but they’re too old for fixating on the train. In the end, this reads as something composed in one language, translated into another, and then filmed for an audience in a third.
  2. The film’s first kill happens by strangulation, I guess? Harold strings David up by his neck on a coat rack. Not to question Harold’s fitness (#strengthshaming) but how could a young boy quickly kill a peer and then poise a body his same size and weight (potentially more so) in a matter of seconds? I can barely lift my 35 pound French bulldog comfortably because he’s alive and wiggly and I imagine (not that I’d know…) doing the same to a resistant murder victim only complicates the situation. This also happens during Susan’s Halloween rip-off knife scene, mirroring the conclusion of Carpenter’s groundbreaking Panaglide take of Michael Myers, his knife, and his clown costume.
  3. More importantly, what this sequence does that scans poorly is introducing both killer and future victim. This is where the translation errors come to the fore. We see Harold and Susan. They know each other. And she sees Harold leaving her house (“Susan’s House 1961”) after David’s death. Clearly she knows Harold did it. That face must be seared into memory. One cannot forget trauma such as that. But there’s a jump forward and Susan can’t put two and two together and figure out this guy that looks just like Harold, who goes by Harry, might be a suspicious character.

OK. Big deal?

So what’s the problem with this sequence? The problem is that it looks good on paper but doesn’t work visually. Yes, two kids playing with a train communicates innocence. But that’s not how it plays on the screen. Yes, Harold kills David. As a script or concept it plays but when you see the representation on the screen it just doesn’t fly. There’s too many logistical issues.

Finally, consider the MO of Harold/Harry, a medical intern who has waited 19 years to get revenge on Susan for not returning his affections. He’s so angry his affections weren’t returned so he’s going to get his by devoting his life to murder. Well, that sounds great. Typical fodder. But mapping that out is laughable. It doesn’t translate from script to screen. Too many questions arise. Why wouldn’t Harold/Harry strike a year later? Two years later? Ten? Why go through all the work of college and medical school and hope, just hope, that Susan will one day walk into the “Hospital” you are interning in?

Of course, Michael Myers and Pamela Voorhees waited. But they weren’t working in a field that demands the utmost of talent and dedication. And they weren’t passively waiting for their victims to show up, they actively broke out (Myers) or sought out (Voorhees) victims. They just wanted to kill. And their victims weren’t clearly established in oppositional binaries in an opening scene. In a way, it predestines Susan as “The Last Girl” well before the narrative ever unfolds.

This problem of translation continues on through the background characters. There’s a mob of old ladies (Susan’s roommates) that populate the film almost like a Greek chorus. Tom, Susan’s ex-husband, is set-up as the potential killer but spends the movie, inexplicably, stabbing an orange and glaring at a telephone. The interior of the hospital (“Hospital”) looks like an Edgar Allen Poe set, even though the exterior is a bland LA suburb. An entire floor of the hospital is being fumigated by a group of jackbooted thugs. All of these things might have played out on paper or in discussion, but they don’t work on film.

Now, discussions about translation are not solely focused on culture or language. Boaz Davidson is Israeli. Americana is not his home culture. However, the culture/language barrier is not an excuse for a faulty film. Bergman, Eisenstein, Truffaut, and Kurosawa didn’t craft their films in English but they play perfectly well in any language. I could watch Rashomon without the subtitles and know exactly what transpires.

Davidson’s flaws don’t necessarily come from his own provincialism. You don’t need to speak English to make a good film. Each culture has its own oddities, perhaps most explicitly demonstrated in Argo, when the plucky Iranian cultural handler asks the “Canadian” film crew if their movie will be a traditional foreign bride film, a comedy of manners, sort of. It sounds horribly misogynistic and bizarre but the “Canadians” nod and say, no because just doesn’t translate. I’m sure if the tables were turned the exact same exchange would transpire.

(Yes, of course they said no because it was a ruse but work with me here)

Nevertheless, there’s a larger language here beyond whether speaks English, Hebrew, German, or Farsi: a language of visuals. Directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Werner Herzog, or Alejandro González Iñárritu, who are not native English speakers, have crafted films that speak to greater concerns and translate regardless of the actual language they’re composed in. These are films that have won awards, films that are to be remembered. This is why visual media that’s subtitled works in ways that the translation of novels or songs often do imperfectly.

How does Hospital Massacre factor into this?

Here we get the demonstration of a film without a close attention paid to the details. It is too focused on the big picture: horror, slasher, hospital, boobs. It tacks close to the outline but the connective tissue just isn’t there. It isn’t unlike coming across an Internet comment posted in a language the speaker is unfamiliar with. Perhaps Google Translate deems it correct but something is irredeemably off.

There’s certainly a lot of joy in Hospital Massacre and I think its weirdness is valuable and memorable. But it does highlight how film can speak irrespective of a particular language. Errors of translation are only errors of effort or imagination.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Hospital Massacre AKA X-Ray

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