The Great Cannon Film Watch-Through: Death Wish 2

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I’m a movie vigilante.

Details:

Directed by Michael Winner

Featuring Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, Vincent Gardenia, J.D. Cannon, Anthony Franciosa, and (!) Laurence Fishburne

Released 2/20/1982

Special Shout Out – music by Jimmy Page

IMDB Synopsis (via rcs0411@yahoo.com) Paul Kersey, the vigilante, now lives in LA with his daughter, who is still recovering from her attack. He also has a new woman in his life. One day while with them, Kersey is mugged by some punks, Kersey fights back, but they get away. The leader, wanting to get back at Kersey, goes to his house, but Kersey and his daughter Carol are not there. The muggers rape his housekeeper, and when Kersey and his daughter arrive, they knock him out and kidnap her. After they assault her, she leaps out of a window to her death. Kersey then grabs his gun and goes after them. When the LA authorities, deduce they have a vigilante, they decide to consult with New York, who had their vigilante problem. Now the New York officials, knowing that Kersey lives in LA, fears that he’s back to his old habit. Fearing that Kersey, when caught will reveal that they let him go instead of prosecuting him send Inspector Ochoa to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Minutes of Interest:

00:40- Good ol’ Jimmy Page is on the case.

00:52- Cannon went all out on these helicopter shots of Los Angeles.

01:12- Laurence Fishburne III!

01:30- Radio exposition! “homicides up 79%, robberies are up 68%, aggravated assault and other violent crimes are up 59%, rapes have increased 61%, and aggressive crimes are up, too.” She’s so specific with the other stats but just drops whatever “aggressive crimes are. Also, aren’t there a bunch of redundancies here? Aren’t homicides also violent crimes, can’t rapes be labeled as “aggressive crimes”?

02:09- War on Crime name drop. Yup, it’s the early 80s in Reagan’s America.

02:59′ “Hey, there she is now.” I love how nonchalant Paul Kersey is any scene in this movie. Bronson knows what sort of movie he’s in.

03:20- Girlfriend: “Oh, and Los Angeles Magazine (is that real?) has gone for my article on criminal rehabilitation!” Kersey: “That’s great.” You said it, Chuck, you said it.

04:03- “You’re her father, Mr Kersey. You can only give her your love. And your prayers, too.” Well, fuck you too Dr. Psychiatrist. What am I keeping my daughter here for? Can’t you do something?

04:36- I’m so sad for Kersey’s daughter Carol. There’s plenty of issues percolating through Death Wish 2 but her character makes me plain miserable. All she wants is ice cream and ends up raped and suicidal because her dad tried to get her a cone. This is where the skeeziness of Michael Winner starts seeping in.

04:56- Thugs! But, like the United Colors of Benetton version.

05:32- Ew, put your tongue away late 70s rocker.

05:39- Old man running.

06:04- Once Kersey’s dodged the switchblade, you think the punk would realize he’s barking up the wrong tree.

06:05- Cardboard box block!

06:28- At least, Kersey’s trying to reform his ways by not killing winter coat/headband thug. This being a Death Wish movie, it won’t last.

06:58- Who is this sea captain that’s so tight with Carol and Kersey? I don’t think we ever *see* him again. See what I did there?

07:33- Great cut to a surprising and ominous shot of Pledge sprayed across the family portrait. Michael Winner might be a pervert and sadist but, sometimes, he knows where to put the camera.

08:00- The thug van reminds me more of the Mystery Machine than some sort of intimidating gangstermobile. Thelma and Scooby are waiting in the backseat.

08:14- Laurence Fishburne and friends want revenge on Paul Kersey so they go to his house to kill him? That’s their motivation since he roughed one of them up? That seems like a lot of work for some low level toughs. That’s more of a mob thing. They seem like the cannon fodder a crime lord would deploy, not necessarily concerned with respect and honor, more interested in muggings and hanging out in the park with their boom box.

08:36- “Supa finnne.” Looks like Morpheus took the blue pill.

08:54- That crowbar stays lit and framed in the back of your moving van? Ok, sure.

09:21- Nice composition.

10:07- The next few minutes are just terrible, filled with rape, more rape, and even more rape. It’s horrifying and excessive and doesn’t just tiptoe but long jumps beyond the usual haunts of an exploitation film. No, Michael Winner, no.

10:30- I sort of want to shut this movie off.

11:00- They’re fighting over who gets to rape this poor maid first? And Laurence Fishburne is cool with this? And they made three additional Death Wish films? Oh, boy…

11:32- This is absolutely terrible.

12:05- Laurence Fishburne is doing post-rape tai-chi. Oh, my…

12:09- I was wrong. THIS is the worst thing. Now it’s officially a snuff film. Goodness…

12:15- “Alright lady, do it quietly, do it nice.” This demonstrates the caliber of actor Fishburne is. He can deliver horrible lines that communicate menace and glee while a raped, nude housemaid is forced to give a blowjob. It’s almost sacrilege he elevates such horrible material.

13:03- Action grandpa! Crotch kick!

13:13- Crowbar clearly didn’t connect with anything.

13:15- Oh, no, Rosaria…

14:08 Bad framing and bad politics. Winner’s cinematography starts breaking down as the film progresses with strange angles and odd compositions. Why film this senator through a bundle of flags? Visually what is gained? If anything, it adds out of focus clutter to the shot. It’s even a flat medium so there’s no engaging juxtaposition or interesting lighting going on.

14:19- Again, the shot is cluttered with out of focus nonsense that does nothing beyond providing a new angle. But varying angles doesn’t guarantee good shots or enhancing cinematic storytelling.

14:34- This shot looks great. Good blocking. The visual elements of this movie are schizophrenic. Also, Pabst Blue Ribbon.

14:46- You said that already white afro thug. Later we find out his name is Nevada. Or Nirvana? It isn’t clear when the line’s delivered.

14:54- “We look all the same to whitey anyway.” I think there’s a nice bit of social commentary lingering under there. However, Michel Winner is more concerned getting the audience to the next rape scene than spotlighting issues of criminal justice and racism.

15:10- No, no, no: THIS is the worst of the worst. It’s bad enough to rape and murder a poor, innocent housemaid trying to cook dinner and watch her stories. Now the same is about to happen to Kersey’s poor, innocent teenage daughter with severe developmental impairments and obvious PTSD from the first Death Wish.

16:06- Jimmy Page’s score makes this movie. Creepy and often inappropriate but always surprising in what will sound off next.

16:38- I’m with you, Carol. After watching that, I don’t want to live anymore either. Maybe she finally found out she was in a Michael Winner movie?

16:55- What the hell is that guy dusting for prints on? A lame hallway piece of art about 8 X 10? What could be on there?

17:29- They still haven’t covered up Rosaria’s dead, naked, raped body? What kind of cops are these…oh, wait…I forgot what sort of movie I’m watching.

17:45- “We ran it down in our computer.” The police only have one? Oh, it was 1982, I guess.

18:16- Girlfriend could not give a flying fuck that Kersey was assaulted, his maid raped and murdered, and his daughter kidnapped, likely raped and murdered as well. She’s acting as if someone egged their house on Halloween.

18:54- “Get some sleep, darling.” Uh, hello! My daughter was just found gang raped and impaled on a wrought iron fence.

19:48- “It is for me,” is the one bit of emotional investment from Kersey. He’s coping by getting back to work. A mild beat. This movie is all horror without any sort of reflection or distance to make sense of the rapes and killings impacting these characters. There’s no Kersey screaming or crying in the bathroom. It’s not unlike him finding out he’s finally being charged for garbage collection.

20:34- Now, here’s the internalization this movie needs. Chop those logs! Split them!

21:17- “What is this, a building for ants?!?”

22:04- How can a radio station have so much money for a custom designed building? And what is this subplot accomplishing? So much time is spent on the economics of architecture that it scans as filler. We even get a breakdown of prices.

23:03- I feel Bronson’s acting is especially strong when he deflects the truth. There’s a shlubbiness, an everyday kind of guy vibe to him (I once heard an apocryphal quote that he once was called “Gary Cooper left out in the sun for too long”) more fitting for this film than a traditional actor playing the confident father, the dotting lover, or the action hero. His ability to shrug and trail off suit a guy wanting to avoid trouble. Which he appears to be, but isn’t. I don’t know if it’s a high compliment to pay an actor that he just doesn’t seem to care so genuinely.

23:08- Odd framing. Perhaps foreshadowing or thematic but just head scratching.

23:47- Again, another bad frame. Kersey is shot through the gap between Garibaldi’s mascot and a bucket of chicken. For what? What’s being communicated here?

24:59- Less vigilante looking than On the Waterfront longshoreman.

25:24- This stretch of seedy LA with the churches seems like it’s reaching for commentary but I can’t see it. Too many churches on one block, overflowing and song filled, while crime swirls around on the outside? Is this a critique? Or some sort of British gaze on faith in poor communities in the US?

26:44- “Spare no expense.”

28:19- Jimmy Page’s musical sting reminds me of The Terminator. Oh, that was two years later. Wait! Did The Terminator rip off this movie?

29:36- Hare Krishna! Was that a big thing in 1982?

31:43- Rats!

32:47- “Do you believe in Jesus?” “Yes I Do.” “Well, you’re gonna meet him.” Bullet!

34:00- What’s happening outside? A party? For what? If this is such a crime ridden area you’d think revelers and their balloons would be more careful.

34:54- Oh. My. God. Look at 80s news. It’s being read from grandma’s rocking chair.

35:43- Ha! Even the abused teenage prostitute won’t proposition Paul Kersey. Burn, bro.

36:38- It’s Bob Ross, the PBS art guy! Shooting a gun…? In an arcade?

37:17- Jeeze, more rape?

38:29- First, an impossible butt shot. Next, a “I don’t give a shit about acting” shot.

39:56- Good framing.

40:12- Did Kersey not hear the engine idling? Or is this truck some sort of super stealth weapon that likes to destroy wooden crates?

40:31- “Goodbye.” Maybe the most satisfying kill. If anything this should have been the climax since this is the thug that kicked off the entire series of events.

41:00- How are the paramedics allowing this to happen?

41:34- “Youse both suaw ‘im and I want da duscription.” This is supposed to be in LA? Not Brooklyn?

42:01- “You know what we ‘av ‘er? A goddamed vigilante.”

42:30- Again, another instance of social commentary creeping in that is utterly left on the cutting room floor. I want more.

42:57- Yay! Characters you know only from the first film with little to no connection to this film.

43:36- Ben Franklin’s watching.

44:29- If Kersey is up to his old tricks again? You mean murder? Old tricks is like tossing dice in the alley or tagging a brick facade, not gunning down unsavory types with bullets to the back.

44:48- Good, good, good. The panning and blocking work exceptionally.

47:16- Ugh, bored. Exposition

48:34- “Marital Aids” scans a bit different in an era that’s pre-Viagra but post-AIDS.

48:45- Someone stole Michael Jackson’s Thriller jacket.

51:15- Frank’s really happy Kersey and Girlfriend are getting down to fucking.

52:22- Jaws score?

53:39- Watch out, Frank! Did you forget your medication this morning? Also, the lady that he commandeers the car from seems very excited a stranger is bossing her around.

54:48- Does “follow that bus,” still work today? Could I do that or would the cabbie tell me to get lost?

55:36- Laurence Fishburne’s hat looks like he inspired Pharrell.

57:55- This is taking forever…

58:26- Sneaking suspicion that Charles Bronson was actually asleep on set.

59:36- “If you hear shooting, don’t worry. It’s just target practice.” Given the apathy of most of the people shown so far, I doubt the cab driver would give a crap if he heard a bazooka go off.

1:00:04- Are all gangsters obligated to have head wear? Our trio of surviving toughs all have hats and so do these vaguely Italian mobsters. One even has Robin Williams-esque rainbow suspenders. AND there’s a fanny pack involved as a cocaine smuggling device!

1:01:52- Kersey’s a crack shot, especially facing down automatic weapons with a measly 9mm.

1:02:02- Ha! That boombox won’t protect you now, Laurence Fishburne!

1:02:18- Wait for it…

1:02:20- Wait for it…

01:02:23- Yes! Getaway car going over a cliff!

01:02:27- And it exploded! This is what I expect from a Cannon movie.

01:03:20- Bye, Frank.

1:04:13- This LA detective is a pretty dirty cop. He’s got a thing for threatening defenseless people on stretchers.

1:05:09- What is with the radio station design subplot? Again, do we really need to see mock-ups of it and long discussion about the price of marble vs. concrete?

1:07:35- “Subject lighting narcotics.” I guess that’s a bit of set-up for how bat shit crazy Nevada/Nirvana gets in the following sequence. Originally went over my head. See, the wonders of multiple viewings!

1:08:48- Is it nighttime through that window into the alley?

1:09:11- Taser means nothing to me! This sequence is balls out unbelievable, even if Navada/Nirvana is ‘roiding on PCP.

1:09:50- Was Kersey watching from the room with the topless girl jacked into her music the thug ran out of?

1:11:56- “…under the influence of PCP, a mind altering drug.” Gee, thanks for the PSA, Your Honor.

1:12:20- Another instance of criminal justice commentary that gets washed straight over. Stop and slow down on these bits if you’re going to include them, Michael Winner. There’s almost a very faint pre-RoboCop style satire lurking in the script.

1:14:20- Wite-Out. The ultimate component in any vigilante’s tool kit. That and Jimmy Page’s continually surprising synth stings.

1:15:36- Bronson looks like a Shar-Pei in this close-up. So. Many. Folds.

1:17:34- More faux, proto The Terminator score.

1:19:37- You’d think this orderly would get a bit suspicious that “Dr. Carter” doesn’t know what an E.C.T. machine is. There’s even a line from the orderly saying that “Dr. Carter” and his ilk are responsible for pulling these machines from use.

1:20:57- Is Kersey staying silent as he’s shived over and over again in the shoulder and chest saying something about the resilience and toughness of the character or does Charles Bronson just not want to act? Lingering questions…

1:21:23- Ha! Nevada/Nirvana is going Buckwheat meets Kramer.

1:21:48- Yeah, hi.

1:23:23- I’m surprised Kersey doesn’t shrug and gun down these people in the crosswalk, too. Why so angry pedestrians?

1:26:49- Kersey seems so indifferent to his girlfriend (briefly fiance) leaving him. Again, is this a character thing or an acting thing?

1:27:00- Not a bad image to close on. Kersey may not get the girl but he always gets his man.

Reflection:

Of all the Cannon films I’ve come across in my Watch-Through, Death Wish 2 is the most movie of them all. That’s pedantic but it feels mainstream in the way prior films felt direct to video or belonging in some seedy side alley theater joint.

It features a known actor (though a decade past his expiration date), in a sequel to a known property, with a known director at the helm. The film looks well budgeted and it’s mostly shot and directed effectively with a score by Jimmy Page that feels well above its pay grade. In hindsight, it even features future talent (Laurence Fishburne) and would go on to spawn three additional Death Wish sequels, as well as a series of knock-offs, some helmed by Charles Bronson himself (Murphy’s Law) .

With that said, Death Wish 2 skips typical Cannon attributes, such as the cheese of The Apple, the cheapness of New Year’s Evil, or the strangeness/translation errors of Hospital Massacre or Enter the Ninja. Given how early Death Wish 2 occurs in Golan and Globus’s tenure at Cannon, this likely was their most mainstream, accessible hit to date. It’s a movie, after all, perhaps the first Golan/Globus Cannon film worthy of the label ‘film’.

So, why is there so little joy watching this movie?

In a way, Death Wish 2 is a strange creature, caught between the grittier, personal film making of the 70s and the burgeoning exploitation, big fireworks umbrella the 80s would make infamous. The grit and realness that Winner deployed in 1974’s Death Wish continues, but it’s countered by the rising silliness of the series (just what the hell is Laurence Fishburne wearing?) that pulls it in increasingly unrealistic directions despite a devotion to realism.

Mixing graphic rape and horrible violence with cartoonish characters devoid of depth or feeling makes for a strange brew. It isn’t a death sentence but it takes a special sort of director to pull it off. Paul Verhoeven was able to navigate this melding in RoboCop through his skill, deftness, and tendency towards satire. It negotiates the round peg entering the square hole. Michael Winner doesn’t seem capable of rectifying these shapes. Either you skew towards the gritty and realistic or you embrace the camp. Trying to have the proverbial cake just doesn’t work in this context.

More importantly, Death Wish 2 brings up an interesting wrinkle in exploitation cinema, maybe any cinema (or art) that engages with loaded topics bracketed by strong emotions. Namely, Death Wish 2 is rapey to a terrifying extent. And it happens so quick in the narrative to where it’s jarring, off putting, and a huge turnoff.

There are three rapes in Death Wish 2. Two are accomplished, one is attempted. There’s also blatant sexual harassment later in the film of the toughs pull up the skirt of the lady at the bus stop. The three rapes feature ample nudity and violence:

  1. Rosaria is beaten, stripped, gang raped, dragged around by the hair, and then murdered when she attempts to phone for help.
  2. Carol is abducted, raped, and then jumps out a window and is impaled on a spiky fence. There’s an element of defiance here considering Carol was also raped in Death Wish but that does little to clean up this scene.
  3. Paul Kersey comes across a couple being accosted in a parking garage and interrupts the attempted rape of a vaguely middle class woman. But, this being Death Wish 2, her breasts are still exposed for the entire sequence, just cuz.

Art provokes and can make us uncomfortable and these scenes are certainly uncomfortable to sit through. But it isn’t the same as a piece of transgressive cinema or biting satire or forceful spoken word. There’s something else going on here. When Death Wish 2 debuted, Michael Winner found himself in hot water with British censors over the violent rape scenes. Censors are rarely correct but film critics also piled on, pointing that the explicitness and the melding of sex and violence crossed a line of taste and aesthetic value. Winner hit back, claiming artistic license and the value of free speech.

So, what’s the value of including such graphic scenes? Maybe better put: does depiction equate to endorsement? Do these graphic scenes of rape constitute some sort of artistic failure, a willingness to cross a line without the provocation art anticipates?

It’s tricky. It’s not dissimilar to the controversy surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. When her film came out in 2012, the thinkpiece mill cranked. At issue was her depiction of torture on detainees. Though largely discredited as producing actionable or accurate information, torture tactics deployed by the CIA were shown to be effective and the inciting plot point for the film.

Many critics latched onto this depiction, claiming Bigelow endorsed a reprehensible practice through her art by making its efficacy part of the narrative. In a way, by showing torture worked in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow was making a claim that torture would work elsewhere. Much like Winner, she hit back, claiming artistic license and freedom of expression.

Consider: if depiction equaled endorsement, what’s to be said of George R. R. Martin, or Agatha Christie, or any other writer, photographer, or filmmaker that features murder, suicide, or sexual violence in their work? If objectionable content included in a piece of art had a 1-to-1 equivalency with the persuasions of the author, difficult topics could never be seriously covered unless murderers, rapists, racists, and serial killers were the sole font of beauty.

Of course, that’s a world no one would want to live in. It’s a world hard to conceive. But, then again, all art, beyond aesthetics, technique, intent, is really about choices. It’s about the choice of what to include and, more importantly, what to exclude. It’s about what to emphasize and whether this character does that or if this image is used here or that word is emphasized or this meter is followed. Those choices reflect the work’s potential impact but it also reflects on the personage behind the work.

So, if rape and torture are attributes purposefully chosen, what does that say about the artists behind the works? Narratives, even ones based on true events, are still fictional: recreations that are given meaning and emphasis through the work of the storyteller. That’s a double edged sword because it implies that, yeah, it’s just a story. It isn’t real. Don’t read too much into it. But then, it is a story, and I’ve told it, and I’ve chosen to tell it this way, emphasizing certain aspects and downplaying others.

How does Death Wish 2 factor into this?

While Zero Dark Thirty used depictions of torture as a plot point, there was a narrative justification to it. Accusations Bigelow supported torture because of her film is stupid. Perhaps she’s wrongheaded and could have opted for a different approach but she isn’t Leni Riefenstahl. Torture, in Zero Dark Thirty, netted results, but these results were not presented as glorious or heroic. In the filmic world of that movie, it’s ugly. Visually, the movie is muddy and there’s very little triumphant about it.

American Sniper follows a similar trend (and a similar controversy) in its depictions and presentations of violence. Yes, Iraqis were dehumanized, presented as mindless bodies, but the film itself was about the dehumanizing impact of violence and the constant picking off of people was narratively and artistically justified given the overall aims of director Clint Eastwood. Is it the best vehicle to handle that message? Likely, no. There are grander issues of race, violence, religion, and imperialism that could have been explored. But, is the violence warranted in the context (whatever our feelings on the Iraq War are)? Yes.

Death Wish 2 features scenes of rape that are so unsettling, so graphic that they derail the narrative. Consider, during the two most violent rapes (Rosaria and Carol) Charles Bronson’s character is nowhere near. This is not something viewed through his perspective (unlike Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper’s protagonists, who are present during the most controversial moments). The gaze presented to the audience is only for the audience. This makes these scene exploitative, for our “pleasure” only.

Narratively and aesthetically they color our perceptions but we’re outside the work. If Bronson’s character was tied and bound and saw these events, maybe, just maybe, there would be a justification for their inclusion since it would act as both plot and character beat. As they stand, the rapes are only there to shock and rape should not be a tool solely to shock. It’s implications are too deep, too personal to be incidental.

Even though Death Wish 2 looks like a movie, it feels like a snuff film because so much of the graphic content is centered on the audience, rather than invested in a character. Cannon can be sleazy, dumb, and over the top, but it often has a blind naivete surrounding it, not sinister hoodwinking. Michael Winner falls on the wrong side of the depiction vs. endorsement divide because he failed to understand that violence presented in art, in all of its forms, needs to function within a work, rather than as a sick fantasy.

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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.