31 Days of Horror: Film 26: Visiting Hours (1982)

It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.

There is a conflicted soul at the heart of Visiting Hours. On the one hand, the film features a psychopath named Colt (Michael Ironside) who stalks and kills women in scenes that occasionally border on belonging to the slasher genre. On the other hand, there are several scenes of characters making speeches about protecting battered women from abusive men and features a feminist journalist as a protagonist. The film tries to have its cake and eat it too by decrying violence against women while making a genre film that features violence against women for suspense and thrills.

Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant) is a crusading journalist on a TV news program. She is introduced grilling the defense attorney for a man accused of beating his wife to such a point that she shot him in self-defense. By claiming the woman faked her injuries so she could shoot her husband in cold blood, he convinced a jury to find his client not guilty. Infuriated by what she sees as injustice, Deborah conducts the interview as a hostile attack, turning it into an impassioned cry for justice.

Watching this in disgust is Colt. Furious at what he sees as a woman advocating violence against men (or something like that, it’s never made clear), he breaks into Deborah’s home and attacks her with a knife before escaping when a neighbor comes to her rescue. Frightened by the attack, and feeling vulnerable in the hospital, Deborah becomes increasingly paranoid. It turns out she has good reason to be. Colt follows her to the hospital and—in addition to making plans to finish off Deborah—targets the female nurses and patients surrounding her. I guess the film needed a higher body count. After a lot of wheel-spinning with a nurse named Sheila (Linda Purl) who greatly admires Deborah, the film finally turns into a game of cat-and-mouse through the hallways and rooms of the hospital.

In a way, it’s admirable that director Jean-Claude Lord and writer Brian Taggert do take the time to give lip service to a call for equality between the genders. It’s not often that films in the genre even approach such gender topics beyond hulking men as killers and screaming, usually naked coeds as victims. But lip service is all that it is. Yes, Deborah is a powerful journalist who is respected by her boss Gary (William Shatner). But she is also portrayed as a woman who is incapable of being loved because of the passion of her beliefs. The message that feminist women are unable to maintain relationships seems harsh and counter-intuitive to what the filmmakers want to say.

To further muddy the waters of any pro-feminist statement the film might be trying to make is the way Colt goes about his agenda. A nurse is introduced making entries in a little black book, grading all the different doctors she has slept with. Slasher rules dictate that the sexually active have to die, and sure enough she is one of the first victims once Colt begins his assault. A young woman (Lenore Zann) gets picked up by Colt and the camera leers over her body as he forces her to take off her pants before he assaults her. There is also the indication that Colt may be a closeted homosexual, which is presented as a partial explanation for his violence toward women. No matter how progressive the filmmakers obviously feel their film is, it is regressive in its presentation of homosexuality as a violent trigger.

The odd thing is, if Visiting Hours had been presented as just a straight slasher film with a male killer menacing and killing women, I probably would not have batted an eye. That doesn’t make me a misogynist, but it does make me realize how desensitized I am to the largely regressive way slasher films viewed women in the past, and quite frankly, often continue to portray them. That the film tried to make a feminist statement, only made its failure to do so stand out that much more. I actually feel bad taking the film to task for this failure.

Just judging the film as a piece of horror and suspense filmmaking, it’s solidly put together. Ironside makes a tremendous villain. He never winks at the camera and is an imposing physical presence. His assault on Deborah in her house is the stuff of nightmares and the rest of the film never really lives up to such a strong early sequence. Grant does what she can with a character who is disappointingly one-note. Her scenes with Shatner are fun as her energy level rises to match his (welcome) hammy delivery. And the script is clever with the ways it finds for Colt to keep getting into a hospital teeming with police. All things considered, it is a decent movie.

As much as I love horror films, I readily admit that the genre is long overdue a reckoning when it comes to the oft-shitty ways it has treated women. With more women stepping behind the camera in genre films, I am hopeful that there will soon be more horror films that address gender politics. Visiting Hours tried to make a statement, but got a lot of the message wrong. I give the filmmakers credit for trying, but I can’t completely let them off the hook for screwing up.

You can contact me at obsessivemovienerd@gmail.com and read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter.

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