"The hospital where your next visit…will be your LAST!" It’s a weird tagline, mostly because it makes it sound like the movie’s about an evil hospital, or possibly a crazed doctor, nurse, or orderly. A haunted hospital? Haha, SPOOOOOOKY!!! Regardless, it’s a bit misleading, as the killer really has no relation to the hospital itself (where most of the action takes place). It’s one hundred percent accurate, however, if you took it mean a hospital where the staff and security is absolutely incompetent.
Visiting Hours tells the story of Deborah Ballin, an outspoken talk show host who’s courting controversy with her indictment of the criminal justice system’s bias against battered women. A man tries to kill her, presumably for reasons involving her strident activism, but she survives the attack and ends up in the hospital. Her buddy, William Shatner, comes to visit her and calm her down. This is more or less William Shatner’s entire function in the movie, which is weird and I will bring up again later. However, the man (played by the reliably creepy Michael Ironside) stalks her in the hospital, sneaking past guards and security not once, not twice, but three times (see: above, re: incompetence), in an effort to finish what he started. While there, he also develops a fixation on the nurse assigned to look after Deborah, and begins stalking her at home as well. As he penetrates hospital security, Deborah realizes she may have to try and take matters into her own hands, which is a problem, given her avowed non-violence credo. (I’m not joking - that is actually a flat-out plot point in the movie. Don’t worry, it feels odd there, too.) As the killer closes in on both her and her nurse, Deborah makes a stand to protect herself.
That’s about the gist of it, plot-wise. But there’s a lot of excess baggage smuggled in amidst the standard slasher narrative, and it has everything to do with some rather confused feminist politics. See, the film really, really, really wants you to understand that women ain’t having it no more; sisters are doing it for themselves; they’re going to stand up and fight, etc., etc… and it often does so with a ham-fistedness that would make Susan Powter slow down and say “Ladies, maybe we should ease up on the whole empowerment thing, okay? Eek.” In its zeal to eliminate any possibility of ambiguity as to where Visiting Hours's politics lie, it drops in the hoariest of message-movie tropes, thereby losing everything in artistry that it “gains” in clarity of communication. As a piece of political propaganda, this is good stuff. As a piece of art, eh, maybe not so much.
Look, the feminist revenge subgenre had already been thriving for a good ten years prior to this, from Thriller: A Cruel Picture, on through I Spit On Your Grave, and all the others in between. There was an ambiguity to these films from the start: the simplistic empowerment narrative was always caught in the potentially misogynistic machinations of the exploitation genre, with its need for titillation and “satisfying the male gaze,” as feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey would say. This very ambiguity, of course, is what makes a lot of these movies so interesting as art; when they have decent directors, rape-revenge films can (and do) perform all sorts of fascinating disquisitions on gender, sex, violence, representation, and all the rest of it. I’m not going to delve into a whole Feminist Film Criticism 101 sermon here, but needless to say, one of the things that first attracted me to horror as art was the work of feminist thinkers like Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, and of course the inimitable Carol Clover, who can take credit for bestowing upon us the concept of the “Final Girl” in horror. These insightful critics, philosophers, and analysts of horror did much to puncture the standard myths: that horror is geared towards sexist adolescent boys; that it’s deeply disempowering to women; that exploitation is inherently anti-feminist; the list goes on. So I completely understand the impulse to try and make a slasher film that wears its progressive politics as transparently as possible. ”No ambiguity here,” Visiting Hours proudly proclaims: “strong women can stand up to the world of sexism!” Very true. But a political soapbox does not a movie make.
This is hammered home most pointedly in the exchange between Shatner and Grant, when, exasperated with her situation, Grant cries out “Why is he after me?!?” and Shatner responds “Because you’re a strong woman! Independent! Capable of influencing public opinion!” It’s fun, in a somewhat campy and self-satisfied way. But the movie bends over backwards to explain that kicking ass is the only acceptable way to go for the fairer sex, and in doing so, it actually ends up feeling kinda patronizing. At one point the radio is on in the background, and we hear a man, talking about Deborah, say “Will she finally join the thousands of women who now feel it’s time to fight back?” Reporters ask her if her assault has maybe shaken her conviction in non-violence, and that maybe now she supports violence if it’s done by women in the name of self-defense. Another radio voice, this time a woman, says “You’ve gotta protect yourself in this world.” And on and on, until you practically expect the film to just segue into a self-defense class for girls.
And yet, luckily, they pour on so much of the sex and gender progressive affirmation stuff, it actually gets a bit muddled at times, and as a result makes things more interesting. There’s an odd sub-theme about image and representation, that was obviously meant to suggest that mainstream society objectifies women, and turns them into objects of consumption, and that women often internalize these messages in unhealthy ways. No arguments here. But it does so by, for example, having our heroine, upon waking up from surgery after her assault, immediately demand a mirror so she can look at her face and make sure her looks didn’t get mussed up. A TV show announces “A woman must always look her very best at all times.” A woman who asks our killer on a date is shunned, and another gets brutally attacked in a particularly creepy assault scene that features neither sex nor beatings, but rather our villain hugging her so tight she has trouble breathing, and then holding her down so her can smell her back.
Perhaps most interesting is the treatment of the killer himself. Jean-Claude Lord actually directs the hell out of this thing: there are some great jump scares, and well-executed setups for the attacks that build solid tension. The first hour of the film more or less only shows our killer askew - from darkened rooms, from side angles, from the back of his head, or simply the lower part of his body. This borrows liberally from Hitchcock and Carpenter. But then, suddenly, halfway through the film, the camera’s gaze shifts; now we’re looking at him head-on, without threatening angles, all sickly fluorescents and medium shots. Much like When A Stranger Calls, which changed gears in the middle act to give the backstory to the menacing antagonist, Visiting Hours gives us some bad-guy backstory, and it’s pretty heartrending. Memories of his father haunt him, particularly some unsettling “playful” encounters that suggest abuse; more fraught still is the memory of his father’s failed assault on his mother, who ultimately repels Dad by flinging hot cooking oil into his face, leaving him speechless and crippled. The killer literally collapses in a heap in an industrial laundry room at one point, weeping and incapacitated by these traumatic memories. He’s spun this abuse into the standard trope of the white male victim, beset by the vagaries and supposed injustice of a world with minorities, women, Jews, and all the rest of us awful creatures who threaten his alpha-dog understanding of himself. He’s the perfect bleeding-heart-liberal movie villain: he’s a sadistic bastard who needs to be put down, but hey - the ills of a sexist world made him this way!
I don’t want to shortchange the film, though: all this stuff going on actually makes for a fairly engaging and rich text, boosted immensely, as I said, by the work of director Lord. There’s a fun horror-movie moment when the nurse, leaving the hospital at night, is asked by a cop if he can escort her home. She says “I’ll be alright,” and is IMMEDIATELY not alright. At the climax, the camera, which has been playing Carpenter-style suggestive games of perspective that always threatens to be the killer, inverts itself, and the killer now becomes beset by the camera’s gaze as potentially threatening. There’s a knowing homage to the classic Peeping Tom, as the killer snaps photos of women staring at him in abject terror, as they realize they’re staring death in the face. Another homage, this time to The Exorcist, comes in a scene when Deborah, drugged up and paranoid prior to surgery, begins to see everything in the operating room, even the doctors and nurses, as potential threats.
The more I write, to be honest, the more I’m thinking maybe I’m even being a little hard on the film’s clumsy political interventions. It throws so much at the wall, idea-wise, and so much sticks, that it can’t help but actually offer up some fairly inventive readings. So let’s just end on the one bummer: why so little Shatner? You’ve got Captain Kirk in your movie, and stick him in a thankless role of “buddy who shows up three times to reassure our hero that’s she’s a badass.” He doesn’t get anything else to do; there’s no mystery, no action, just good ol’ Bill Shatner, eating pudding and reassuring Deborah that’s she’s a tough gal. Give me more Shatner, Visiting Hours. You know you want to. Still, I give it a recommendation: everything works, the movie unfolds like clockwork, and, above all else, you sure as hell knows that its heart is in the right place.