From among the Video Nasties

You tell me how I was supposed to pass this one up: 1982's Visiting Hours is one of just two wholly Canadian-made films to make the British Department of Public Prosecution's legendary Video Nasties list,* and the only one of those starring Canada's favorite son, William Shatner. It's catnip to the right kind of viewer, which makes it all the more disappointing that Visiting Hours isn't terribly exciting as a Nasty or a Shatner vehicle. It's not terribly exciting as anything, in fact, though it's one of the most unusual, off-kilter slasher films that I have ever seen, so even when it's completely failing to work, at least it's interesting. Or distinctive, anyway.

Here's what I mean by "distinctive": it's a slasher film that wants to present a serious consideration of the social ill of violence against women. I'm certainly not going to be cocksure enough to insist that there's absolutely no way that a dedicated feminist filmmaker could take the basic model of a slasher and turn into a successful and persuasive feminist statement, though I certainly lack the imagination to guess what such a thing might look like. Hint: it definitely wouldn't look like Visiting Hours, which doesn't just possess the baked-in misogyny pretty much endemic to '80s horror films, but even doubles down on it somewhat.

It's a commonplace observation among sociological critics of the slasher genre that, as a rule, men in these films die in abrupt shock scenes, where women are stalked first before they're killed. It's not a hard and fast truism (for example, the mid-period Friday the 13th films have such inflated body counts that if they wanted to attach a lengthy stalking sequence to every dead female, the running times would be around three hours), but it's a convenient way to think about the way the films are structured, while underlining the basic reality that these are films whose presumptive viewer is a young male, and young males as a class are interested in looking at women. Basic male gaze stuff, and while I don't always hold with running every single movie through the steam press of theory, slasher films are positively aching to be described using the framework of the gaze.

This matters because Visiting Hours, to a remarkably comprehensive degree, is nothing but stalk scenes. Its narrative is founded on the very idea of stalking; if you were to jot down even a one-sentence plot summary, you'd have to use the word "stalk", or a direct synonym. Here, for example, is my one-sentence summary:

A crusading TV journalist named Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant) is grilling the prosecuting attorney of a recent case she believes to have been hideously mishandled - a woman shot and crippled her husband, claiming self-defense from domestic abuse, but the prosecution argued that she could easily have thrown herself down the stairs to bruise herself, thus creating an alibi for a premeditated crime - and this footage, prior to airing, is seen by a most unsavory man, Colt Hawker (Michael Ironside), who is driven to murderous rage by this uppity fee-male talking about how men, like, don't have the right to be abusive to their wives in peace, and so he sneaks into Deborah's house to lay a trap for her; but she manages to stay just far enough ahead of him that she's only suffered some deep gashes to the arms by the time that the police arrive and take her to the hospital, where's she's attended by the overworked single mother and great admirer of her crusading feminist credentials, Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl), who makes safeguarding Deborah her utmost priority; but she doesn't realise just how much safeguarding it's actually going to take, when Colt arrives at the hospital to finish the job he started and slake his rampant misogynistic bloodlust.

Here, for example, is my actual one-sentence summary: a woman-hating serial killer hunts through a hospital to kill the victim that escaped his clutches. See? "Hunt". A more menacing word for "stalk".

I don't know. You'd think that a hospital would be a terrific setting for a slasher movie, yet between this picture and 1981's Halloween II, the evidence seems to firmly support the opposite conclusion. Visiting Hours isn't without its compensations, and the mere spectacle of a film made in an inherently sexist style telling an exceptionally sexist version of a stock narrative attempting to subvert itself, while hardly a "compensation", is reason all by itself for the morbidly curious to give the film a peak. But whatever worth it has, being a terribly good horror film is not on the list. Partially, this is because the film's anxiousness to be seen as a message movie leaves it with a guilty conscience about the things it's depicting (scene after scene of one female character or another being followed, unawares, by Colt, mostly), and even though it lacks the propriety to, for example, not depict those things, it still holds back from depicting them with the enthusiasm and scale of a film that actually wants to be a slasher film. Thus the lack of nudity (just about the only saving grace the film has from being completely and irredeemably hypocritical), and thus the more damaging lack of convincing death scenes or much of any gore; the only card that movies of this sort have to play is that they can make up their impact in sheer visceral nastiness what they can't scrounge up in compelling characters or narrative situations, and Visiting Hours only thinks that it has enough of those latter qualities to get away with being demure in terms of its horror.

There's a greater problem even than that, though: Brian Taggert's script, which is structurally broken in a way that it either doesn't realise, or couldn't fix. Both one-sentence summaries I included make the same suggestion: Colt attacks Deborah, Deborah goes to the hospital, Colt stalks Deborah at the hospital. The exact plot that Halloween II had, before it started upping the body count with spurious narrative threads. Except it's not what happens in Visiting Hours at all: Colt goes to the hospital chasing Deborah, finds her, leaves, and then we get a whole act of subplots, character study nonsense (turns out that Colt has a Traumatic Past that cemented his hatred of women), Shatner's largely pointless role as Deborah's producer, and undue pain and misery meted out to basically all the women of any age or personality who cross Colt's path. Finally, he returns, having gotten tired of helping to pad out a remarkably long movie (105 minutes at a time and in a subgenre where nobody would have blinked an eye if it were 80), and the movie can actually pick up its conflict where it left off, if it's still possible to care. Personally, I was too busy wondering why Deborah spent apparently several days in a hospital, including major surgery, for what the film suggests is nothing but a particularly deep gash on her hand.

The other great problem is that Taggert and director Jean-Claude Lord obviously believed in their movie, and wanted to make a truly meaningful, compelling story of deviant male psychology and the impact it has one women, convincing honest-to-God actors to hop on board, but failing to actually make the characters any more nuanced or rich than the horny teens and revenge-stoked psychos of any random "killer at summer camp" movie. Worse, even, since it's easier to forgive an unformed personality in the case of a teenager than in the professional adults who make up the entirety of Visiting Hours' cast. It's hard to say with certainty how much of this is the writing, and how much of this is the cast: Ironside is so good at playing a staring, rage-filled psycho that he's miles away from where the character needs to be during his backstory scenes, while Oscar winner and four-time nominee Grant budges not one inch from the hammy, loud, gaudy acting of her B-movie phase that included such greats as Damien: Omen II and Airport '77, worst of the Airports. It says all that needs to be said that Shatner gives the most effectively restrained and cleverly nuanced performance in the film.

Yet, even if the film is a washout, it's still massively intriguing to see the filmmakers and actors grapple with it, trying to will it to become something nobler and more intelligently-considered than was ever going to be the case. Most slashers and slasher-adjacent movies, even the great ones, simply do not care about the sociological ramifications of what they're doing, and that Visiting Hours joins the immensely tiny company of films attempting to call the industry and the audience's attention to the sordidness of the whole edifice of '80s horror is an admirable thing; that it does this on top of trying to ground its story in adult situations and responses to violence makes it, to my knowledge, one-of-a-kind. It fails at this, and that's ultimately what counts the most, but given the choice between a bad movie that's pandering to its audience and a bad movie that's challenging that same audience, I'd go with the latter every time. Assuming that a good movie is completely off the table, as it probably is given the genre in question.

Body Count: 6, though ironically, the most disturbing and violent attack is on a character who doesn't die (and I'm not referring to Deborah).

Nastiness Rating: 0/5, DPP, don't be such an asshole. No doubt in my mind that it's the most chaste Nasty I've ever seen, to the degree that I couldn't even figure out what might have triggered its arrival on the list in a secondhand-rumor sort of way. That history agrees with me is attested to by the fact that it was the first Nasty to screen on British television, and it did so uncut.

*The other was I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses; a third, The Burning, was a US-Canada co-production.*