Ahh, memories. I remember watching the 1982 Canadian horror quickie Visiting Hours in the early days of cable and being scared out of my wits by it. It was tense, frightening, taut, and atmospheric — or so I thought at age 10 (well, okay, I was probably 12 or so by the time it was broadcast on HBO or Showtime or wherever the hell I caught it). But you know what they say — the memory cheats. Or does it?
Truth be told, in the case of Visiting Hours I just wasn’t sure. I’d never actually gone back and seen it again for whatever reason, so maybe it really didn’t leave as strong and indelible an impression as I thought. Or maybe I was just too busy leading a life (a life that, admittedly, involved watching a shitload of movies, especially horror flicks).
In any case, when I saw that Anchor Bay put this out on DVD a few years back, I thought about picking it up, but decided against it when I read that it contained essentially no extras, not even the trailer, so I decided against buying it (in its defense(sort of), now that I’ve seen the DVD I can say that while the trailer is indeed absent, it does contain three different TV spots, a radio spot, it features a generally crisp and clear (given its age) widescreen anamorphic transfer, and the mono audio track is perfectly fine, if unspectacular — but there’s nothing else included apart from a selection of trailers for other second-(at best) tier Anchor Bay releases, so I was indeed wise (for once) in bypassing this as a purchase), but recently, while re-populating (God how I hate that term, but I just used it anyway) my Netflix list, I decided to give it a go.
So, was it anywhere near as thrilling and harrowing and gut-wrenching and spine-tingling as I remembered? Or was I destined to be disappointed in learning that yet another childhood favorite is, in actuality, a pretty stupid piece of shit?
The answer, dear reader, lies somewhere in between. It certainly and most emphatically isn’t the horror masterpiece my young mind perceived it to be — but it’s hardly a waste of time and celluloid, either.
Truthfully, Visiting Hours is nothing so much as a product of its time, like so much else. It has its moments, but they’re few and far between, and you’ve seen it all done better elsewhere. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, just that it’s wholly unremarkable. There are worse moviemaking sins than that, to be sure, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of plenty of less-than-remarkable horror films over the years, and many of the reviews on this very blog can certainly attest to that fact.
And let’s be clear — Visiting Hours definitely has some things going for it. For one thing, the setup is simple but solid — crusading TV reporter Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant) has taken up the cause of a woman on convicted of murdering her abusive husband. Deborah believes it was a case of justifiable homicide, and takes to the airwaves to try to get the woman in question a new trial. Unfortunately, this brave stance doesn’t sit well with one Colt Hawker (how’s that for a name?), a closet, deeply misogynistic psycho played by the always- awesome Michael Ironside who developed his deep-seated hatred for the female gender when, as a young boy, he witnessed his mother throw boiling oil into the face of his abusive father, and just so happens to be a member of the cleaning staff at the TV studio where our gal Deborah works.
Colt’s got a nasty habit of going around town, brutally killing women, and photographing them as they expire, and he becomes so incensed by Deborah’s on-air crusading that he goes over to her house, kills her incompetent and alocoholic maid, waits for our intrepid reporter to come home, and then brutally rapes and (he thinks) murders her, as well.
Unfortunately for ol’ Colt, Deborah survives the attack, and is admitted to the county general hospital, where between the always- watchful eye of a regular Florence Nightingale of a nurse (Linda Purl), and occasional visits from her producer-love interest Gary (William Shatner — this movie was shot in Shatner’s hometown of Montreal), she proves to be a difficult patient to — uhhhmmm — gain access to. He’s gotta try, though, because he’s afraid she might recognize him if she sees him around the TV station and finger him out as her attacker. I guess he figures that sneaking into the hospital and killing her is easier than just quitting his job and finding a new one. Or maybe he just decides on this course of action for fun. Or something.
And that’s where Visiting Hours really gets bogged down. The first third or so of the film moves along at a pretty breakneck pace, but once Deborah’s in the hospital, it almost becomes a near-slapstick series of failed attempts by Colt to get at her and finish what he started, sort of like a cross between a slasher movie and a Three Stooges flick.
Most of the principle cast is excellent. Grant, as usual, gives a strong, believable, and 100% committed performance. The same can be said or Purl, albeit in a much smaller role. Ironside is, as you’d expect, first-class as the psycho and never anything less than chillingly authentic. Even Shatner keeps his overacting to a reasonable minimum, although his character frankly isn’t given much to do and is basically a beefed-up and over-written version of what should be, at best, a pretty inconsequential part.
And therein lies the problem — this movie is just way too damn padded out. It clocks in at 105 minutes, but there’s only about 80 minutes’ (at best) worth of story to be told here. Screenwriter Brian Taggert simply pads out the runtime with unnecessary appearances by minor characters and too much character development for them given their levels of overall plot significance. Director Jean-Claude Lord takes care of the rest by dragging out scenes that probably only run a page, at best, on the script for several minutes. As a kid, I’m sure that made things seem a lot more tense and foreboding to me, but as a fully-fledged (at least physically, if not mentally) adult, it has just the opposite effect, killing any suspense that might be achieved by simply stretching things out way past their breaking point. Sure, you can make a rubber band more tense by pulling it further and further, but at some point the damn thing just gives up and breaks. The same rule applies to scenes in what’s supposed to be a “suspense” film.
So in that key respect, Visiting Hours certainly misses the mark. It’s got some stuff going for it, as detailed above, but not enough to make it stand out from the pack. And the pack, it has to be said, was a pretty crowded one at the time.
In 1982, hot on the heels of the success of films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and (arguably) the progenitor of them all, Black Christmas, Hollywood studios were always on the lookout for cheap psycho-slasher flicks that were already in the can and wouldn’t cost them anymore than whatever the price tag was for distribution rights. Having chosen to take a pass on Black Christmas, 2oth Century Fox probably didn’t want to be beaten out a second time when it came to snagging the rights to a Canadian horror flick, especially not one with a pedigreed cast like this, so they picked this one up for distribution and gave it a pretty decent little promotional campaign (just check out that poster!), but ultimately it didn’t catch on much with audiences, and didn’t even make much of a splash in the early days of the home video market, when people would rent pretty much fucking anything.
Still, as time has proven over and over, more or less every single horror flick has its fans, and there are sorrier flicks than Visiting Hours that have legions of adoring admirers, so even though it languished around for a hell of a long time before being picked up by Anchor Bay for DVD release, and even though there wasn’t exactly an outcry (or even much of a murmur) from the horror-loving public demanding it, I imagine it’s sold okay for them. It’s fairly representative of its time, and there are plenty of people who are determined to have every 80s psycho-slasher flick in their library — and since the psycho himself is one of the strongest elements in this film’s favor, you could do a hell of a lot worse.
But damn, I sure remember it being a hell of a lot better.