Like your home, a hospital should be a place where you feel safe and protected. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that in horror movies. In fact, in many cases it’s the very last place you would want to be! Sometimes it’s because a maniac has tracked your injured ass to this place of refuge and you’re trapped. Other times, it’s because a health worker is a sociopath and can’t wait to put you on a mortuary slab a little earlier than you should be. Whatever the reason; hospitals, doctors, and nurses have cropped up with worrying regularity in genre films.
To mark the release of the new “Flatliners” remake/sequel, we thought it would be fun to list 10 horrors that shows the medical profession in a none-too-flattering light. We’ve made a few exceptions. “Halloween II” (1981) has Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in a fetching medical gown) being stalked by Michael Myers in hospital, but you certainly wouldn’t call it a medical horror. The same goes for “Re-Animator” which also takes place mostly in and around hospital grounds, and has a “Doctor” as the main character. No, we’ve picked 10 that we felt best represented the different kinds of ways that bad medicine can be shown in the genre. And there are plenty of recognisable directors and actors in there as well.
So check yourself in for 10 of the best, and we’ll throw in our favourite “Say Aargh!” moments as well. The Doctor will see you now…
*Warning – Be aware of some spoilers in the “Say Aargh!” sections.*
Released in 1990 – Directed by Joel Schumacher
Seeing as the remake inspired this listing, we had to include this really. A seminal “Brat Pack” film and genre offering from the 90’s, this was the cinematic equivalent of that one music album that everybody either bought or had an opinion on at the time. Not really and out-and-out horror by any means, more of a “science fiction psychological thriller” as someone once described it. The flamboyant Schumacher made the movie three years after filming the cult 80’s vamp movie “The Lost Boys”, and five years before giving the bat-suit nipples. It reunited him with his “Lost Boys” lead Kiefer Sutherland, and also included a veritable check-list of the hot young stars at the time; Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt, etc. Focusing on the phenomena of near-death experiences, it tells the story of five arrogant medical wannabees trying to solve the riddle of the afterlife.
Nelson Wright (Sutherland), a brilliant med student, convinces four other like-minded colleagues to help him explore the concept of the afterlife and the reactions of the mind at the moment of passing. Scientifically induced to “flat-line” (roll credits!), each of them is dependent upon the rest of the gang to successfully revive them from their intentional death states. As they all “die” and are brought back, they seem to have returned with malevolent forces that determine they should be punished for past “sins”…
In all honesty, “Flatliners” is a bit too po-faced and earnest to be considered to be a real horror movie, but it does deal with some interesting ideas. Unlike most exploitation flicks that have since explored similar ground, the “sins” here are pretty minor and the film is a little coy in dealing with them. It’s mostly childish bullying and guilt trips that are highlighted, although there is one exception important to the plot. It’s still holds a fond memory for older genre fans, but to be blunt it’s probably for the neat concept and the cast rather than the actual execution. Not forgetting the strapline “It’s a good day to die” as well of course. The upcoming film is strictly speaking a sequel rather than a remake, seeing as it features Sutherland reprising his role. But as it also seems to be reprising the plot as well, we’re still thinking of it as a remake until we’re convinced otherwise. *Blows childish raspberry*
Say “Aargh!” – For being simultaneously creepy and hilarious. It has to be the multiple times Nelson is owned by his childhood victim Billy Mahoney. He haunts him in various hallucinations wearing a red hoody (which bears an uncanny resemblance to the “ghost” in “Don’t Look Now”). But he also beats the ever-loving crap out of Nelson, despite still being a child to his grown-up victim. It culminates in one humiliating scene where he hocks a loogie straight into Nelson’s mouth. Ew.
Released in 1978 – Directed by Michael Crichton
Today the late Michael Crichton’s name is most readily linked with that of “Jurassic Park”, having written the novels and treatments on which the Spielberg film (and sequels) was based. But of course he was also a prolific writer, with most of his books having a basis in medical or scientific fact. And he was a great director as well, with the hugely influential “Westworld” (now given a new lease of life after the HBO series) and the fun “Runaway”. Perhaps his scariest film in concept and execution though was the brilliantly tense “Coma”, a pure medical thriller and conspiracy thriller with horrific undertones, although it was based on a Robin Cook novel rather than one of his own works. Starring Geneviève Bujold and Michael Douglas it was the perfect storm for those afraid of hospitals…
Dr. Susan Wheeler (Bujold) is a talented surgeon at the Boston Memorial Hospital, and is greatly affected by the death of a close friend, who goes into a coma on the operating table. As she takes an interest in the incident, she realises that there’s an unusually large percentage of healthy patients that are succumbing to brain-death and/or comas whilst undergoing surgical procedures at the hospital. Her colleagues and boyfriend (Michael Douglas as Dr. Mark Bellows) all think that she’s paranoid due to her emotional loss. But Susan gradually uncovers a horrible and amoral conspiracy that threatens the very institution that she works for. But there are few people she can place her trust in, and she may well end up as a statistic herself.
There’s a lot to love and admire about this film. It was born from Crichton’s (and Cook’s) medical background and their disillusionment with the US health system at the time, particularly the offhanded way many doctors treated patients. Modern viewers may equate it with disturbing modern urban legends (the one where travellers wake up in baths full of ice and with an incision scar). But it’s a chilling conspiracy film, which (despite the lack of jump scares) we would equate as a horror due to the way the story unfolds. It has an excellent cast, and Crichton admirably fought the studios to ensure the lead was female (Douglas is very much the supporting character). It’s just an expertly crafted thriller and hugely watchable. There was a miniseries remake in 2012 (with Geena Davis and James Woods), but we still prefer this…
Say “Aargh!” – A terrifically tense moment following an oh-shit! revelation unfolds at the climax. After some drugging and subterfuge, Susan is placed in the very same situation as those she’s been investigating. As she goes under anaesthesia, there’s a nail-biting race against time to save her…
Released in 1992 – Directed by Manny Coto
Time for some looney tunes. This is a silly-but-fun exploitation horror that milks its “Mad Doctor” concept for all it’s worth. Coto is Cuban American writer, director and producer of films and television programs, who went on from this to be involved with “Dexter”. But this film was more about “yocks” than “yucks”. It stars Larry Drake as the title character, who was best known at the time for playing lovable Benny Stulwicz in the massively successful “L.A. Law”, although he did play the ruthless crime-lord in Sam Raimi’s “Darkman” as well. It has one of the best movie straplines around; “If you’re from Moorehigh, and you get sick – fall on your knees and pray you die quick!”
In the town of Moorehigh during the 1950’s, patients of the local doctor keep vanishing. Soon it’s discovered that the “good” doctor is removing the hearts from unlucky victims in a vain attempt to resuscitate his dead wife. His young son Evan Rendell Jr is even crazier, aiding his father and cackling incessantly, which earns him the nickname of “Dr Giggles”. After 35 years in the asylum, Evan (now played by Drake) does a “Michael Myers”, escaping the institution and returning to Moorehigh. Using his father’s old files, he starts to track and kill the townspeople that are long overdue for an appointment…
Really silly, but good gory fun. It works as a solid slasher, because it never tries to have any pretensions about what it wants to achieve. Drake is great as he delivers the irritating high-pitched snigger that defines his character, and quips bad one-liners whilst slicing and dicing. “Leave it in for at least a minute”, he says after stabbing someone through the mouth with a thermometer, and the rib-tickling; “If you think that’s bad … wait ‘til you get my bill!”. As to be expected, he uses a plethora of medical equipment to do his bloody work with scalpels, bone-saws, hypodermics and other paraphernalia all in evidence during the kill scenes. It has a suitably melodramatic score from Brian May (no, not THAT one!) and is a perfect late night slasher fix for those after something different to the usual boogeymen or backwoods maniacs.
Say “Aargh!” – Remember that scene in the original “Total Recall” where Arnie pulls a massive probe from out of his head? Think of something like that in reverse, but more painful. "Giggles" shoves a sharp Otoscope right up someone’s nasal passage and into their brain. “Hmmm … I think I’ve found the problem” (NB: Actual line from the movie).
Released in 1996 – Directed by Brian Yuzna
The director of the cult body-horror “Society” delved into toothy horror with this offering. People with acute Odontophobia (it’s real, google it) need to keep well away from this one. And it’s mostly what you would expect from the combined pens of Dennis Paoli, Stuart Gordon, and Charles Finch – who created “Reanimator” and “From Beyond” amongst many others. It stars Corbin Bernsen as the titular character, who was mostly known at the time for his amiable roles in “L.A. Law” and the “Major League” films, so this was a surprise to fans of those roles. Bernsen also has one of the largest snow-globe collections in the world. Don’t say we don’t educate you here at YGROY!
Dr Alan Feinstone is a very successful dentist with the perfect lifestyle, including the lavish house and attractive wife. However, he is secretly prone to having Walter Mitty / Patrick Bateman flights of fantasy, given over to violence and sexual acts. When he discovers his wife is having an affair with the pool-man, it sends him over the edge and he starts to take out his frustrations on his patients and colleagues. Descending into a full-on emotional breakdown, he mutilates his wife, kills some unwitting victims, and is pursued by the cops…
It’s certainly not a subtle film, as you get large doses of molar mayhem in explicit detail… but that’s kind of the point. Bernsen has done a lot of villainous and manic roles since this film, but this was the first time he really went for broke and he’s quite something to watch as he loses the plot and goes deadly with a drill. Perhaps surprisingly it’s not really an obvious comedy/horror, as it plays it mostly straight although black humour still creeps in there. Watch out for “Dawn of the Dead” star Ken Foree as a snarky detective. Although it got mixed reviews, it won several awards on the festival circuit and has some notable critics as fans. The film was successful enough to warrant a sequel (hilariously sub-titled “Brace Yourself”) which reunited pretty much all the same cast and crew, and continued the story of Feinstone. It ramps up the black comedy a little and is considered to be the superior film by some.
Say “Aargh!” – Yuzna knows what you’re expecting to see! So we get screen-filling close-ups of painful injections, stabbed gums and drill-destroyed teeth. Perhaps the worst though is the fate of Brooke’s once-beautiful smile, reduced to bleeding sharp stumps and a sliced-off tongue.
Released in 2013 – Directed by Douglas Aarniokoski
This is probably the weakest film on the list, but it’s worth mentioning if only for the lead actress and her absolutely barking performance. The film was conceived with two main goals, to cash in on the current fad for 3D (especially from the exploitation angle), and to visualise the photography of Lionsgate's chief marketing officer, Tim Palen. If you get a load of the seductive posters and promos showing Paz de la Huerta – whether it’s riding an oversize hypodermic in a skin-tight uniform, or clad in nothing but a nurse’s hat and a thick film of blood – you’ll get an idea as to what they were aiming for. The film is intended as pure grindhouse material and was originally to have starred burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, but she dropped out.
We’re introduced to Abby Russell (de la Huerta), a slightly deranged individual, who sees herself as some kind of sexual vigilante, as she seduces and kills married men who approach her in nightclubs. This is perfectly demonstrated when she cuts a guy’s femoral artery and chucks him off a roof. However, she is also a respected nurse at large city hospital. She becomes more unravelled after she becomes obsessed with her protégé, a freshly graduated nurse called Danni (played by Katrina Bowden). After some “erotic thriller” fooling around, a “fatal attraction” is in place between the two nurses, as Abby fixates on removing everybody who stands between the two of them and careers towards a blood-soaked finale…
“Nurse” rather oddly abandons that sexual “Death Wish” angle after the opening scene, in favour of full-on cheesecake sequences and the sapphic “Single White Female” rip-off storyline. Whilst that’s fitting in with the fetish-like visuals, it does feel a little all-over-the-place. This is especially true as the film only really embraces its horror ambitions at the climax, when it throws buckets of blood and gore at the screen. And whilst de la Huerta’s eccentricity suits some roles, it goes from flat delivery and narration to sheer over-acting here. Bowden is much more grounded and genuine, and you do wonder what Von Teese might have been like in the role. There’s also a bizarre and pointless 20-second cameo from Kathleen Turner. A sequel was promised but is unlikely to ever happen … especially as de la Huerta is continually reviving a $55m lawsuit against Lionsgate studio for alleged injuries she suffered on the set of the film!
Say “Aargh!” – Poor old Doctor Morris (Judd Nelson!) gets on the wrong side of Abby as he tries to blackmail her into a sexual tryst. This leads to him being graphically dismembered on an operating table, by a giggling lingerie-clad Abby with a deadly bone-saw. Ouch.
Released in 1978 – Directed by Richard Franklin
Despite the recent remake starring Charles Dance and Sharni Vinson, we’re going to be mean-spirited and completely ignore that version. This is mainly because the original movie was such a poster-boy for the “Ozploitation” wave of films in the 70’s and 80’s. The film was made by the late Franklin who went onto US studio productions like the superior sequel “Psycho II” after this. The screenplay came from the prolific (and also late) US writer Everett De Roche, who was responsible for many classic Oz genre films like “Razorback” and “The Long Weekend”. The concept is wonderfully summarised in another awful and tacky rhyming strapline on the posters; “Some people thought he was crazy. He appeared to be deaf, dumb, and blind – None of them knew of the 6th sense: The power of PATRICK’S mind!!”
Years after murdering his parents, Patrick (Robert Thompson) lies in a vegetative coma at a private hospital in Melbourne. Kathie Jacquard (Susan Penhaligon) has just been hired as his new nurse. Whilst Kathie deals with her feelings for her ex-husband, the supine patient gradually becomes obsessed with her. Unbeknownst to his carers, Patrick has extraordinary psychokinetic powers, and can move his consciousness from his body. By this means he can “travel” outside of the hospital, manipulate objects, and even momentarily “possess” people. He uses this ability to take care of those that come between him and Kathie, whilst exerting some revenge over those that torment him. But his jealousy gradually drives him over the edge…
There’s a down-to-earth sensibility and unsensational quality about “Patrick”, which actually makes it stand out. It’s more about the budget and filmmaking techniques at the time, but the minimal effects actually make it a bit more creepy and authentic. We don’t get “spirit” forms floating about or flashy effects for his powers, just the usual stuff you would expect from a 70’s exploitation movie. It’s dated a little, but it is very much a homage to Hitchcock (the matricide is an obvious riff on “Psycho”). Penhaligon plays a nice sympathetic character, and Thompson’s ever-open eyes are just … unsettling. Quentin Tarantino is a big fan and duplicated a scene for The Bride in “Kill Bill: Vol 1”, as well as singing its praises in the excellent documentary “Not Quite Hollywood”.
Say “Aargh!” – *Spoiler Alert*- The forced frog-eating is nasty, but it’s famous for the great end sequence, which rivals the jump-scare climaxes of “Carrie” and “Friday the 13th”. The vindictive Patrick flat-lines and the cast can finally relax …. NOT!! … as he unleashes one final unexpected shock.
Released in 1990 – Directed by Larry Cohen
A largely unsung genre thriller, but it’s actually pretty good example of its time with a neat concept (that has since been re-used in other horror films). It was written and directed by Cohen, who is better known for his more out-there horrors of “It’s Alive” and “The Stuff”. This one is grounded with a (little) more realism. It has a great cast for the era, starring; Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Red Buttons, and… presenting Stan Lee playing himself in one of his very first screen appearances, years before his cameos provided him constant screen time in the Marvel Studios films. At one point it was called “Thin Air”, and Cohen lobbied for John Travolta to star (just before his celebrity status skyrocketed again in “Pulp Fiction”).
Taking place on the streets of New York, the plot follows a comic book artist Josh Baker (Roberts, sporting an absolutely superb Billy Ray Cyrus mullet) as he pursues a young woman named Cheryl (Janine Turner). Literally seconds after he starts talking to her, she suddenly collapses on the pavement and is taken away by an ambulance. But when smitten Josh turns up at the hospital with flowers, he is stunned to discover that Cheryl never arrived there and has simply vanished. Not only that, but other people who knew Cheryl have also disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Sensing some kind of conspiracy he checks out other cases involving the ambulance, which inevitably puts him on the hit-list of the title vehicle and its drivers…
If you ignore the fact that Josh is worryingly a huge stalker-type at the start of the film (how attitudes have thankfully changed…) it’s an efficient little offbeat chiller for its time. Although the concept is pure genre – Cohen said he was inspired to “the concept of taking something that is thought of as being benign or benevolent... or anything else that has a safe and wholesome image, and turning it into an object of terror” – it’s a pretty straightforward psychological thriller along the lines of a Hitchcock film like “The Lady Vanishes”. There are some hammy (and slightly un-PC) moments (“I just like to touch human skin through a surgical glove … that’s all” / “You fight like Stewardesses!!”). But Roberts is very watchable, and James Earl Jones is great as the disgruntled cop who won’t believe his stories, and won’t stop extravagantly chewing gum even when he’s badly injured. It’s great fun in a B-movie kind of way…
Say “Aargh!” – There are actually some pretty hairy stunts in there (eschewing the normal health and safety rigours of today you suspect). The most troubling is when Roberts (or his stuntman) crashes through the gate of a maintenance tunnel, and sprawls in the middle of speeding cars on a road. Looks a bit too close for comfort…
Released in 2010 – Directed by John Carpenter
We really had to include this, if only for the fact that this is (currently) the last feature-length movie that Carpenter has directed. It’s also noteworthy for the lead actress as well, starring Amber Heard as she was still in “Scream Queen” mode, following “All the Boys Love Mandy Lane” and “Zombieland”. The film is something of a period piece as it’s set in the 60’s and was shot in the historic (and infamous) Eastern State Hospital in Washington. It marked Carpenter's first film foray since “Ghosts of Mars” in 2001, and is a full-blooded horror offering.
Kristen (Heard) is a young pyromaniac who is taken to a psychiatric hospital after being arrested. She meets several other young women in the ward in which she’s kept, including Sarah (Danielle Panabaker). The girls worryingly tell her about another young patient who recently disappeared from the ward, although her own therapist, Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) seems decent enough. Shown to be suffering from repressed memories, Kristen starts on the road to recuperation but is haunted by something that seems to be watching her. She’s even physically attacked by a corpse-like entity in the showers, but no-one will believe her. It leads to her suspect that a supernatural presence is hunting her and the other girls down and she has to escape the ward before it gets her…
The film is solidly directed by Carpenter, although it’s certainly not one of his best. It also has a plot that bears a noticeable similarity to several other films (which we won’t mention for spoiler reasons). But apart from that, it benefits from good performance from Heard and some finely crafted scare sequences. The cadaverous freak (with literal crawling skin) that’s despatching the girls is suitably creepy, and some of the kills are quite protracted and nasty. It got quite a sniffy reception from many critics, but although it’s not vintage genre it’s still enjoyable enough. Some rather cruel jibes about the horror auteur’s “decline” ensued, but … hell, we’d rather watch this a dozen times than some of Dario Argento’s later disasters.
Say “Aargh!” – The medical nightmare moment when poor old Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca), gets wheeled into an operating theatre by the weird antagonist, and is “treated” with a hideous “lobotomy” which is as nasty as you’ve just imagined it…
Released in 1982 – Directed by Jean-Claude Lord
A solid dark genre thriller, but it’s had a bit of a rough ride over the years, especially in the UK. Occasionally known as “Get Well Soon” or “The Fright”, it’s an efficient-but-brutal slasher film with a high-profile cast … which makes its entry on the UK “video-nasty” listing all the more baffling. It was censored heavily at the time in Britain, but then caused a minor scandal when an uncut version was broadcast by a TV station in 1989. It’s a totally unwarranted bad reputation, and even the current mean rating on Rotten Tomatoes is overly harsh. The cast includes the great Michael Ironside, the award-winning Lee Grant, and the inimitable William Shatner.
The plot has feminist celebrity Deborah Ballin (Grant) being the victim of a terror campaign by misogynistic killer and all-round-nutter Colt Hawker (Ironside). He starts to target her after an appearance on a TV show angers him, and his first attack puts Deborah in hospital. Hawker then embarks on several elaborate schemes to finish her off for good and also finds his attention drawn to sympathetic nurse Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl), when he overhears her dissing him. The women must find some way to permanently stop this woman-hating psycho…
Whilst we’re pretty used to hardcore slashers and cold-hearted killers these days, “Visiting Hours” probably stood out at the time (and attracted the glare of the censors) for its portrayal of Ironside’s cold-hearted stalker. Watching it now, it’s actually a bit ahead of its time, and the depiction of a celebrity stalker enraged by feminist/political views is sadly closer to real-life now than it was then. Swap the knife for a keyboard and it’s practically a modern documentary. That aside it’s actually a hard-as-nails slasher, which dares to give plenty of quirks and some unsavoury detail to its villain. An admittedly smart psycho, who uses disguises and stealth to get near his victim, and cruelly takes photos of his dying female victims. There’s even a small attempt to give some background to his psychosis (his father was disfigured by his mother), and unsurprisingly Ironside is brilliantly menacing as the killer. The strong cast and hospital setting also make it stand out for the time. Underrated.
Say “Aargh!” – *Spoiler Alert* - There’s a clever home invasion sequence, where Hawker has hidden himself in Sheila’s home. As she creeps nervously around the house with a knife, she stops to use a phone, as the camera focuses on a suspicious looking cupboard door… only for Hawker to reach out from beneath the table and plunge a knife into Sheila’s stomach! And then he takes photos of the critically injured woman. And then he taunts her daughter. Absolute bastard.
Released in 1988 – Directed by David Cronenberg
One of the best made medical “horrors” you’ll see … but also one of the toughest to watch, just because it’s so damned depressing and darkly emotional. Unlike other Cronenberg films up to this point there’s no real major genre influences or visceral violence – aside from the general ickiness of surgery and the weirdness of identical twins. It very loosely springs from the case of the real-life brothers Stewart and Cyril Marcus, but director Peter Greenaway claims that it was also influenced by his film “A Zed & Two Noughts”. Nevertheless, it gave a blinding acting opportunity to Jeremy Irons to portray the twins of the title, after Robert De Niro reportedly turned the part(s) down. Irons and Cronenberg went on to win several critics’ awards for the film.
Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both Irons) are identical twins and gynaecologists who run a successful medical clinic. They differ in personality, with Elliot being confident and successful with the opposite sex, whilst Beverly is shy and withdrawn. Their identical appearance leads Elliot to seduce women and then “pass” them on to Beverly when he tires of them. The women are none the wiser and the brothers maintain their unbreakable connection, needing no other emotional constraints to complicate things. But their bond is broken when Beverley falls in love with Elliot’s latest conquest, actress Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold). As the twins become emotionally separated, they both descend into a hell of drug dependency, hallucinations, and possible psychosis…
Irons is superb here, and you would swear that they cloned him, instead of using special effects trickery. The way he plays off “himself” is that good. It is a hard film to watch though, on an emotional level as it has Greek tragedy written all over it (which is echoed by the real-life story it was based on). Cronenberg still manages to work in some disturbing body horror as well, and although it’s not really graphic, some of the surgery scenes really feel uncomfortable. That’s along with Beverly’s “gynaecological instruments” (which look like they’ve been nicked off the set of “Saw”) and some disturbing raw moments. Wholeheartedly recommended to be never used as a “date movie” or a “feel good” experience…
Say “Aargh!” – *Spoiler Alert* - The absolutely devastating finale will leave you emotionally gobsmacked. Driven to breakdown by their experiences and lack of equilibrium, the twins perform “separation surgery”. This basically entails Beverly disembowelling a willing Elliot with the mutant surgical tools. A follow-up scene shows a distressed Beverly meekly shuffling around the room, moaning; “Elly … Elly…”