Review: Visiting Hours (1982)

Visiting Hours

Directed by Jean-Claude Lord
Starring Lee Grant, Michael Ironside, Linda Purl, William Shatner

Visiting Hours isn’t really any better at pursuing the subject of sexual assault as other movies are. It spends too much time focusing on an abuser and not enough on women who’ve been abused. It goes for cheap scares over thoughtful discussion.

But we can’t expect anything more from it. It’s a movie. It’s exploitation. Its main goal is to get our hearts racing for an hour and a half. It wants us to cheer Lee Grant and boo Michael Ironside.

But that’s what movies are. They’re entertainment. They’re titillation and suspense. They’re heroes and villains and stars on the Walk of Fame. But sometimes – rarely – they’re a little bit more. Or at least they attempt to be. And even that must be applauded.

Taxi Driver gave us Travis Bickle, the epitome of disillusionment, fear, and anger. The end result of isolation. A chaotic gearbox of emotion. Visiting Hours gives us Colt Hawker, a character directly inspired by Bickle: Lonely, violent, afraid. Living in an empty apartment in a ratty building. Sitting in front of a TV. Writing letters to newspapers and politicians.

But unlike Taxi Driver, Visiting Hours keeps us out of Hawker’s head. There are no inner monologues. We don’t read the letters he writes, we only know that he writes them and keeps them framed on the walls of his living room. Michael Ironside only delivers about 10 lines of dialogue throughout the entire movie. Visiting Hours isn’t about the psychology of those living on the fringes of society; it’s about what would happen if a character like Travis Bickle found himself in a different set of circumstances.

Bickle’s actions in Taxi Driver are entirely guided by the need to force himself out of his self-imposed imprisonment. His anger targets anyone, anything. Hawker, on the other hand, knows who he hates and why he hates them. He hates Deborah Ballin because she’s an outspoken advocate of women’s rights. She’s a newswoman who’s picked a side that he doesn’t agree with. When he watches her attack a litigant of domestic abuse on-air, he decides to kill her, and very nearly does. The first 15 minutes of the film are viscerally horrifying: Ballin returns home to find signs of a break-in. The camera follows her closely, creating an inescapably claustrophobic atmosphere forcing viewers to peer around corners and into darkened closets. It’s a successfully nerve-rattling exercise in pulse-pounding terror.

When Ballin is transported to County General Hospital, she is comforted by its large staff of nurses and armed guards. Her boss, Gary Baylor (Shatner), shows up to offer reassurance and promises her a safe recovery. But the film never once slows its pace. Hawker knows she’s in the hospital and he will stop at nothing to finish her off. He slips in easily, posing as a deliveryman before slipping into an orderly’s uniform, searching for Ballin’s room. When he is forced to conceal his identity by murdering a witness, Ballin realizes that he’s still after her. Again, she is reassured. William Shatner, as Baylor, pats her on the back and says, “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.” His words are flaccid, useless. The viewer wants Shatner to be a hero like Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk is, but the movie subverts our expectations. Every word out of his mouth is an empty promise, just as every course of action made by the hospital guards or city police is wrongheaded and misinformed. Only the female characters – Ballin and Shiela (Purl), a nurse – are attuned to the very real threat that Hawker brings to the hospital.

In addition to being a nurse, Shiela is a single mother of two children. Visiting Hours gives its female characters an initiative and drive rarely seen in slasher movies. When Hawker believes that Shiela is a threat, he goes after her family. But instead of allowing herself to be terrorized, she rushes into action, even when the all-male police force proves useless. Just like Ballin, she won’t let herself be a victim.

But the movie stumbles on characterization. Screenwriter Brian Taggert allows Colt Hawker to be his primary focus, causing Ballin and Sheila to become almost one-dimensional. While their fight to survive is compelling, the screenplay never pauses to let viewers inside their heads or learn anything about them outside of their occupations. We know that Ballin is a women’s rights advocate and a passionate journalist, but we learn very little else. Too often Taggert is content to wallow in Hawker’s day-to-day existence, forgetting that Ballin and Shiela are the film’s protagonists.

But it’s a forgivable mistake. The film is slickly-made and employs expert sound editing to create truly terrifying setpieces. And the film isn’t just viscerally horrifying – the themes explored and the world built around County General Hospital are equally unsettling. Hawker is a homicidal maniac and the city allows him to thrive. The police force is impotent and the hospital offers zero protection from his onslaught. No one can stop him.

When the film came to an end, I found myself turning on lights and plotting escape routes in case of intruders. I opened doors carefully and peered around corners. I was scared, sure, but I was angry, too. Michael Ironside’s relentless performance paints Hawker as a true monster – a racist, misogynist creep who wants the world to himself.

Visiting Hours might not pursue the subject of sexual assault with a deft hand, but it forces us to think about it. It’s miles more thoughtful in its thematic approach than any slasher movie I’ve ever seen, and it remains relevant 30 years later. I’m still reeling from watching it.

Sexual assault isn’t an easy topic to explore. That Visiting Hours even attempts to examine it is an accomplishment worthy of admiration. Forgive its flaws. Forget it’s a slasher movie.

You’ll be surprised by where it might take you.

Links:

Amazon: Bad Dreams / Visiting Hours DVD
Amazon: Visiting Hours VHS
Netflix – Visiting Hours
YouTube – Complete Movie
YouTube – Original Theatrical Trailer

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