Monday, April 7, 2014

Medical Deviates: TERMINAL CHOICE (1985)

If you haven't guessed it by now, I spent an embarrassing amount of time renting movies with my misfit friends in my ill-spent youth. The way I would pick out a movie at the stores were to walk down the horror, sci-fi or action aisle, starting at either A or Z, and stop when I got to a movie that I hadn't seen. When one video store had been defoliated by my migratory grazing, I moved on to another.

Somehow after cherry-picking literally dozens of video stores in my area, I never ended up renting TERMINAL CHOICE. The video was in every store, the poster was everywhere, even in other movies (such Jeff Lieberman's 1988 outing REMOTE CONTROL)! Even with all of this advertising pressure, I didn't rent it. Why? The video poster sucked. Yep, I let myself get played by lame movies with awesome boxes like NAIL GUN MASSACRE (1985) and Tim Kincaid's BREEDERS (1986), but I passed over a damn fine film because of the lousy art. I feel shame.

In a new, state of the art hospital run by brilliant surgeon Dr. Giles Dodson (David McCallum, showing up for his day plus one), all of the rooms are outfitted with computerized beds that are hooked into a central mainframe. The computer controls IV drips, dispensing drugs, regulating ventilators, and even, if necessary, delivering resuscitating shocks via a built in defibrillator. Modern technology! Surely nothing could go wrong.

To alleviate the tedium of having to take care of sick people, the staff has set up an under-the-table betting pool, centered around the patients and their particular maladies. A patient is picked out, seemingly at random, and bets are placed on the aspects of their condition, particulars of the treatment and the length of time it takes for their condition to change. This is all monitored surreptitiously via the HAL-esque computer system that is so advanced it can control what is seen on the video monitors that are connected to numerous cameras around the hospital.

A young female patient named Lylah Crane (Teri Austin), who is allowed to wear her own lingerie in her hospital bed for some reason, becomes the subject of a wager. The bets are placed and suddenly the computer administers a massive dose of an anticoagulant drug that causes extreme hemorrhaging, drenching the hospital bed in blood. The blame is quickly placed on Dr. Frank Holt (Joe Spano), a new transfer with a checkered past who has his own special brand of self-medication as prescribed by Dr. Smirnoff. When he is dragged out of bed with a hooker (Lynda Mason Green ) by the hospital, he angrily jumps in his AMC Gremlin, drives through his neighbor's trashcans while slugging down a bottle of hooch. If you have ever been in a hospital, this might be the scariest scene in the film. I say "might" because the film actually does have some genuinely horrifying moments and and even a few sucker-punches along the way.

After another patient dies on Holt's watch and his ex-wife, who is also the resident computer expert (Diane Venora), chews him a new asshole before having sex with him, he decides to pour all of his vodka in the sink and put on his gumshoe pants to find out what is going on. In spite of his being the laughing stock among the hospital staff, suddenly things start getting covered up and anyone who knows anything meets with a brutal fate. There's a lot more to it, but I don't want to throw out too much, because the movie is well worth the time and effort to track down and watch.

The U.S. video art, followed by alternate international art.

Interestingly, this Canadian thriller takes a pretty grim view of humanity and a downright misanthropic one when it comes to medical professionals. Every character in the film has some serious issues, particularly when it comes to relating to other human beings, alive or dead. The most likable person in the film is the pathologist (Ellen Barkin) who attempts to get a date with a new male nurse by brusquely demanding to know how long he's been at the hospital and why he hasn't called her yet. For some reason that doesn't work. It's a shame that screenwriter Neal Bell, who I believe to be a writer for the stage, only made this single feature film in his career. There are a few moments of levity that are pretty funny, but they are also a grim statement about casual attitude of hospital workers. One is when a prominent surgeon (Tom Harvey) has his expensive dinner with a bubble-headed blonde interrupted by the hospital, he angrily tells them that he's sick and can't make it in and cheerfully resumes his dish of escargot. In addition there are some interesting moments of even darker humor, such as a throw-away bit where a family is presenting a birthday cake, while singing, to a clearly comatose individual in a cylindrical Stryker bed frame.

TV director Sheldon Larry (who ironically went on to direct episodes of "Doogie Howser M.D." in 1989) has his camera prowl around the hospital, utilizing effective camera set-ups in a way that belies his small screen training. He also does an admirable job keeping the film feeling somewhat realistic, in spite of the same technophobic trappings as similar, more absurd fare, such as the infamous Dick Randall production THE URGE TO KILL (1989). I hate to say that the camerawork evokes Hitchcock (referenced by the first victim's name, you'll notice), but it does feel inspired by his style almost Richard Franklin-esque. In addition the eerie music and unusual sound-work feel like something from a gothic horror film. If you sit back and think about it, the plot is ridiculously far fetched, but taken for what it is, it manages to be a surprisingly solid thriller.

It's no secret that horror films and thrillers rely on the audience empathizing with someone who is in a vulnerable situation and presumably helpless. Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) was probably the first , but undoubtedly the most important film to bluntly state that concept by having a woman (always perceived as more defenseless, even in today's liberated cinema) attacked while naked in the shower. The shower is a (usually) private place in which the most dangerous object to be found is a bar of soap. Hey, don't go there, I'm talking about a personal shower, not a prison one.

Showers may be a vulnerable place to get stuck when there is a homicidal maniac on the loose, but for my money it's a hospital. In a hospital you are in bad shape to begin with or you wouldn't be there in the first place. Add to that the fact that you are wearing a flimsy robe, no shoes, you have an IV in your arm (or worse, your hand) and you are pretty much reliant on the kindness of others. The idea of having to try to defend yourself from someone actually out to get you too is a pretty solid premise for a horror thriller. Plus, you can really never go wrong with the classic Luddite theme of technophobia. TERMINAL CHOICE is a movie that delivers a surprisingly gripping thriller, with interesting, deeply flawed characters and a little bit of enjoyable hokum, and is in desperate need of a special edition blu-ray release.

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