Given the popularity of Airplane-derived “genre satire” comedies and slasher films during the first half of the ’80s, it’s no surprise that a string of slasher movie parodies came out around that time. Student Bodies, Wacko and Pandemonium all took a swing at sending up this horror subgenre: none of them were box office successes and all were middling, hit-and-mostly-miss attempts at skewering their intended target.
X-Ray, known to many U.S. horror fans as Hospital Massacre, was made around the same time – and though it was intended as a straightforward slasher flick, it unintentionally succeeds as the best parody this subgenre ever had. It’s loopy from the get-go: a prologue shows a young boy snapping when the girl of his dreams laughs at his valentine, prompting him to impale another little boy on a coat rack (?!?).
The little girl grows up to be Susan (Barbi Benton), a divorcee and executive who goes to a hospital to get the results of a routine check-up for her job. Unfortunately for her and everyone else in that hospital, the psycho from her childhood has continued to nurse his vendetta. He switches out Susan’s x-rays with another patient’s to make it appear like she has a terrible illness. She is hospitalized against her will as the psycho, working in a disguise of O.R. scrubs, begins slashing his way through the hospital in preparation for their long-delayed showdown.
The plot might sound like a simple exercise in medical stalk-and-slash but no synopsis could ever capture how utterly off-kilter X-Ray is. Screenwriter Marc Behm – who once wrote Charade, believe it or not – has fashioned a mystery/thriller storyline that plays like a self-parody because it relies on people constantly acting in ways that defy all common sense. A small sampling of the bizarre behavior you’ll see in this film: kids cheering at a train set in hopes of making it move faster, doctors who imprison Susan in the hospital against her will with no fear of lawsuits and Susan trying to hide from the killer behind a changing screen that leaves her head and feet visible.
To make things more fun, every non-victim in the movie is required to behave in a ridiculously suspicious fashion at all times, thus taking the “red herring” conceit of the slasher film to epic extremes. A particularly hilarious example is Susan’s ex-husband, who scowls at her constantly and hacks up an apple with a knife in slasher style before he eats it.
This eccentric lack of subtlety extends to Davidson’s direction. He doesn’t differentiate between the amount of finesse needed for creepy moments, jump scares or real scares: instead, he cranks up the volume to 11 on each of these moments and piles on the theatrics, ensuring that each plays like a comedy-sketch burlesque of a scare. He’s also got a bizarre idea of what a shock is: one gut-busting moment has Susan, while running from the killer, stumbling into a room where three men are wrapped from head to toe in bandages and casts… prompting her to shriek as they wordlessly wave their wrapped limbs at her. The hilarity of such “scares” is often enhanced by Arlon Ober’s stinger-happy musical score, a kitchen-sink affair that piles on orchestration, synths and mock-Latin chanting choirs out of The Omen to achieve maximum musical bombast.
The acting in X-Ray completes the film’s “bizarro world” vibe with a string of senses-defying performances. Benton was always more famous for her body rather than her deer-in-headlights style of acting and her google-eyed antics don’t disappoint here. That said, she’s a trouper for the abuse she puts up with here, as the film requires to constantly be menaced by everyone. John Warner Williams is hilariously arch as the doctor who keeps her in the hospital, milking every “suspicious” moment he has to play with grim line deliveries and Shatnerian pauses. Be sure to also look out for the elderly female patients who cackle like the witches in a production of Hamlet and an alcoholic patient who comes from the Foster Brooks School Of Drunken Acting.
The combination of all the inept elements with all the bizarrely judged ideas of what makes a horror film ensures that X-Ray is riotously entertaining from start to finish. For all his directorial eccentricities, Davidson understands how to make a film move at a snappy pace and X-Ray hurtles breathlessly from one absurd moment to the next. The film isn’t as gory as other, more notorious slashers but it splashes around the blood on occasion and piles up a decent body-count for the slash-fanatics.
Best of all, Davidson squeezes in one of the most gratuitous nude scenes in film history when the “suspicious” doctor decides he wants to give Susan an examination. He has her strip down to just her panties, thus allowing Davidson to lovingly film her breasts from every conceivable angle and focal length. The fact that the doctor is giving her a truly bizarre exam, including randomly tapping his fingers on her stomach and applying his stethoscope to one of her boobs, just intensifies the brain-scrambling nature of this scene. It’s pure grindhouse nirvana.
In short, X-Ray isn’t terribly scary or convincing as a slasher film – but its oddball, hilariously overwrought style makes it the biggest laugh riot ever marketed as a slasher film.