DOCTOR, DOCTOR, IS THIS LOVE I’M FEELING? – THE JEALOUSY OF HAROLD RUSK

Of all the places a film could premiere, Dayton, Ohio is probably the last to come to mind. But on July 16th, 1982, Dayton, Ohio is exactly where Cannon Films released their new Valentine’s Day slasher, X-Ray.

The film, written by Marc Behm (a notable name after co-penning 1960s classics like Charade and Help!) and directed by Boaz Davidson (who worked as a bit of a ringer for Golan/Globus throughout the ’70s and ’80s, helming features like Lemon Popsicle, Going Bananas, and The Last American Virgin), features Playboy alum Barbi Benton, whose voluptuous assets are put on full display. Ms. Benton plays the lead, Susan Jeremy, who has the worst hospital experience since Laurie Strode in Halloween II just a year prior.

X-Ray leads off in 1961, when a budding Susan rebuffs the advances of a young man named Harold. She and another boy, David, mock Harold’s Valentine’s Day card, so in return, Harold fatally punishes the lad by hanging him from the neck. (It may be worth noting for body-count diehards that this introductory scene reunites actors Elizabeth Hoy and Billy Jayne from the “solar eclipse slasher” Bloody Birthday, as young Susan and Harold, respectively.) With an evil smirk from Harold, a scream from Susan, and a quick cut, it’s now 19 years later. Susan is grown up and, after a fairly amicable divorce, is dating again. During a routine trip to the hospital, someone on the medical staff sabotages Susan’s paperwork, forcing her to stay there throughout the night, and leaving her all-too patient boyfriend waiting in the parking lot. Even worse, someone on the medical staff is killing people all around the hospital in grisly, gory ways including acid facials, strangulations, and decapitations by a bone saw.

In probably no surprise to slasher enthusiasts, the kindly medical intern Harry is the psychotic physician who wants Susan’s heart for his own, and his career choice as written is not exactly a coincidence. One could argue coincidence in that Susan showed up at this particular hospital, the one this sociopath who had a childhood crush on her works for, on Valentine’s Day. Harry likely snuck a peek at her physical exam file, fudging the results behind the scenes to keep her in the hospital to complete what he started in 1961. He’s a maniac obsessed with superficiality: when he has Susan strapped to a table, he admits that all he’s wanted all along was her heart. In a way, it’s a buyable story, but perhaps it’s hard to believe that Susan witnesses him murdering her childhood friend and nothing happens of it; we’re expected to believe he got away with that killing and went on to a successful burgeoning medical career. All in all, we’re left pondering if Marc Behm could have fattened up the backstory a just smidge.

But we quickly move on. In one scene, Harry’s breathy interrogation of Susan’s new beau shows a possessiveness that he’s clearly been harboring for nearly two decades: “Is she your mistress? Are you sleeping together? Does she let you hold her in your arms? Can you touch her wherever you like…in all her secret places?” all delivered like a jealous, covetous ex-lover. As we see at the beginning of the film, when Harold’s valentine is dismissed with simple childhood cruelty, his kneejerk reaction is rage. Though he kills whom he perceives as his competition from this place of pure rage, it’s really his feelings of shame driving his homicidal tendencies. The rejection doled out by Susan when they were tweens stung him so deeply that someone had to pay, but obviously not the object of his affection. And once he’s killed that “someone” and dispensed himself of that rage, he’s only left with shame that’s been festering for so many years. Note when he kills the custodian in the acid sink he begins howling and beating the walls. He knows he shouldn’t do it, but he’s compelled. Harold’s gambit is designed to make Susan feel as much humiliation as possible, but he does so inadvertently, using the hospital’s staff as victim surrogates.

This leads to the themes that are layered throughout the film, though it’s abundantly clear by the filmmaking precedent set by Cannon, these are, again, coincidence. The most obvious-seeming thread is hospital incompetency: we put trust into medical staff because we think it’s in our health’s best interest, and then have to deal with the ramifications when those professionals break that trust with negligence. Secondary to that is the concept of gaslighting, as once Harry tampers with Susan’s x-rays, there starts a chain of manipulation beginning with the doctors using their authoritarian voices to insist she stay at the hospital. From there Susan is confined involuntarily, ultimately suffering from being strapped to a gurney. The doctors and nurses ignore her repeated cries that something horrible and wrong is happening to her, and dismiss her claims of actual good health because “that’s not what the charts show!” The way the staff straight-up bungle even the smallest tier of interoffice communication is staggering.

But staggering as it may be, it is also believable. Estimates from the Leapfrog Group Hospital Safety Score, updated in October 2013 claim “…up to 440,000 Americans are dying annually from preventable hospital errors. This puts medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the United States, underscoring the need for patients to protect themselves and their families from harm, and for hospitals to make patient safety a priority.” The President and CEO of Leapfrog Group, Leah Binder, puts it in grimmer terms: “We are burying a population the size of Miami every year from medical errors that can be prevented.”

Something so dire and important as those statistics could have been explored a little more in the film, but that would mean giving it subtext. And one thing Cannon Films isn’t about is subtext. What a fearsome place to be for anyone, but doubly for Susan, not knowing a killer is out there with murderous designs on her. Worst of all is Susan’s predicament is for naught because she’s not really sick. She’s been foisted with so much unnecessary testing–especially seen in the most notorious segment of the film: when she’s having blood drawn. Then she’s stripped of her clothing and essentially sexually assaulted by the physician, Dr. Saxon. The manipulation, the negligence, the inadvertent malpractice–it all adds up to leave Susan with such a traumatic experience that we can imagine she’ll never be able to trust a medical professional again. It could mean a lifetime of ignoring possibly life-threatening symptoms out of fear and distrust, who knows. We can bet that if half of the staff wasn’t dead by the film’s end, this hospital would be in for the mother of all lawsuits.

In X-Ray‘s case, the holiday setting is more than incidental; Valentine’s Day is a trigger for many people who have experienced a bad breakup. Though most may go into a spiral of depression, others may choose to seek more violent ways to cull their heartaches. If the coldness of one’s relationship has flared into a rage immolated by passion, ending things on a holiday that spells L-O-V-E gives their crimes a more macabre footnote in history. For instance, we can look to the infamous 2013 Valentine’s Day murder of model Reeva Steenkamp by double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, or the 2010 Valentine’s Day murder case in Georgia in which a woman named Stacey Schoeck murdered her 5th husband Richard for his $500,000 life insurance policy by hiring a personal trainer and part-time hitman (aptly called “Mr. Results”) to snuff him out. And unfortunately, it’s not just homicides that lead the death toll on February 14th; suicides tend to spike as well. We’ve all been broken-hearted, so we can in some ways imagine the lengths to which some people may go in order to win back their beloved partners. However, a grisly murder spree fueled by the anguish from a broken heart probably isn’t the best way to do it.

Strangely, certain moments in the film seem to indicate that X-Ray is actively working as an unintentional spoof of the slasher subgenre. You want point-of-view shots with raspy breathing courtesy of the meatball maniac? You’ve got it! There are not one, but two scenes in which we’re led to believe that red dripping liquid is blood, but it turns out to be ketchup from a messy burger, or paint. The patients and hospital employees glower at Susan as if they were hired by Harold to give our heroine a sense of unease around every corner. And the willingness of the victims to unknowingly trespass in the killer’s lair (the under-construction 9th floor) could be an absurd commentary on how killers in hack-and-slash films manage to cordon off their victims for an easy kill. At least these scenes come with some nicely photographed atmosphere, courtesy of Nicholas Josef von Sternberg, X-Ray‘s cinematographer.

Along the same lines, the film’s score by Arlon Ober is completely adequate for a body-counter, but threatens to go over the top in moments seemingly possessed by Jerry Goldsmith’s style of cacophonous, chanting score present in films like The Omen. Like other slashers before it, the acting in X-Ray is also highly exaggerated: consider again the acid sink scene. The custodian is dunked into a sink full of corrosive material and then it’s all bug eyes and horrendous capering. The delivery is so stiff and the choreography is so stilted that sometimes X-Ray feels as if it’s an alien’s approximation of how to make a slasher.

As one might imagine, X-Ray‘s reviews aren’t that great. “Dumb and ridiculous,” writes one reviewer, and it’s hard to argue with that. The film doesn’t work hard to conceal the villain, even being so lazy as to give him a similar name to the boy who tormented our lead as a child. Changing “Harold” to “Harry” is the least inventive way to conceal a whodunit. At least have him use his middle name or something! (Although, that change is not quite as silly as the Will Benson reveal in I Still Know What You Did Last Summer— “Ben’s Son,” get it?–which is arguably the most boneheaded slasher in existence.) Yes, there are blood and nudity in X-Ray, but we begin to feel our minds slowly slipping down a slope of pure exploitation with scenes like the killer pursuing Susan as she hides behind a very small, rolling privacy curtain. Still, it’s kind of unique that a sleazy, cheapie slasher like X-Ray is available on Blu-Ray, giving new and older audiences alike another horror movie of questionable quality for perusal on Valentine’s Day.