Cinefamily’s Video Nasties #8: VISITING HOURS

In which Michael Ironside uses his acting chops to summon real demonic energy and scare the shit out of you.

Visiting Hours’ greatest contribution to the slasher genre is the complete obliteration of one of its signature conventions: the killer that shall not be shown. But there’s no coyness here. No P.O.V.s, no gloved hands, no plastic colorless William Shatner masks - you open a door and, standing massively tall like Paul Bunyon, it’s just fucking bat-shit crazy ‘n shirtless MICHAEL IRONSIDE, staring straight at you like he’s gonna rip your face off with his teeth - and, for some reason, he’s decked out in your mother’s costume jewelry. Frankly, this is terrifying. Ironside is relentless in his rage, pursuing his victims with the kind of unquenchable, implacable thirst for blood we’re familiar with from standard slasher fare, but the openness right there on the screen makes for a fiery opening appearance. This killer has a presence.

And what a presence. Here in Visiting Hours, Michael Ironside is a pure vessel of masculine rage and misogyny, with prison-ground musculature and taste for sporting leather vests in the boudoir. He has the receding hairline not of a bookish bank teller, but of an ape-like construction worker with an over-sufficiency of testosterone that has bullied the hair off his head, one inch at time. His lips have permanently curled, as if he’d been grunting the word “cunt’” so many times through clenched teeth, his face froze that way.  

Ironside’s behavior in this movie is both easily delineated, and totally inexplicable. There are clues: a childlike sweet tooth for milkshakes, and family trauma flashbacks illuminate some kind of “who stole my teddy bear?” explanations as to why he loathes women, but really, does that explain why he wears a leather muscle tee? All we know is that he’s really angry at women, with one television news correspondent in particular whom he loves to stalk. I mean, like, she’s totally like his favorite thing to stalk and murder this year.

Oh young directors, with limited means, yearning for the distant shores of quality - get thee an actor! Over and over again, what seems to make the cream rise and the chaff separate in these cheapo productions is a good actor. I’m telling you: find yourself a character actor, a good one, and it’s the best bang for your buck your little movie can get. These hard-working folks are used to busting their ass to make an impression in just a handful of scenes at best, so when you give them a half-decent part with some real screen time, point the camera at them for more than a shot or two - and they will try and move the world. Remember, you’re most likely gonna be stuck with a market-rate lead, and probably won’t be able to afford top-shelf big names, but you can get yourself one of the great character actors and give them the screen time they always deserved.

Just in the past week, I’ve seen some serious ass-kicking by Susan Tyrell, Clint Howard and Jack Albertson - not people who really got to stretch that often. And now, we’ve got unadulterated Michael Ironside, using his acting chops to summon real demonic energy and scare the shit out of you. 

Alas, for the faint of heart, some of that energy is exercised in a really believably angry rape scene: probably the first moment of the Video Nasty series where I really felt the audience get truly quiet. It’s been a fun week, but with Film #8, we were clearly now in Week #2, and this series wasn’t entirely meant to be all fun and games. Seconds later after this brutal onscreen moment, Visiting Hours returns to the goofy, good-natured offness one would expect from a Canadian tax-shelter film with relatively mainstream intentions. William Shatner overacts with a pudding cup, or should I say, correctly assesses the kind of movie he’s in and plays the scene exactly as it should be played.  But when the film was over, and we all conferred on the sidewalk, one of our female Cinefamily regulars, one who’s undoubtedly going to watch all thirty movies in our Video Nasties adventure - with a smile, no less - said, “This was the first one from the series so far that kind of made me feel a little gross...I’m getting excited!”.