Antony Balch Night at the BFI

I try to catch as many of the BFI’s Flipside nights as I can, since this monthly delve into the wilder side of British cinema should not be taken for granted. It is sobering to think that only a few years ago the BFI was an incredibly stuffy and conservative institution that haughtily ignored the film culture it now highlights in its Flipside programming. So big up to Vic Pratt, Will Fowler and the current BFI management for being forward thinking and in the groove! The days of tossers like Colin McCabe passing-off their tiresome taste in bourgeois snore fests as somehow representing everything that is ‘progressive’ in cinematic culture are thankfully over!
First up at Flipside last night was Towers Open Fire (1963, directed by Antony Balch). This was a clean 35mm print from the BFI archive, and you could actually see where Balch had deliberately degraded the film stock to create contrasts between different passages. Towers Open Fire was written by and stars beat novelist William Burroughs. It condenses his literary obsessions and cut-up techniques into a dozen minutes of screen time. The world disintegrates, the stock exchange crashes, and some strange things happen in the old BFI boardroom on Dean Street. Magic is performed over cans of film, the director lies on a bed and jerks off, there are shots of a Brion Gysin dream machine, cameos by BFI luminary Liam O’Leary and junkie novelist Alexander Trocchi, and things more or less end with Ian Sommerville doing a comic dance. I’ve seen this short many times, but never from such a good print.
Next up was the legendary Kronhausen’s Psychomontage No. 1 (1963, originated and executed by Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen), a short I’d never seen before. Antony Balch did some of the cinematography for this movie, the rest is by the Granada Zoological Unit and Harold Keene. The film cuts between shots of animal sexual activity and amorous human subjects. Towards the end, the Kronhausen’s up-the-ante with some almost explicit scenes of a woman getting fresh with a dog. This short is very hard to source and the BFI screened it from a video copy supplied by Mark Pilkington of Stranger Attractor. By chance, Mark had the seat next to me in BFI Screen 1. We said hello but the programme had just started when he came in, and he rushed off at the end of this Flipside session, so I didn’t get a chance to quiz him about the Kronhausen movie. I’m still trying to get my head around it, and would like to see it again.
The main feature was Horror Hospital (1973, directed by Antony Balch). This is essentially a parody of a Bela Lugosi-style b-movie. The plot revolves around a mad scientist called Dr Storm (Michael Gough), who is performing brain surgery on victims he lures to his Gothic mansion, turning them into mindless slaves (who he sexually abuses). Inevitably one of Dr Storm’s assistants is a dwarf (Skip Martin), and the flick also features iconic 1970s British sex-comedy star Robin Askwith. Balch plays with old dark house and horror tropes but keeps the campy parody reigned in just enough to maintain audience interest in the slight plot, which concludes with the mansion going up in flames. The overall vibe is similar to movies such as Thundercrack (1975, directed by Curt McDowell) and Flesh For Frankenstein (1973, directed by Paul Morrissey), but Balch gives the proceedings a uniquely English twist and does so with considerably more aplomb than the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, directed by Jim Sharman). The audience at the BFI was in stitches throughout Horror Hospital.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – – you know it makes (no) sense!


Comment by Time on 2009-06-26 14:08:27 +0000

That’s a lot of films for one night.

Comment by Doug Pierce on 2009-06-26 15:14:18 +0000

I once tried jerking off while watching video copies of Towers Open Fire and The Cut Ups, and when they’d played through not only had I not come but I had a raging headache! The lesson kids is that while Balch’s work at times look like porn, it’s something else entirely….

Comment by Justin on 2009-06-26 17:56:18 +0000

Yeah, I remember seeing ‘Horror Hospital’ late one night on the short-lived British Satellite Broadcast channel, shortly before the cable tv station was consumed by Murdoch’s Sky multi-media empire. I’m glad to say my memory still remains impressed by the films cheaply shot, wonderfully camp but evocative strangeness.
Michael Gough was also impressive in John Hough’s 1973 British haunted house psychodrama, ‘The Legend of Hell House’. Gough played Emeric Belasco, a Crowley-like satanist with a penchant for ‘ Drug addiction, alcoholism, sadism, beastiality, mutilation, murder, vampirism, necrophilia, cannibalism, not to mention a gamut of sexual goodies. Shall I go on’?
Robin Askwith also appeared in ‘Tower of Evil'(1972) ,which was considerably less wonderful…

Comment by Michael K on 2009-06-26 19:18:33 +0000

Perhaps its time to make available my unreleased shocker shot on video “The Kwik Save Murders” – shot entirely on location in Dundee in 1990!

Comment by raymond anderson on 2009-06-26 20:19:59 +0000

Was that the sequel to the Shop-Rite… err Rites?

Comment by Justin on 2009-06-26 20:26:02 +0000

Sounds great! Death by supermarket pricing gun, beaten to a bloody pulp by a rogue french loaf and inshop consumer-friendly freezers to dump the victims corpses. Now if we could only resurrect the spirit of Terry Thomas for a suave but sinister voiceover…

Comment by raymond anderson on 2009-06-26 20:55:59 +0000

These stores have great sexual spreads. Golden Churn, Utterly Butterly and I Can’t believe It’s Not Jizz.

Comment by Jon Evans on 2009-06-26 21:07:37 +0000

The Kronhausen film is gas. Also, “Why” by the good doctors is a beaut. “H.H.” is the best Robin Askwith film ever.
Great twisted torrent site. “Why” and “A Summer Day” are both here…

Comment by Mixmaster Morris on 2009-06-26 21:41:12 +0000

oops theres goes my evening!

Comment by howling wizard, shrieking toad on 2009-06-27 07:39:29 +0000

Sergei Paradjanov is the journey to take —

Comment by Sean Diamond on 2009-06-27 08:06:12 +0000

“Horror Hospital” is a bit of a classic. “NOOOOOO !!!” – Best line robin askwith ever delivered !

Comment by howling wizard, shrieking toad on 2009-06-27 08:20:37 +0000

Does anyone have any good youtube links to showcase these directors’ work? There is no cinema near my cave, and anyway, Shrieking Toad doesn’t like to venture too far from our homestead.
Oi Toad! Stir the gruel!
People are no good.

Comment by Raymond Anderson on 2009-06-27 09:25:09 +0000

When I saw Horror Hospital I mistakenly thought of “Bloodbath At The House of Death”.
I went a bit nuts once and watched Stephen Weeks’ Madhouse Mansion because Vivian Mackerall, the original Withnail was in it. I even got Edna The Inebriated Woman because he was in that too.
A few nights ago I watched Herostratus.

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-06-28 07:42:58 +0000

Howling Wiz – the Balch shorts with Burroughs, Towers Open Fire and The Cut Ups are all over YouTube. The quality ain’t great but you’ll get an idea….As stuff comes on and off best just to do a search…. Thanks for the Sergei Paradjanov links, very tasty!

Comment by howling wizard, shrieking toad on 2009-06-28 11:19:13 +0000

Thanks Mr. Home — I thought you’d dig the Paradjanov : I like every movie he made. An interesting man — check the film about his life ( on youtube ) . Here’s another film you may dig. ( Not Paradjanov, but similar in many ways )

Comment by Simon Strong on 2009-06-30 23:43:11 +0000

What? No ‘Bizarre’ ? aka Secrets of Sex – didn’t you (ie Stewart) review that in another blog somewhere? Anthony Balch is da ubershizzle! Catch his interview in Cinema Rising (c.1968) available on microfilm at a Uni library near you. Did they happen to find a print of his Kit-e-Kat advert? That’s been lost for decades… Hmmm.. Gonna go and get back to reconstructing his version of ‘Naked Lunch’ (screenplay by Brion Gysin – itsa musical ya gather). I’m on the wrong freakin continent – dur!

Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-07-01 00:05:21 +0000

Well they only have a limited time slot, so only one feature presentation and two shorts, and I’d go for “Horror Hospital” over “Bizarre” every time. And you are right; I reviewed “Bizarre” on the Mister Trippy blog when it was on MySpace. Deleted now, of course, but the best content was then spread around my main site, so the film reviews are collected together in batches of 10 per page. “Bizarre” is the second film down on the following link:
And yes, that “Cinema Rising” interview is impressive.
I wouldn’t mind being in Oz right now… London is winding down for the summer…. Still plenty of things going off, but now we’re past the BFI Balch night its downhill till September!

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