Medical quackery, mad doctors, and unorthodox lab experiments are the stuff science fiction nightmares are made of. The medical horror trope is rich with enough sub-genres to petrify patients for decades. With an endless supply of entries, this article gives a routine examination to notable healthcare horror films. Side effects may include chills, paranoia, and trouble sleeping. Currently, there is no known cure.
Human Guinea Pigs
Healthy bodies and unhealthy bank accounts often find themselves on the doorstep of pharmacology. Fortune favors the brave when renting out physical autonomy for experimental drugs. Yet the transparency of chemical messiahs should always be considered when the hazards of medicine are in play. The Biotrial Rennes clinical of 2016 resulted in 1 death and 5 injured. The 2006 UK med trial for TGN1412 caused organ failure in 6 men. The latter incident would inspire Ian Clark’s healthcare horror film The Facility. Seven volunteers enroll in a 2-week research project at a remote medical lab. Injected with a new drug called Pro-9, some of the first side effects to manifest are disconcerting, to say the least. The tension is ratcheted up by nightfall when the facility locks down. Most of the horror happens offscreen in this claustrophobic siege as test subjects fight to survive. This film could easily register as a prequel to 28 Days Later. Released the same year with a bigger budget is the Canadian-American horror film Bloodworx. College friends decide to earn side money for a spring break trip by signing up for pharmaceutical testing. RXZ-19 is a new allergy drug with regenerative side effects that are dangerously addictive. The lead researcher quickly loses control of her subjects. Primitive instincts are reactivated and the patients turn on staff and each other. But not all human lab rats get the choice to participate. Sometimes it’s mandatory in detention centers. In Patients of a Saint, also known as Inmate Zero, St. Leonard’s Island is a repurposed prison for the world’s most violent criminals. Extreme medical trials are conducted on prisoners and the experiment quickly goes wrong. Guards and inmates must unite to survive as the infection spreads in the penitentiary. Will zombie island stay on lock down?
The Doctor is In…sane
Medical professionals have always been a goldmine for the horror genre. Bringing us the world-renowned vivisectionist, Dr. Moreau, and the kinky side of Dr. Henry Jekyll. These psycho practitioners have some of the most intimate access to us. Oblivious patients willingly put their lives in rubber gloved hands. In The Surgeon, little Julian is a witness to his younger brother’s murder at the hands of a doctor. Traumatizing him into a career of mad science, he utilizes terminal patients for experiments until he’s reported by colleagues. Returning to the hospital that condemned his work, he takes revenge by harvesting the humors of the staff. Anyone that has gone to urgent care would agree that the mean girls from high school grow up to be nurses. Yet nobody considers these career paths being revenge driven. Lisa Zane stars in The Nurse, a cold-blooded home caregiver that slithers into a paralytic patient’s family. Holding him responsible for her father’s death, she slowly destroys his world from within. With all the high contrast grime of a 90’s slasher, Larry Drake is Dr. Giggles. An escaped mental patient is about to make a house call to the town that destroyed his family practice. Fixating on a teenage girl with a heart condition, he slashes through her friends as they begin their summer vacation. A healthcare horror comedy that can be downright slapstick at times, Drake steals the show as the demented doc. Delivering Freddy Kreuger-esque one-liners with a straight face, Dr. Giggles is tragically under-rated. When the Mid-Aughts’ grindhouse revival finally got its hands on nurse pulp fiction, it had to be 3D. Nurse 3D is referred to as the film that ruined Paz De la Huerta’s career. This healthcare horror casts her as Abby, nurse by day and serial killer by night. Seducing and butchering unfaithful husbands before deciding to mentor a recent nursing school graduate. A trashy throwback to 90’s erotic thrillers but with all the sleaze and splatter of a drive-in b-film.
I’m Afraid It’s Terminal
The patient is a role of vulnerability we all step into at some point. The anxiety from exposure and dismissal is the most common form of everyday healthcare horror. Medical gaslighting can separate us from the narrative, leading to distrust of the body and doubting perceptions. The Power puts these institutional ‘pecking-orders’ on full display. Set during the politically complicated UK power outages of the 70s, running parallel is a young nurse working her first night at the East London Royal Infirmary. A paranormal revenge tale taking notes from The Exorcist, Nurse Valery is haunted by hospital secrets as well as her own. Particularly vexatious with themes of abusing power and voices silenced by any means necessary. In the 80s slasher, X-Ray, a divorced mother is given the run around with her new insurance. Attempting to collect physical exam results from a hospital with a bad reputation on Valentine’s weekend. Susan is led through a medical labyrinth of humiliation, bouncing from doctor to doctor. No one ever bothers to tell Susan what’s wrong with her, nor do they listen to her cries for help as she’s strapped to a gurney and prepared for emergency surgery. Little does she know her records are being tampered with by a psychopath in scrubs! The psychological thriller, Visiting Hours, focuses more on developing the dark profile of the antagonist, yet speaks volumes on inherent misogyny in medicine. Following being attacked in her apartment, an outspoken reporter finds herself in the hospital. Barely allowed any rest by detectives and well-wishers, she receives a visitor that seeks to finish what he started. Knowing she’s in danger, her pleas are regarded as symptoms of stress as nurses and patients start dropping like flies.
Secret Society Sanitariums
From the Asclepius cults of ancient Greece to the Knights Hospitallers, occult elements of healing remain integrated in modern-day hospitals. These sanctuaries for the sick and injured are the ultimate liminal space on earth. Between birth and death, hospitals become imprinted with the intensity of human emotion. It’s no wonder there seems to be an endless supply of haunted hospitals across the world. But with faith comes followers, and sometimes they’re dogmatic edge lords. Secret societies and cults hiding within the medical profession gives us some of the best healthcare horror. Larry Cohen’s The Ambulance is a comedy thriller emulating hardboiled detective film noir. An aspiring comic book artist meets the woman of his dreams in the streets of New York City, just before she collapses. Quickly whisked off by an outdated looking ambulance, the artist discovers she hasn’t been admitted to any nearby hospitals. Others have started disappearing in a similar looking ambulance and they all have diabetes. Is it a human trafficking ring or a mad science conspiracy? It’s Victor from The Young & The Restless and his laboratory hidden above a disco. Anatomie is a German horror film starring Franka Potente (of Run Lola Run fame) as a medical student. Awarded a highly coveted scholarship to the University of Heidelberg, she recognizes the cadaver in her anatomy class. Upon investigating his mysterious death, Potente uncovers an ancient secret society that performs experiments on ‘undesirables’. On top of everything else, her grandfather is a highly celebrated professor. The Canadian horror film, The Void, is set in a half burned out hospital running on a skeleton crew. When a chaotic bloodbath begins, the radios go out and the hospital becomes surrounded by robed figures armed with weapons. Someone has opened a gate in the hospital’s basement that leads to another dimension. All the hidden medical experiments begin to mingle with the Lovecraftian abominations crawling out of the portal.
Those repulsed by allopathic medical practices often explore their other options of healthcare horror. Opening themselves to esoteric healing and mysticism that was popular with the Universal Medicine cult and The Source Family. At the height of the neon fitness craze of the 80s, it’s no pain no gain at the Death Spa. Beefcake Michael owns and operates a high-tech health club with his brother-in-law. But when Michael’s new girlfriend becomes a member, his late wife rises from beyond to possess the gym equipment. About as schlocky as it gets with bumbling detectives and weight machines mangling juice heads. Featuring Ken Foree in a side part, better known to the genre from Dawn of The Dead and From Beyond. 2016’s A Cure For Wellness is based on Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel, The Magic Mountain. A financial services CEO vanishes to a Swiss “wellness center”, built upon an aquifer. Lockhart, an executive, is blackmailed by the board to retrieve him before a company merger. He discovers the eel infested institution has a dark history of incestuous bloodlines and medical experiments. Trapped among brainwashed patients, Lockhart realizes they’re all willing subjects for Dr. Volmer. Best described as a less lovable Dr. Phibes, operating from the Poolrooms. If you’ve ever believed the medical industry keeps people sick to financially drain them, this film will get to you. The British healthcare horror comedy, Horror Hospital, jumps right into treatments as 2 bandaged patients running through the woods are mowed down by a bladed Rolls Royce. When a young songwriter is kicked out of the band, he decides a holiday to Brittlehurst Manor might do him good. A pseudo “health farm” located in a gothic castle surrounded by an acid swamp. Michael Gough plays the head of the hospital, Dr. Storm, heavily stylized after Bela Lugosi. The faucets run with blood and dinner guests are prone to screaming fits. The film was an obvious favorite for Richard O’Brien. Hippies beware! Your health retreat might end with a lobotomy!
Over the course of the pandemic, it has become near impossible to trust the healthcare system. Devolving into a purgatory of bureaucracy and generating corporate profits, the amount of unnecessary evils makes it difficult to heal. While your chances of being a victim of mad science in this day and age are slim, they’re not exactly zero. Yet in the face of an emergency we have little options but to trust medical professionals with our lives. Stay vigilant and get well soon.