An undeservably obscure late entry in the line of medical-themed horror films common in the late 70s and early 80s, this is the only genre entry from hardworking TV director Sheldon Larry – a name more familiar from shows such as Knot’s Landing. Occasionally cited as a slasher film, the high-tech medical background, strong female characters and conspiracy elements place it more strongly in the tradition of films such as Coma and The Stepford Wives, where intelligent, spunky women confront out-of-control science. The slasher comparison probably derives from the sometimes bloody death scenes and pacing which spreads these out in the first half of the films, which is very similar to slasher film mechanics and is probably the contribution of co-writer Peter Lawrence – who worked on the screenplay for the slasher movie The Burning (1981).
Set in the kind of sterile, high-tech clinic familiar from the early films of David Cronenberg, Terminal Choice follows the story of Dr. Frank Holt (Hill Street Blue’s Joe Spano) and clinic computer technician Anna Lang (The Insider’s Diane Venora) as they investigate several suspicious deaths at the institution. Holt is an alcoholic with a history of malpractise and is smarting from the collapse of his relationship with Lang. After one of his patients bleeds to death, alledgedly because of a misdiagnosis, he becomes the subject of an internal investigation and, following other incidents involving suspected malfunction of the computer systems, teams up with Lang to clear their names and track down the real culprit.
This is a skillfully directed thriller, something that is remarkable when you consider that most of the victims are unconcious and confined to hospital beds. Many of the deaths result from supposed computer malfunctions, with intravenous drips, artificial respirators and mechanised defibrillators turning deadly in a manner which simultaneously exploits the viewer’s fear of both hospitals and technology. The impersonal, mechanised manner of much of the violence and the harrowing, extended and – frankly, sadistic – staging predates the modern-day Saw series. Witness the scene near the end of the film, where Lang has to frantically try to shut down the system, as the computer slowly twists the prostate Holt’s broken leg in traction, before administering an attempted lethal dose through his drip and then trying to shock him to death with the defibrillator. The soundtrack also works to ramp up the threatening nature of the computer as synthisised drones are combined with crys and moans and Larry’s camera prowls behind the blinking lights of the banks of computer circuitry.
The film begins with a view of a monitor as an off-screen voice negotiates a series of bets with the HAL-like computer. It is revealed that several of the hospital staff are placing bets on the medical outcomes of patients. Though the film tries to have its cake and eat it by initially suggesting that the computer itself could be acting as bookie and murderer, Holt and Lang’s investigation uncovers Dr Rimmer as the ringleader of the betting activity. It’s still unclear whether he is involved in the actual murders or whether the head of the clinic – played by David McCallum – is using the activity as a cover to conduct further research into his failed anti-stroke drug. As the hospital is shut down and the patients are moved out, the leads become trapped in the building as the killer tries to clear up any remaining evidence.
It’s possible the film has simply fallen into obscurity (it’s not available anywhere on DVD, to my knowledge) due to the fact that it falls between two stools – being neither an out-and-out slasher horror film nor a medical conspiracy thriller. Though Larry’s background in television leads to consistently good performances from the cast (which includes a very early role for Ellen Barkin), the cruel and explicit death scenes were probably a turn-off for casual viewers first time around. However, for those who have a soft-spot for hospital themed horror (Halloween 2, Visiting Hours, etc.) and a nostalgic love of the 70s-era conspiracy thrilers from the likes of Michael Crichton, I’d urge them to seek out this curio.