"Visiting Hours" is advertised as if it cunningly exploited almost everybody's fear of having to go into the hospital--one of mankind's more rational phobias. But that's not it at all. The only thing effectively warned against by "Visiting Hours"--now at area theaters--is lousy horror movies like "Visiting Hours."

Even those who go expecting nothing like a good movie, merely a few good scares, will be cheated. Brian Taggert's screenplay is a hopelessly trumped-up farce thriller in which a psychotic misogynist terrorizes a controversial woman TV journalist first in her home, then at the hospital to which she's admitted as a result of his first attack.

Since the journalist is played as a caustic, blithering idiot by the corrosive Lee Grant, one has difficulty empathizing with her as a victim; everyone else in the movie seems to be her victim. There's also something unsettling about the fact that Grant The Hollywood Liberal has always been quick with a cause, and here she is starring in a movie which depicts with appalling affection the brutalizing, torture and murder of women.

Maybe Grant thinks it's a worthwhile feminist statement that before all the blood has been let, she gets to give the killer the knife in the guts he's been giving everybody else. Quite a victory for womanhood.

Taggert tries to disguise the movie's bid for the morbid voyeur trade by making the villain a classic, rabid woman-hater, one whose killer instincts are set off by Grant's editorial in defense of a battered housewife charged with the murder of her husband. Flashbacks reveal that the loony, a janitor at the TV station, loved being fondled by his papa, whom mommy once scalded with boiling water during a kitchen brawl. In his initial attack on Grant, the man is shirtless and wearing lots of her jewelry. But his transvestite phase is short-lived, for soon he is into leather underwear.

Even William Shatner--and this is saying something--has too much stature for the feckless role he's been assigned, Grant's gutless simp of a producer, and it's sad to see Linda Purl, who has distinguished herself in a number of TV movies, stooping to sludge like this. She plays a nurse who tries to watch over Grant in the hospital, but the psycho is able to enter at whim, overwhelm the single dozing security guard and lumber about on repeated random rampages.

Michael Ironside plays the villain; he was last seen, with his head exploding, in the sci-fi film "Scanners," made, like this picture, in Canada. Ironside does have a sickishly menacing look about him, but he ought to avoid such films as "Visiting Hours" like the plague, which it is. Director Jean Claude Lord hypes lots of incidental noises to screech level on the soundtrack, so that the picture is nerve-jangling--not to be mistaken for suspenseful--and plays all the dirty tricks in the book when it comes to fake-outs and red herrings.

For one, he shows the villain disguising his truck as a florist's delivery van and it heads for the hospital. Cut to a subjective shot of a bouquet of flowers being brought to Grant in her hospital room by--a subsequent shot reveals--Shatner. How cheap, and how pointless. Later Lord takes great pains to send Grant into an operating room in which it appears the killer has disguised himself as one of the surgeons. But--he hasn't.

Filmgoers no longer flock lemming-like to sordid treats like "Visiting Hours," yet exhibitors still seem anxious to book anything with screaming, terrorized women and an R rating. Hasn't the limit at last been reached? You're not just sorry you came to a movie like this; you feel saddened and troubled that it even exists, that somebody saw a few more quick bucks in such a tired, ritualized and malicious formula.

The ultimate hypocrisy is the film's phony stab at "portraying" a case of feminist backlash, of virulent woman-hating. "Visiting Hours" is not by any stretch a look at that problem; it is part of that problem.