April 30, 2012

DEATH NURSE (1987/DVD/Slasher Video) Review

Nine years ago, I was kneeling on the floor of an amusement park-turned-flea market in Topeka, Kansas called Boyle's Joyland, rifling through a moldy box of VHS tapes that had just been deposited in the media section. Each handful of public domain Bela Lugosi films and Kids Klassics cartoon compilations I lifted out discouraged me enough to want to stop looking, but something at the bottom was beckoning like a sea siren. After a few more stacks of gritty, poorly-preserved budget tapes, I saw it -- bright red, almost laughably simple in its presentation, not much more than a photo of a heavyset, middle-aged woman in hospital whites, gamely holding a bloodstained kitchen knife. "DEATH NURSE," luridly proclaimed the cardboard slipcover, which had fallen on hard times since its video store glory days. It was wavy from water damage, a good-sized chunk of the back was missing and rental stickers had been applied, only to be hastily removed much later, taking portions of the printing with them. Honestly, though, I couldn't have cared less. It may have been roughed up and literally put away wet, but, at this point, I was way past beauty. Death Nurse had me at "Presented by Chop-Em-Ups Video©."

I slid the tape out of the cover to check the condition and was immediately overcome with disappointment. Instead of finding "bloody horror at its best," as the back of the box had promised, I was staring down a stray copy of Pound Puppies and the Legend of Big Paw. Shenanigans! Boyle's Joyland had bamboozled me! I checked the rest of the tapes, hoping that Death Nurse would turn up safely inside a different cover instead of being lost out in the world somewhere, naked and alone. No luck. Not even the mighty internet would prove to be of much use in locating a physical copy in the years to come. I had all but given up on Death Nurse and I ever crossing paths again when, in 2012, Slasher Video teamed up with writer/director Nick Millard and gave me the long-overdue opportunity to check into the Shady Palms Clinic.

Gordon and Edith Mortley are the brother-and-sister medical team that run Shady Palms, which is less a medical facility than it is the house they live in. Doctor Gordon wears swishy, ill-fitting slacks, eats chocolate ice cream by playing "one for you, one for me" between the bowl and his mouth, and frankly, he's a wimp, likely the result of a childhood of untold psychological tortures at the hands of big sister Edith. Edith -- the angel of mercilessness of the title and cover image -- is large and intense, keeps piranha rats in the garage (two of which are shown), and punctuates her sentences with a granite-eyed stare that not only commands the camera to repeatedly zoom in on it, but also has the power to quell the interminate cough of a tuberculosis patient.

The Mortleys use the clinic as a means for fleecing Medicare out of cash for their patients, though it's unlikely that they've ever been medically certified and, therefore, equally unlikely that a patient will survive even a single day in their care. If Edith isn't asphyxiating them with pillows or feeding them rats, Gordon's inserting dog hearts and mismatched sets of steak knives inside them. On their time off, Edith takes nightmare-filled naps on the couch and Gordon trades a recovering alcoholic booze for sex. Their only problem is a meddling social worker who likes to check up from time to time on the people she's escorted to Shady Palms. The Mortley solution? Dig 'em up, spray off the dirt with a garden hose in broad daylight and pull a junior Weekend At Bernie's on her. However, entry-level corpse puppeteering can only work for so long until somebody gets suspicious, and if there's one thing Edith and her butcher knife don't cater to, it's a nosy old bitch (her words, not mine).

People exhibit only mild discomfort while being dismembered. A cat appears from nowhere to make off with a heart during a transplant. Shots are repeated multiple times and often linger to the point of awkwardness. Stilted dialogue and tape rolls abound, and to top it off, it appears to have been shot and edited on consumer-grade video equipment. It's unquestionably a gutter film, but a sincere one, and the same fantastically inept things that make it charming to trash-film votarients will no doubt serve as subjects of ridicule to the "so-bad-it's-hilarious" crowd. If you're the latter, just stick to the film and go no further, but for those wishing to fully appreciate Death Nurse on its own terms, the 25th Anniversary DVD is more than accommodating.

In addition to a full-length commentary track (where the genial Millard is joined by his wife Irmi and moderator Jesus TerĂ¡n of Slasher Video), there's a Q&A with Millard about the film, a photo gallery, a newly-produced outtake entitled "Shady Palms Waiting Room" (with Nick and Irmi reprising their roles as clinic patients), a particularly damning on-camera review from VHSCollector.com's Paul Zamarelli (who considers this the worst film of all time), and longtime Millard collaborator and Death Nurse star Priscilla Alden receives a 14-minute tribute featurette which includes scenes from several of her collaborations with Millard, including Funeral Parlor (the last Millard/Alden film completed before her death from diabetic complications in 2007) and some particularly interesting promo footage from Mad Midnite Movies, a proposed television series that would've featured Alden as a horror film host in the character of Nurse Edith Mortley.

Nick Millard stated that if he had a million dollars to make one movie, he'd just make lots of small movies, as cheaply as he could. It's comforting to know that even with a suitcase full of cash, Death Nurse would've turned out the same way -- a languid but astonishing hour of home-movie horror at its most cost-effective and unpretentious. Thank goodness. Had I known nine years ago that I'd be in for an introduction like the one this DVD release provided, the wait would've been a lot less difficult.

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