“Your prescription for a good time!” promises The Nurses Collection DVD case. Whether or not these films will be good for what ails you depends entirely on how you approach them. Don’t go expecting innovation. These films are ruthlessly formulaic, down to the hair and skin color of the trio of nurses in each, full of unintentional—and, in the better examples, some intentional—hilarity, gratuitous and unapologetic in their T&A quotients. Their respective charms lie in how individual filmmakers chose to cope with these restrictions: tackling the requisite anti-establishment subplot with varying degrees of earnestness, filling in minor roles with a rogue’s gallery of character actors and some surprise “special guests,” fooling around with faux-funky soundtracks (in the case of Private Duty Nurses, getting some hearty chuckles out of the house band)—in other words, sowing the seeds of subversion in the cracks of the formula.
Because the set’s arranged non-chronologically (don’t ask me why), turns out that The Nurses Collection opens with its weakest entry, the last in the series, Candy Stripe Nurses. Compounding that error, the film itself opens with its best gag: rebellious student Marisa (Maria Rojo) standing around the schoolyard reading Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, apropos of absolutely nothing. After she gets the boot from school for slugging a teacher, Marisa is forced into community service as a candy striper, thus solidly establishing a character arc that’s closer to a straight line. Candy Stripe Nurses introduces the iron law of nurse films. There shall ever be three nurses: one blond, one brunette, and one “colored.” The blond nurse will find herself embroiled in a quasi-comic plot, the brunette in a pseudo-serious one, and the “colored” gal always gets to stick it to The Man. In Marisa’s case, she falls for Carlos (Roger Cruz), shot by the police after he’s mistaken for being involved in a holdup, so Marisa must clear his name. (It doesn’t help that the worst actress of the three has to carry the heaviest storyline.) Being a Latina, Marisa is a late innovation in the formula; earlier films traded more often in blaxploitation stereotypes. Blond Sandy (Candice Rialson) gets to do some sexual healing with Brit pop star Owen Boles (scene-stealer Kendrew Lascelles), and brunette Diane (Robin Matson) hooks up with a hoop star with a drug habit.
Up next is Night Call Nurses, hands down the best of the bunch. Co-written by George Armitage and directed by Jonathan Kaplan, Night Call Nurses boasts a strong storyline, lots of quirky humor, and a wooly, anything-goes visual style. Witness the opening scene: A young woman clutching a baby doll walks across a rooftop, sheds her robe, teetering on the precipice of self-destruction, while a concerned nurse rushes in vain to prevent her jumping. Kaplan uses rapid editing, jerky handheld camerawork, and a vertiginous, downward-spiraling crane shot to place viewers in discordant POV perspectives. To register the woman’s demise, we see her doll shatter against the pavement in extreme close-up. It’s a pretty wild cold open. Our trio of night-shift nurses works in a psychiatric facility under Dr. Bramlett (a standout Clint Kimbrough). Sandra’s (Mittie Lawrence) plot involves a Black Power inmate suffering at the hands of unabashedly racist prison authorities. Janis (Alana Collins) succors speed-freak truck driver Kyle (Richard Young), who hallucinates colored lights and imagines his hands are covered in mirrors—a truly bizarre image. Participating in an encounter session with Dr. Bramlett, Barbara (Patti Byrne) discovers that he’s trying to gaslight her. Oh, and there’s a subplot concerning the Lipstick Maniac, a poison-pen writer who scrawls in chartreuse, that culminates in an orderly (Dennis Dugan) going full-on, cleaver-wielding transsexual nurse (shades of De Palma’s Dressed to Kill).
Written and directed by Armitage, Private Duty Nurses is the earliest in the series—barring The Student Nurses, not included in this set. Spring (Katherine Cannon) helps out surly Vietnam vet Domino (Dennis Redfield), a mop-topped motorbike rider with a plastic plate in his pate. Domino’s doc, the “cranioplasty” specialist Dr. McClintock, is played by a young Paul Gleason. Lola (Joyce Williams) gets to tackle racism and sexism, going to bat for a black doctor who’s been barred from the hospital where the girls work. Lynn (Pegi Boucher) takes on water pollution, but not before submitting to the advances of local lothario Dewey (Paul Hampton). Hampton takes this one by a country mile, his psychedelic slickster easily the funniest thing in the film other than Sky, house band at the watering hole Dewey patronizes, who get to perform their classic ode to oral fixation “How’s That Treatin’ Your Mouth, Babe?” Lyrics include: “Why go down on a sinking ship, babe/When you can go down on me?” (Sky, as it happens, was fronted by Doug Fieger, who would go on to form the Knack and write their biggest hit, “My Sharona.”)
Finally, actor Clint Kimbrough takes the helm for The Young Nurses, written by Howard R. Cohen, future scribe of classic TV kiddie fare like Rainbow Brite and The Care Bears. Kimbrough brings a solid televisual style to the film, though the story’s nothing more than boilerplate. Kitty (Jeane Manson) rescues, then dates, a young yachtsman (Zach Taylor). Joanne (Ashley Porter) goes before the board for overstepping her bounds as a nurse. Michelle (Angela Elayne Gibbs) investigates a couple of deaths linked to some bad pharmaceuticals. Kimbrough rounds up industry friends to flesh out the cast. Allan Arbus gives viewers a dose of his M*A*S*H* shtick as the head surgeon: “Call that a clamp? What are we carving up here, a human being or a Christmas turkey?” Sally Kirkland stops by for a free gynecological exam, and the one and only Sam Fuller (?!?) steps into the role of the pill-pushing heavy, Doc Haskell. (If you’ve ever wanted to see Fuller kneed in the nuts and then shanked with a syringe, here’s your chance.) In a weird bit of cinematic call-and-response, the final scene’s endlessly circling boat presages Night Moves, Arthur Penn’s excellent downer noir, by several years.
One of the unexpected pleasures to be gleaned from The Nurses Collection stems directly from the films' shoestring budgets. Filmed around the mean streets of Los Angeles for next to nothing, you get to see various ethnic neighborhoods and other locations that rarely find their way onto the screen. In fact, one of the only highlights of Candy Stripe Nurses is this near-documentary sense of place: barrio tenements sprouting bright-hued graffiti, crabbed auto graveyards teeming with wreckage, and greasy-spoon diners strewn with neon lights. Shout! Factory's transfer work on these films is solid, if unexceptional. The Young Nurses fares best with minimal print damage and notably vivid hues. The other three films are about on par: beat-up, flecked, and speckled, as you would imagine. Sound quality varies. Hiss and squeal—and not the kind you're thinking—aren't infrequent, and Private Duty Nurses suffers from a distinct slapping sound on the soundtrack.
Two interview-based featurettes comprise the relatively meager extras on this edition of Roger Corman's Cult Classics. But what's here is pretty golden. "Anatomy of a Nurse Film," in particular, has its fair share of amusing anecdotes. Writer-director Allan Holleb and director Jonathan Kaplan discuss their experiences working for the notoriously penny-pinching Corman. Corman's aesthetic advice is nicely summarized by this pithy adage: "Ask your cinematographer how long to make it beautiful, how long to make it passable, and how long to get an image. And then just get the image." And then there were the rigorous standards applied to the T&A factor: "Frontal nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind. No pubic hair." Kaplan also shares a terrific story about having to persuade reluctant lead Alana Collins to appear naked in her requisite lovemaking scene. Corman suggested going over to Sunset Boulevard, getting the "skankiest hooker" Kaplan could find, and using her Collins's body double. It didn't get that far, since Kaplan and producer Julie Corman talked the actress into it without resorting to skankification. "Paging Doctor Corman" features more from Roger and Julie Corman discussing frankly the budgetary restrictions and market-based thinking behind the nurse film cycle. Both extras, however brief, are fascinating glimpses into the heyday of '70s grindhouse filmmaking.
If you require a prescription for sexploitation wackiness, you won't need a second opinion on Shout! Factory's latest installment of Roger Corman's Cult Classics. Get it. Stat!