The Sly, Underrated Greatness of Roger Corman's Night Call Nurses
The Film: Night Call Nurses (1972), available on DVD in the new set Roger Corman's Cult Classics: The Nurses Collection via Shout! Factory.
Why it's an Inessential Essential: The respectability gap between director Jonathan Kaplan's recent and early-career work is pretty striking. Today, Kaplan works primarily in TV: He served as a co-executive producer for both E.R. and Without a Trace, and has also directed eight episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, two episodes of Brothers and Sisters and 40 episodes of E.R. But when Kaplan started his filmmaking career, he made sleazy but surprisingly sturdy exploitation pics like Truck Turner (1974), in which Isaac Hayes plays a bounty hunter that is very attached to beer and his cat, and The Slams (1973), a prison flick starring Jim Brown. Now Night Call Nurses, Kaplan's 1972 directorial debut, has just been reissued in a new collection highlighting four nursesploitation pics produced by schlockmeister Roger Corman. Kaplan's film is easily the best one in the set — and also a good indicator of Kaplan's then-nascent talent.
Make no mistake, the longevity of Night Call Nurses — a natural moneymaker for Corman — is largely attributable to Kaplan's experimental direction. As Kaplan explains in the featurette "Anatomy of a Nurse Film," Nurses' plot is a variation on a formula that Corman swiped from Valley of the Dolls, another film that follows three female protagonists. A trio of nurses test their respective comfort zones: Barbara (Patty Byrne) has a unfulfilling affair with her group therapy psychiatrist while Janis (Alana Stewart) has a fling with a speed-addicted former patient and Sandra (Mittie Lawrence) helps a Black Panther-type convict meet up with his fellow radicals. All three girls are defined via exploitation-friendly character types: Barbara's the uptight one, Janis is the flirty and free-spirited blonde and Sandra's the politically motivated black girl.
I hesitate to call these girls walking stereotypes, because Kaplan does a good job of contextualizing their titillating and character-defining concerns. One guy trips balls and imagines that he has mirror tiles for hands while a woman kneels before a big red crucifix before throwing herself off a roof (upon impact, we see a porcelain doll's head crack open). Through these dynamic and trippy scenes, both of which were shot using handheld cameras, Kaplan vividly and quickly the hallucinatory, drug and sex-fueled haze that his characters are trying to define themselves in. Night Call Nurses is atmospheric and visually accomplished, making it a satisfying morsel of junk-food cinema.
How the DVD/Blu-ray Makes the Case for the Film: Kaplan's very forthcoming about the production history of Night Call Nurses in an interview featurette called "Anatomy of a Nurse Film." He insists on discussing the film as collaboration between Corman and himself. He explains that Corman called Kaplan late one night and offered him the directing gig based on Martin Scorsese's recommendation. Once he'd accepted the job, Corman was apparently very loose with Kaplan. The only rules Corman laid down was that the picture should be done shooting in 13 days and that T&A must be shot in a certain way, presumably to get past censors. "'Frontal nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind (no pubic hair),'" Kaplan says for Corman.
Kaplan also explains that working with Corman was a great filmmaking education: "That was the last guy I worked with who ever understood what a director really does." Which doesn't mean that Kaplan glosses over Corman's infamous tendency of cutting budgetary corners. According to Kaplan, Corman's advice to him was: "'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." Kaplan clearly settled for something between "passable" and "beautiful." And he did it all on a microscopic budget of $75,000, too!
Other Interesting Trivia: One of the funnier anecdotes Kaplan relates about working with Corman is his story about trying to convince Stewart to do her big nude scene after she became tentatively skittish. Corman apparently told Kaplan to go to the stretch of Sunset Boulevard called "The Stroll" and hire the "skankiest hooker" that he could find. Kaplan was then told to introduce the prostitute to Stewart as the actress's body double with the expectation that Stewart would then volunteer to do her own stunts. Kaplan was uncomfortable driving, however, and he failed to convince Roger's wife Julie Corman to accompany him to the Stroll. So they just talked Stewart into doing the nude scenes without hiring a professional sex worker. It's probably safe to assume that Kaplan's never had to do anything so risque for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Simon Abrams is a NY-based freelance film critic whose work has been featured in outlets like The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Vulture and Esquire. Additionally, some people like his writing, which he collects at Extended Cut.