Death Nurse (1987)

Originally published in Bleeding Skull! A 1980s Trash-Horror Odyssey.

A surgeon wears a dish rag over his face. Rubber bands hold it in place. He wipes blood on a patient’s hairy chest. Then, the surgeon digs a hole outside, enters a house, fixes himself a bowl of ice cream, and walks upstairs. His name is Gordon. Gordon has a sister named Crazy Fat Edith. They chase a cat around a table.

Was Death Nurse meant to be watched by people?

Nick Millard aka Nick Philips aka My Favorite Dissident spent forty years quietly churning out disconnected trash that few people understand, let alone attempt to understand. In a sense, that’s what makes his work so appealing. That, and the fact that none of his films exceed seventy minutes. Like Daniel Johnston’s songs and Kenneth Patchen’s fictions, Millard’s methods (shockingly terrible compositions, non-stop jump cuts, complicated plot-lines about nothing in particular) reject convention and the world-at-large. This establishes a cinematic experience that only he, and he alone, can offer. After dozens of 1960s and 70s soft-and-hardcore curiosities (The Pleasures Of A Woman, Oddo) and two trash-horror benchmarks (Criminally Insane, Satan’s Black Wedding), Millard found himself behind a camcorder in the 1980s. Enter Death Nurse.

Nurse Edith Mortley (Priscilla Alden aka Crazy Fat Ethel from Criminally Insane) and Gordon live in a house that doubles as The Shady Palms Clinic. I’m not exactly sure what they do there. Sometimes, Edith sits on, stabs, or strangles patients to collect insurance money from the state. Gordon washes a corpse with a rubber hose. An old woman says “YEEELLLO?” when answering the phone. Gordon pretends to cough while spying on people in a foyer. There’s a lot of runny blood. A grandma runs up the stairs in a silk nightgown. Edith and Gordon sit on a couch and stare at the floor. The End.

Criminally Insane is Nick Millard’s defining film. That’s where everything came together. The crude techniques. The subtle humor. A quiet disdain pointed in the direction of something that’s not entirely clear to us. It’s the only Millard film that I share with “norms,” or people who aren’t typically into movies with two minute stretches of a woman eating scrambled eggs. Criminally Insane is the Millard movie that most resembles something that could actually take place in reality. Millard must have felt the same way, as he literally recycled footage from Criminally for not only Death Nurse, but also Criminally Insane II (aka Crazy Fat Ethel II) and Death Nurse II. All shot-on-video. All from 1988. All utilizing the same house, cast, opening credits, music, camcorder, scenes, and general sense of madness. So what’s the difference between these films? Criminally Insane II features thirty-five minutes of footage from Criminally Insane. Death Nurse cops a mere fifteen. Interpret that as you will.

Death Nurse may or may not have been meant for public consumption. There’s nothing about it that would encourage anyone to watch. Everything is ugly and claustrophobic. The camera is always too close. The film is mostly defined by people talking on the phone or grunting off camera while VCR rainbow dubbing lines cascade across the screen. The intense technical strangeness ensures that boredom never fully surfaces, even if it’s always on the horizon. What this means is that I’ve seen Death Nurse three times. And I’ll see it ten more.

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