I did not watch Nurse because I heard it was good. In fact, rather the opposite. Only 29% of audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes liked it. It has a 4.6/10 rating on IMDB. I watched Nurse because, at the time, it seemed like exactly the sort of thing I wanted – entertaining trash.
I have a weakness for bad horror films, the ones with characters who always make the worst decisions, the ones with clearly rubber monsters. I like cheering for the killer, calling each twist well before it happens, being amazed by the incredible dialogue.
So I sat down to watch a terrible film, one that I could enjoy without feeling anything or thinking anything, one where every kind of excess would be the hallmark. Nurse was mostly exactly what I expected.
Paz de la Huerta plays a nurse (also the narrator) who kills “bad” men. That’s not the whole of the film, although such an idea could carry a horror film on its own. Instead, that’s the status quo: before anything goes wrong, before there is any kind of problem presented to the audience, we are introduced to a psychopathic nurse, and it’s not made into a huge deal. As far as the filmmakers are concerned, this is normal, and not a source of conflict.
Conflict, necessary to all narratives, arises when a new (non-murderous) nurse arrives at the hospital. Abby (our blood-drenched Florence Nightingale) befriends her, and slowly becomes more and more obsessed with the younger nurse. That’s where the problem arises – drama within a friendship, not the already casual and constant murder.
From there, everything spirals into chaos – the murders become more frequent and less subtle, the nurses drift apart, the police start closing in. The second half of Nurse contains a lot of death.
Not always justified death, either. I’m not talking from a moral perspective here, but a narrative one. I dislike films in which killers set up rules, and then break them. If your masked murderer only kills virgins, they shouldn’t gun down a happily-married father. If all victims have a chance – however slim – to escape, then it bugs me when a victim eventually doesn’t get that chance. Abby kills men – men who cheat, or otherwise victimise women. That’s fine, it makes sense, it provides rules for the film.
Those rules are not kept. The final few scenes aren’t about a damaged girl hunting sleazy businessmen, but just about stabbing and blood and indiscriminate death. It doesn’t match the rules, and it removes a lot of engagement; the viewers have no context for the violence. At that point, it’s just red splashes on a screen, not anything horrifying or jumpy.
It’s a blood-drenched film, but not an amazingly violent one – blood and gore gets everywhere, people get stabbed and shot and maimed, but the camera doesn’t linger on the actual injuries – the camera cuts away to show arterial spray, or focuses elsewhere while the screaming starts. Violence is ever-present but not center-stage; Nurse definitely wants to entertain, to titillate, rather than to shock or appall.
On that subject, there is a lot of titillation. Nurse follows the proud tradition of sexploitation films, in which people are rarely clothed if they don’t need to be. Towels drop, underwear is flung over signs, people have sex in various combinations for no particular narrative reason.
Both the violence and the sex are distinctive features of the genre, and Nurse is a film that clings to its genre. It’s not even that the film is focused on these twin strands – at points, the gratuitous shots seem almost perfunctory, present but not important. The characters’ torturing or stripping is not the focus, of the film or even the camera, it just happens to be going on at the same time. The nudity in Nurse is not eroticized – it’s as though the director put it in solely because it was seen as an expectation.
Really, the whole film is very matter-of-fact – in the violence, in the sex, in the narration. There’s almost no attempt to engage the viewer’s emotions and that, paradoxically, made me find Nurse a more interesting film than I was expecting.
At first, the narration seems stilted – there’s little variation in tone, too much exposition, clumsy and needlessly precise sentence structure. It sets a weak atmosphere up, with the prospect of stilted voiceovers the whole way through.
And then slowly, you start to realise that the clunking narration actually fits the character – this is what Abby sounds like in her head, these are the ideas that match her actions. Similarly, the violence and the nudity are matter of fact because that’s how she thinks of them – almost everything she does is just going through the motions.
I might be reading too much into that, but even if it is unintentional, it makes the film much more watchable – it isn’t a poor film with an annoying narrator, but a film that manages to convincingly live inside its insane protagonist’s head.
However, that convincing characterisation comes at a cost. Because the whole thing is presented so frigidly, Nurse doesn’t really scare, or disgust, or truly engage the viewer. Everything is at one remove, losing some of the sheer joy in gratuity that such B-movies are meant to provide.
At points, it’s an over-the-top horror film. At other points, it’s a darker, more psychological work. Nurse ends up as a film that isn’t well-made enough to be thoughtful, and isn’t gratuitous enough to be an entertainingly trashy B-movie. It’s a film stuck between the two extremes, trying to be both thoughtful and thoughtless in equal measure.
When I started watching it, I thought it was going to be terrible – not “so bad it’s watchable” but “so bad I turn it off”. Then it grew on me, showed me a slightly more interesting spin that made up for the slow pace. Towards the end, I went off it again, bored of the contextless killings and the unnecessary padding scenes.
I’ve seen worse horror films, and I’ve seen better. Nurse is a bit better than expected, but better in a strange way – I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, but I did find it interestingly constructed.