NIGHT CALL NURSES: Paging Dr. Kaplan, Exploitation Flick Surgeon

Jonathan Kaplan is one of the unsung heroes of 1970’s exploitation filmmaking.  He’s mostly remembered today for his mainstream directing career, including the cult fave Over The Edge and the Oscar-winning The Accused, but he got his start doing a string of lively, smartly-directed exploitation flicks like Truck Turner and White Line Fever.  In these films, he proved himself to be a savvy commercial craftsman who could deliver the necessary commercial goods with style and occasionally a bit of hip social commentary – all skills that he picked up by working for producer Roger Corman.

Night Call Nurses was Kaplan’s first film.  As is usual with New World Pictures nurse movies, the plot revolves around a trio of nurse friends who have their own individual adventures that eventually intersect.  Despite being a little rough around the edges, it shows he learned was a fast learner when it came to the Corman style.

It’s a very lively film, thanks to a George Armitage script that is a real kitchen-sink affair that gives each of its three heroines their own wild plotlines. Barbara (Patty Byrne) has experiences in an encounter group that cause her to fear she might have a deviant personality.  Janis (Alana Collins) becomes involved with patient Kyle (Richard Young), a trucker who is coping with an addiction to amphetamines.  Sandra (Mittie Lawrence) becomes awakened to black power when she assists Toby (Felton Perry), an activist who is trying to free a radical leader from the hospital before the cops can bump him off.  If that wasn’t enough plot, there is also a psycho peeping tom who leaves the women threatening letters.

All these threads add up to a lively potboiler thanks to Kaplan’s energetic, oft-experimental direction.  He makes fluid use of mobile, frequently handheld camerawork to give the scenes an energy that is amplified by some fast cutting in particular scenes. An opening scene in which a troubled patient takes a swan dive off the roof of the building is a great example of how he combines all these techniques.

Kaplan is also good at manipulating tone in ways that keep the audience on their toes: for example, an encounter group scene starts out in a light-hearted sexy mood, complete with patients stripping down, but turns dark during a hostile exchange between Barbara and the group leader.  She takes off and the film shifts into a psychological thriller style that is totally unexpected and exciting.

The director’s tone-shifting skill also pays off at the end, which includes a car chase, hallucination scenes, a shootout and a faceoff with the film’s secret psycho.  The end has a few flaws – namely, that the storytelling gets a bit chaotic in the last ten minutes and that Barbara’s plot thread never gets a satisfactory resolution – but the film’s momentum and style carry it through.  The end results are never dull.

Finally, Kaplan is good with his cast.  He gets a distinctive performance from each of his three female leads: Byrne does some nice method-style emoting as the troubled nurse, Collins gives a laid-back but witty performance as the “cool” one and Lawrence does the most subtle work as the nurse who becomes a accomplice to a breakout.  Colorful turns from the male cast help flesh it out: Young gives a charismatic performance as the trucker, Clint Kimbro is menacing in a cool way as the doctor who runs the encounter group and Perry offers a fiery turn as the radical plotting his leader’s escape.  Look also for a fun cameo from Dick Miller as a hapless motorist who picks up Barbara.

Simply put, Night Call Nurses is an engaging example of the Corman nurse-film formula that doubles as a worthy debut for Kaplan.  He’d go to sharper, more fully-rounded exploitation during the remainder of the 1970’s but his work here shows he already had a strong core of skills to draw from.

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