Hospitalization proves more than usually fatal in “12 Hour Shift,” a bloody black comedy from actress turned writer-director Brea Grant. This clever mix of the farcical and macabre finds shady nurse Angela Bettis’ sideline in illicit organ harvesting going seriously awry during an extra-long work stint at a 1999 Arkansas care facility. Although closer to the twistedly gallows-humorous likes of “The Hospital” and Scorcese’s underrated “Bringing Out the Dead” than the sizable subgenre of hospital horror mellers, it will most likely find an appreciative initial audience among genre fans. Magnet plans release to available theaters and on demand Oct. 2, following a brief, COVID-hobbled festival tour.
Though she started out in prestige dramatic roles for Zeffirelli and James Mangold, Bettis became a favorite for horror aficionados as of 2002, via title roles in both indie cult object “May” and a TV “Carrie.” Her forays into that territory invariably up the movie’s game, as is the case here. Dyspeptic health professional Mandy is introduced having a parking-lot smoke before starting her shift, a moment’s peace interrupted by a literally chatty Cathy (Julianne Dowler) finishing hers. Ending their exchange on a profane exclamation point, Mandy clearly does not suffer fools gladly.
Yet suffer them she must, from an ER-pestering hypochondriac (Tom DeTrinis) to another yakkety coworker (Tara Perry), this one habitually high on sugar and Jesus. Everyone talks way too much for Mandy, who’s not exactly the sociable type. She does get along with equally terse fellow nurse Karen (Nikes Gamby-Turner), but then they have something else in common: Sneaking organs out of the hospital for sale to biker-ish local syndicate boss Nicholas (WWE wrestler Mick Foley). These are mostly harvested from terminal patients who don’t need them anymore, though sometimes Mandy nudges that process along with a little injected bleach. It’s not the most pleasant business. But then she’s got a considerable drug habit to support, fed by pilfering medication, a habit that has already gotten her put on probation by supervisor Janet (Brooke Seguin).
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Trouble arrives in the form of cousin-by-marriage Regina (Chloe Farnworth), a relentlessly bubbly Susanne Somers-style blonde who’s dumb as a post but, alas, as energetic as she is dim. Given the simple job of transporting the gory goods from Mandy to Nicholas, Regina manages to lose them. A deadline looms; the missing kidney may be replaced with her own.
Trying to demonstrate initiative rather than letting the trained pros handle it, Regina dons a smock to impersonate a nurse — very, very poorly — fast turning the institution into a bloodbath of ineptly “harvested” substitute organs and surprise corpses. She’s like a trailer-trash Angel of Death, leaving the increasingly frantic Mandy to mop up in her wake. Adding variables of victimhood and additional mayhem are a cop-killer convict patient (producer David Arquette), a local police officer (Kit Williamson) and numerous others.
Grant’s screenplay builds a Rube Goldbergian narrative of escalating, piled-up crises, from which she also engineers a just-credible-enough exit strategy. All this might’ve nonetheless seemed too tasteless or effortful if her direction weren’t judiciously even-handed, retaining a certain calm detachment from frequently grotesque, frenetic goings-on.
This helps to unify an ensemble that’s all over the map in terms of energy and style, with the more flamboyant turns held in reserve for maximum impact. Through it all, Bettis’ vinegar provides a grounding quality, even as Mandy nearly spins out on drugs. Her character may be amoral, but at least she’s competent. Farnsworth’s homicidal sexpot, by contrast, is the true monster here in terms of sheer obliviousness to the chaos she creates. She’s like Hannibal Lecter as played by Judy Holliday.
The clean, crisp approach to outré material is amplified by Matt Glass’ widescreen photography. He’s also the composer, though more conspicuous are a number of preexisting various-artist tracks that sometimes threaten to overwhelm the onscreen action. The film’s poker-faced playfulness, however, is such that it’s able to kick-drop in a wee late dance sequence without going off the rails at all.