It’s 1999 and the planet is bracing itself for the potential fallout of Y2K. In an Arkansas hospital, nurse Mandy (Angela Bettis) has far more pressing things to worry about. She’s a junkie, she’s on probation and she’s also involved in a racket to procure organs for a local gang of criminals. Recently, Mandy’s cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth) has also become involved in this gruesome side-line but matters go awry when she makes a mistake in the delivery of a kidney. Let’s not put too fine a point on it, she leaves the kidney by a drinks machine.
In debt to some none-too-pleasant folks who require said kidney for “someone important”, Mandy and Regina need to find a replacement and fast. Not only are there various inpatients who could be candidates for a spot of impromptu surgery, the hospital is about to get two new admissions; Mandy’s brother, who has overdosed, and convicted criminal Jefferson (David Arquette, clearly having a blast).
Before I get into this, let’s address the question which was posed by a number of FrightFesters about Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift, namely: Is it horror? I would say yes. It’s a dark comedy, it’s a grim farce, it’s a twisted heist pic. It’s all of these things but when I think of horror, it doesn’t have to be hauntings, it doesn’t have to be stalking and slashing, it doesn’t have to be folks getting tortured in basements. The horror here comes from not only the splashes of blood and gore but the way in which the characters behave and the overriding sense that life can be extremely cheap. I’m happy for the horror genre to claim this movie. It’s ours.
Also, horror fans are going to be delighted to see genre icon Angela Bettis in the lead role. When we first meet Mandy, it’s clear that she isn’t going to be the most likeable person you’ve ever met. Far from it. She’s self-medicating, rifling through the belongings of unconscious patients in her care and working out which poor sod she’s going to poison next in order for the next person in the chain to whip their innards out.
Even though Mandy is someone you maybe wouldn’t want to hang around with on a daily basis (and she’d probably think the same about you), we do see the more sympathetic side of her at the story progresses. She does care for the well-being of her patients – well, those she’s not targeting for organ removal – and she’s protective of her brother despite the fact that he’s more than likely been abusive to her in the past.
Bettis is, unsurprisingly, excellent, embodying the role of the world-weary Mandy both corporeally and emotionally. She looks absolutely wrecked, a gaunt, pained figure who can’t get through a shift without heading off to a back room to snort crushed-up pills. And yet, she has reserves of unexpected strength and a sharp, calculating mind. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, least of all the fool that is her cousin.
This brings me to the performance of Chloe Farnworth who, for me, steals the film. Regina is a memorable character, her naïve enthusiasm for attempting to correct her initial mistake causing a downward spiral into a series of other, increasingly catastrophic mistakes. Frustratingly, spectacularly dumb, she is utterly hilarious whenever she appears. It’s also a brilliant physical performance, her gangly frame clattering around the place. She looks awkward even when she’s standing in place.
Even more of a delight are the scenes in which Mandy and Regina are brought together, Bettis’ business-like, structured approach to the rapidly disintegrating situation constantly on the edge of being destroyed by Farnworth’s wide-eyed spontaneity, complete disregard for the consequences and serious lack of anatomical knowledge. Their double act is one to treasure, not only for some golden one-liners but the amusing visual disparity between the pair as they find their progress around the hospital thwarted by patients, personnel, perps and power cuts.
Brea Grant the writer serves Brea Grant the director with a delicious slice of (low)life, topped off with a tasty roster of supporting characters. I’m not just metaphorically comparing this to cake, there’s actual discussion of cake in this one, particularly from Mandy’s colleague Dorothy (Tara Perry) who seems to be more interested in chowing down than showing up for the sick and needy. The rest of the nursing team portrayed here behaves in a way which rings loud with truth; they’ve had a long day; they’ve seen and heard it all before; they’re righteously fed up with your shit.
In addition to the underworld guys who want payment in renal currency, you can add to the mix a particularly useless security guard who has somehow been tasked with watching over the clearly dangerous Jefferson, a persistent would-be admittee who thinks he almost certainly has some kind of illness and a porter with a neat line in dance moves. This expanded set of players allows the action to shift constantly around the facility, keeping the subplots bubbling. Amid the anarchy, Grant is confident enough to include the odd surreal interlude, such as a perfectly judged, pseudo-musical number.
The material is grim at the best of times but not unbearably so, the black comedy and the escalating farce taking the edge off the nastiest of moments. As the pace picks up, the ridiculous gags come thicker and faster but the smart script juggles the chaos deftly and wraps up matters in a fashion that provides a more than satisfactory conclusion without being too neat.
A dark, bloody treat with glorious comedic turns from Bettis and Farnworth, 12 Hour Shift is one of my favourite films of the year. Building steadily from the opening screw-up and sliding inexorably – not to mention hilariously – into the unbridled pandemonium of the final act, I didn’t want this to end. The endlessly creative Brea Grant has, almost inevitably, made one of my favourite movies of the year. Now, is there any chance of a Regina-based spin-off?
Read Five FrightFest Facts From Brea Grant writer and director of 12 Hour Shift HERE