Latest Issue

Capturing the Killer Nurse: Two Picks from Netflix

According to a pair of recent Netflix movies, Charlie Cullen may be “the most prolific serial killer in American history,”; but many folks have never even heard of him.

Cullen was a nurse who, after a 16-year spree ending in 2003, confessed to murdering at least 29 patients at hospitals in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. By direct injection or through wrong IV meds, Cullen may have killed as many as 400 people.

The two 2022 movies are both worthwhile — the bracing documentary “Capturing the Killer Nurse” and a feature, “The Good Nurse,” starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain.

As might be expected, the latter dramatizes — and to some degree fictionalizes — what happened, though there really was no need for it; the factual story is blood-curdling enough.

Frankly, I found the doc even more terrifying than the feature.

It includes extensive interviews with two New Jersey detectives, Danny Baldwin and Tim Braun, who finally cracked the case — and with several nurses who worked with Cullen. Most notable among those is Amy Loughren, now so widely known for her help in capturing Cullen that she has her own Wikipedia page.

Even more gripping in the doc is lengthy footage from Cullen’s actual confession to police; and from his trial — including victims’ family members expressing their grief and outrage directly to the killer in court. Likewise compelling are interviews with toxicologist Bruce Ruck and nurse Pat Medellin, who both knew the situation early on but could not get hospitals to take action.

Indeed, that is the most chilling takeaway from “Capturing the Killer Nurse”: the way a series of 16 hospitals and one nursing home had a good indication of what Cullen was doing yet side-stepped the issue, sometimes firing him for other reasons just to get him off the premises without a fuss — at which point, he would go on to work at another facility and start the process over again.

Late in the proceedings, Loughren — a single mom with worsening cardiomyopathy — realized that helping the investigation might cost her job and her insurance; she told her daughter about a man hurting people, and the young lady urged her to proceed despite the risks.

Thinking of a stonewalling administrator at Somerset Medical Center, Loughren reflects: “An 11-year-old had more moral aptitude than an adult who worked as a risk manager.”

I felt this mother-daughter scene should’ve been included in the feature film as well — though director Tobias Lindholm and writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns do a decent job adapting Charles Graeber’s nonfiction book. It makes Cullen more sympathetic than he really was (understandable, given Redmayne’s magnetic persona), but the fictionalized film is worth watching mostly for performances — not only Oscar-winners Chastain and Redmayne but also Noah Emmerich and Nnamdi Asomugha as the detectives. (And for NFL fans who find that final name familiar — yes, Asomugha is the cornerback who played for the Eagles, Raiders, and Niners.)

I was shocked to read an “Indiewire” review that preferred the feature, calling the documentary “flimsy” and insisting that Lindholm’s version had “more information and more nuance.” Where’s the nuance in rearranging facts and providing added sympathy for a man who caused untold grief to literally hundreds of friends and family members?

In any case, even though I’ve reversed the order here, I recommend watching the feature first; otherwise, you’ll keep wondering why they changed this or that. Plus, “Capturing the Killer Nurse” provides answers to some questions generated by the longer film.

But if you’ve got a hospital stay anytime soon, you might want to hold off a while on both films.