Crazy has always tapped a main vein in horror films; if it didn’t we would be stuck watching films of people being pranked or wronged, who laugh it off and become dentists instead (with all due respect to Corbin Bernsen). Now, of particular interest to me is when the sins of the flesh meet that fracture of the mind; where the lascivious and the lurid tangle in sweaty, blood stained sheets. And 1982 coughed up a doozy (in character and content) with Night Warning, a tale of a very protective aunt who doesn’t want to see her nephew leave the nest.
Also known as Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (a cool title, but neither relate to the story at all), Night Warning was distributed by Comworld Pictures in early ’82 (but didn’t go wide until early ’83) and garnered some good reviews while passing by audiences. Why? Because it was just too weird for even most horror folk. Hell, it still plays odd today; it’s like a Tennessee Williams play smothered in psychosexual deviancy and homophobia. I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like it. That’s a compliment.
Let’s start at the start, shall we? A mom and dad head out on a road trip, leaving their little son Billy with his Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell – Big Top Pee Wee). Before you can say Final Destination 2, mom and pop meet their demise in a horrible car accident. Fast forward ten years, and Billy (now played by Jimmy McNichol – Smokey Bites the Dust) is being raised by his aunt, is the star high school basketball player, and dates the prettiest girl, Julia (Julia Duffy – Wacko). Life seems to be going pretty well (even though Aunt Cheryl is a touch clingy towards Billy) until Cheryl makes unwanted advances towards the TV repairman, Phil Brody (Caskey Swaim – Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), and stabs him to death for refusing to lay cable. Billy witnesses Aunt Cheryl’s digression, and is soon followed by their nosy neighbor Margie (Marcia Lewis – The Ice Pirates), who believes Cheryl’s claim that Brody tried to rape her.
Enter Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson – Snowbeast), and this is where the story sprouts wings and flies the coop. Carlson has some interesting theories as to Billy’s involvement with Brody and Coach Tom Landers (Steve Eastin – The Hidden II), the gay gym teacher. As Carlson tries his hardest to prove Billy’s guilt (he thinks Billy is engaged in a love triangle with the two males), Aunt Cheryl quickly loses her already tenuous grip on reality at the prospect of her beloved nephew leaving, either by squad car or basketball scholarship. Much badness ensues.
Director William Asher, at first, seems like a very odd choice for director. Coming mainly from a TV background he helmed the popular sitcom Bewitched in the mid ‘60s, and also directed the wholesome Beach movies with Frankie Avalon. But this actually works in the film’s favor; by providing a coating of normalcy – the setting, no major stylistic flourishes – he emphasizes the insane pathology in screenwriters Stephen Briemer, Alan Jay Glueckman (Russkies), and Boon Collins (Abducted) script. Not that it needs his help, as it practically screams itself off the page. At least two characters in the film are gay; and I say at least because it’s implied that possibly more of the main ones are as well. This is used as a plot point for one, and just my observation with the other. The two who are known, are treated respectfully and as fully dimensional characters by the writers, although (rightfully so for the time) closeted. This isn’t some big metropolis with a wider base of tolerance, but small town Americana where your business is everyone’s. The other two? Well, let’s look at Billy. Constantly ridiculed for his close relationship with Coach Landers by teammate Eddie (a very young Bill Paxton), Billy is questioned by Julia why they aren’t intimate more often, as if she has doubts about his sexual orientation. But again, this is the writers’ concoction, because we the viewers know Billy had no hand Brody’s death. So what’s the point in having her show doubt?
And then we have Detective Carlson. I would be understating the obvious if I said that he is possibly the most unpleasant homophobe in film history. Take a drink every time he uses the ‘f’ word and you’ll be in the hospital faster than you can say cirrhosis. (Or spell it – I had to look it up.) His insistence that Billy is behind Brody’s murder becomes increasingly hilarious as the evidence clearly points to Aunt Cheryl. But his persistence of guilt of and hatred towards homosexuals is pushed far beyond normal limits, to the point where we start to question whether Carlson is suppressing feelings towards his own gender. You know what they say about those that protest the loudest…
Have I mentioned it’s a bizarre film? Let’s talk about Cheryl. Imagine if you will Psycho being told from the point of view of Norman’s mother. (I know it’s been done now – but it hadn’t then.) Cheryl has issues; she’s homicidal, for one, and she harbors feelings towards Billy that zoom past elevated Gothic (please don’t leave me!) and head straight for Shakespearian country. This stuff rings fair and true; at least by horror film standards. The problem is that it’s so intertwined with the homophobic overtones that we start to think the writers think homosexuality is an illness like Cheryl’s psychosis, regardless of their fair treatment of the main gay characters.
So while this film is frequently considered a slasher (the killings are ramped up towards the end, but as the result of rage rather than being systematic), it rests on its own plane of existence. Did I happen to tell you how odd it is? The performances certainly sell the strange. Actually, most are sensible and solid; but the three leads really step it up. First off, McNichol gives such an off kilter, “aw shucks, gee whiz” reading that I’m hoping was intentional. (I know small town life is banal, but one should at least be awake.) Svenson was always one of my favorite ‘70s leading men; a strong, smooth talker who seems to exude common sense. It’s that likeability that barely allows one to tolerate Carlson. We’re really just piggybacking on Svenson’s appeal here. Susan Tyrrell was an offbeat actress who gained Hollywood’s attention and an Academy Award nomination for Fat City (1972), but never really capitalized on that success. Her Aunt Cheryl is one for the ages – wild eyed, with a honeyed purr one minute and a commanding bellow the next – and provides the viewer with a focal point amidst the madness.
Night Warning. The crazy film about crazy people made for, I guess, pseudo - crazy folk (horror will do that) like you and I. See it as soon as you can. But trust me – you’ll be scrubbing yourself vigorously when it’s done. Crazy’s hard to wash off.
Night Warning is available on DVD under the ‘Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker’ title from Code Red.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE PSYCHOPATH (1966)