Welcome back for an all-new installment of Let’s Scare Bryan to Death. This month, I’m talking with Sam Wineman, who you may know as a director, musician, writer, podcaster, and master chef. I may have made that last one up, but what I’m saying is the dude is all-around talented. He’s also just been announced as the director for an upcoming documentary on the history of queer horror to be released on Shudder.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Wineman to chat about the 1982 slasher film Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Directed by William Asher, the film follows Billy (Jimmy McNichol), a high school senior getting ready to graduate and hopefully go off to college with his girlfriend, Julie (Julia Duffy). Alas, this doesn’t sit well with his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell), whose attachment to him is progressing nicely into obsession. When her attempt to stage an assault and keep Billy in town ends with her stabbing a man to death, Billy finds himself in the crosshairs of Detective Carlson (Bo Svenson). To explain exactly why that is, I need to give a blanket SPOILER WARNING, as Sam and I will be letting loose a lot of the film’s plot twists in order to unpack some of its most important themes.
But first, I just want to come out and say that I absolutely love this film. Many slashers in the early ’80s feature really creative kills with not a whole lot going on in between (I’m looking directly at you, The Prowler). BBNM is more akin to movies like Psycho II or Christmas Evil, where character studies get wrapped up in slasher packaging. Wineman agreed that it’s a movie with a lot more going on than most of its contemporaries.
For me, what set it apart from early ’80s slashers is not just the creativity of the kills, but also the social dialogue that's emerging in the film, whether it's how frenzied and maniacal [Billy’s aunt] is revealing herself to be or the gay panic erupting with the cop that's leading the case and his insistence on his world being one specific way, with his answer being right at the expense of those around him.
Said cop, the aforementioned Detective Carlson, really is some bigoted piece of work. But given the timeframe when the movie was released, I assumed the film would roll with his homophobia and still set him up as a protagonist. Wineman remembered sharing my concerns when he first saw the movie.
So did I! So did I. I truly thought he was going to be like the cop in The Hitcher, where he's got this machismo he's throwing around, but it's for laughs. And I imagine even at the time audiences were laughing along with some of his bits... until he's got an immigrant on the ground in his office casually holding a gun to his head. I mean, even that is played almost like it's for humor, but you know there's something wrong.
Both Wineman and I are amazed at how ahead of its time this movie is, bringing an unexpectedly enlightened perspective on queer themes that are still relevant today. But Wineman provided some additional context to explain why it was especially important at the time it first came out.
I think understanding just how groundbreaking the film is also involves looking at the timeline. When it was released in 1982, we were looking at AIDS in a time when AIDS wasn't called that yet. The first cases happened in 1981, then in 1982 this movie was released [wide] in February, I believe, when it was being called “gay cancer,” “gay plague,” and GRID, which I believe is Gay Related Immune Deficiency. It didn't even have the name that we know now, and so when this came out it was the beginning of a social gay panic. But when it was re-released in 1983, we were going full force into that... not quite to the height of what was happening in ’85 when [A] Nightmare on Elm Street 2 came out. I think that’s what’s interesting. I can't help but draw comparisons between the two films, because what is queer about NOES 2 has a lot to do with a kid, and there's a coach who is kind of an out character. People kind of know what's going on there, but it's a secret. It's like NOES 2 is the movie that illustrates a fear that straight people were having, where BBNM is a movie that understands the nuances of what was happening to a society.
Given the fear of openly gay people at the time, I was worried that the film wouldn’t appropriately handle Billy’s relationship with Coach Landers, the skipper for the high school basketball team who serves as Billy’s mentor and friend. I kept waiting for the gay panic shoe to drop and for the film to have Landers make a pass at Billy. That never happens, but I wondered if Wineman had similar fears.
I was waiting for that moment mainly because of the genre, because it's an exploitation film, and nothing is off limits. [HERE COMES THE BIG SPOILER] We've got an aunt who is actually Billy’s mom... who wants to f*$! her son. At this point anything goes, and usually the first thing that goes by the wayside is responsible handling of queer characters. So, not only was I anticipating it, I was just expecting it. And when he turned out to just be a great guy, and he's the first call that Billy makes after he thinks that his mom is dead, that's a big deal.
Wineman brought up the question about whether Billy is gay or bisexual, and we realize how well the story really works whether he is or isn’t. It’s still powerful, particularly in the final scene when Billy kills Carlson to defend Landers.
My God, that final showdown that happens after [Billy’s mom] is dead. I would have never anticipated that scene, and watching [it] the first time, my jaw just hit the ground. The way that he defends Landers, it’s something that, as someone who is gay, what I can appreciate about that moment is Billy doesn't have to be gay to have that kind of relationship with a queer adult. For a film in a time when gay panic had people questioning whether or not teachers could be gay and out (and that extended well past the ’90s) it's a pretty big deal to see something like that happen with a straight identified student and a queer teacher—just a friendship and just a regular bond that's worth fighting for.
Speaking of that confrontation between Billy, Landers, and Carlson, I was interested to know who Wineman thought was the true villain of the movie: Cheryl or Detective Carlson. Wineman didn’t even have to think about it.
Girl, it is Detective Carlson 100% because he gets that final scene. He is the last level of the video game. He is the boss behind the boss. I think why [Billy’s mom] is such an incredible force is that performance, and how absolutely revolting she can be. It’s like that moment where she kisses Billy's mouth with her very last breath. That is a dedication of being a felon. But the detective doesn't know he's a bad guy, and we didn't know he was the bad guy, but the signs were there all along. We knew who she was right from the start. [With Carlson] we might not have known all the twists and turns, but we knew something was wrong with him. We ignored it because he's the type of figure where we’d ignore that kind of thing, and it makes the audience complicit in his homophobia.
As in my discussion about The Evil Within with Andrea Subisatti, with BBNM I again found myself considering horror’s use of mental illness as a shortcut for villainous motivation. I asked Wineman if he saw any of that in this film with Cheryl’s seemingly unhinged portrayal.
I made a film two years ago called The Quiet Room and it was a response to how [mental illness] is generally handled in horror [Editors note: See. This. Film. It’s my favorite horror short of 2018]. I think that often mental illness is the villain, and it's an easy way to stamp out a character and give them a “reason.” I personally didn't watch Cheryl's journey and think it was a journey of mental illness. I thought it was a journey of obsession, this cycle of obsession that she keeps engaging in that she's nursed to completion by the time Billy arrives.
While some aspects of Cheryl’s story hinted at mental illness for me, including her giving herself a wild, sloppy haircut and spending a large portion of the film talking to the preserved corpse of Billy’s father, Wineman put that into some intriguing context.
I will say religious people talk to the dead all the time. They make shrines, and this is totally normal. I also think that a lot of people, when they're reaching the height of stress and have a breakdown, want to cut their hair. And although it is associated with some very famous mental illness moments, I don't think it has to be that [in this instance]... I think the film handles it well, in that it doesn't show her not taking pills. It doesn't show her escaping from a psych ward or doing those other things that films around its time were doing to villainize mental illness. Instead it’s showing a person who's on a very difficult journey, obviously experiencing a lot of pain, and, like you said, coping with it in all the wrong ways.
And big credit goes to Susan Tyrrell’s performance. She plays menacing in ways that women didn’t often get to play in early ’80s slashers. And yes, I know there’s a huge exception to this, so please don’t come at me with Mrs. Voorhees, kids. Trust me, I’m aware. But Wineman agreed that for the most part, this kind of thing was uncommon.
And really, everyone in the film gives a solid, nuanced performance, including an early role from Bill Paxton as Eddie, the prerequisite high school dick whose antagonistic relationship with Billy is more interesting than the usual bully/bullied dynamic because it’s clear that Eddie’s issues stem from insecurity, and Billy has no problem sticking up for himself. Wineman added that even Billy’s girlfriend, Julie, gets some agency, an aspect not usually afforded women actors in movies that focus on men.
Ultimately, though, this story is Billy’s, and what makes it so special is the statement it’s willing to make and the questions it’s willing to ask about our society’s dynamic with the queer community. But I’ll let Wineman have the last word on that, as he put it much more eloquently than I can:
It's important to see that homophobia is the villain in this movie. So many films like this unravel at the end by leaning on the trope of the unhinged person who can't get the object of their desire. I love that the twist on this one is that homophobia actively works to keep people unsafe. Had this homophobe cop not been so fixated on this theory and his need to protect his community from something that he didn't need to protect them from, he maybe could have gotten to the answer faster. The information was presented halfway through the film. That reminds me of Black Christmas (1974), which is a film about men who don't listen to women who are speaking up about what's happening to them. Had they been heard, they would have been safe, and [BBNM] to me feels a lot like that. I also think that BBNM is pivotal in a positive portrayal of a gay character.
Films like NOES 2 get a lot of attention for being the “gayest horror movie,” when in fact it just isn't. [BBNM] to me handles queer themes in a nuanced and intelligent way and raises questions that I want to discuss with people. I think that the ambiguity and what's going on with Billy allows for a conversation that is also important. I mean, just even in headlines in the last couple of weeks where a preschool in the UK is being protested because it's “teaching gay sex” when in actuality it’s just teaching that there are all different kinds of people. And that's still something that we face all the time. How do queer people fit into this discussion at school? We don't teach queer history. It’s just not a part of things now. Where do you find your mentors? Where do you find people to connect to who are like you in that journey to self-discovery? And so seeing something like [BBNM], that could [have] so easily portrayed the coach as a danger and instead does so as a mentor (at a time when that was a pretty dangerous thing to be) is important.