Sunday, October 12, 2008

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (Night Warning) (1981)

(5/25/12: I'm shocked to see that there are over 1350 hits to just this one review, and this is my blog's top viewed page. Thanks, guys!)

If I close my eyes right now, it's 1981. My brother has just turned a year old and I've entered the second grade. I am sitting in the living room of my father's old house in Reedley, California and we're watching KFSN-TV. Suddenly a commercial appears on the screen of a spiralling psychadelic swirl of some sorts and there is a shilouette of a boy and girl, holding hands and running in front of it. I can't make out what the announcer is saying but I do remember him uttering the words in his deep gruff voice, "Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Rated R." That was so many years ago and still, I can remember it like it was just this morning. It was one of those things that as a child, is burned into your memory forever. And that was just the 10 second television spot.

That's all I would hear about the film until 1999 when I would visit a mom and pop video store and see the box for a film called Night Warning that had an image of a boy and girl, holding hands, and running. I instantly remembered that television spot and I could hear the announcer's voice in my mind again. I picked up the box and was immediately confused by the synposis on the back cover. It sounded nothing like the commercial would have been. So I put the movie back on the shelf and walked out with both the box image and film synposis in my head. A few years later, the wonder that is the Internet Movie Data Base was introduced to me and I quickly began to spend countless hours on the site, looking up information about those obsure film I new little to nothing about. I remembered the title Night Warning and decided one late night to look it up and to my own surprise, I read that this was indeed Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker - the same film whose TV spot I'd remember so longingly from my days as a kid - and I had to look for it, but with no luck as I got to read that the film was one of the original films listed on the DPP Video Nasties list of the mid-80's in Britain and that it was very long out of print. I didn't give up though. I remember scouting countless mom and pop video stores and Goodwill stores in my area and even if I was out of town visiting, I'd hit the local charity shops just to see if I could come across anything even remotely close to what I'd seen back in the late 90's - even if it was just the film itself with no box. Again, no luck. I resorted to several "collector to collector" sites on the internet and still, nobody had this film in print. And then one day, again, I took a venture on Ebay while living in Missouri and found the film, the same box cover and all that I'd seen at one of the last independent mom and pops in Brownsville, Texas. I was ecstatic.

In all honest truth, I ended up paying almost $30 for the U.S. out-of-print Thorn/EMI VHS edition in it's lovely white makeshift clam shell casing. I didn't care, I just wanted this in my collection. I had researched the film enough to learn about its bizarre and completely original plot line and the trivial aspects behind the film but never got to actually sit down and watch the film in its entirety until just last week, almost three years after it oringally made its way into my ever-growing collection. And wow, was it worth the wait.

The plot surrounds Billy (a very *cough* cute and twinkie Jimmy McNichol - yes, brother of actress Kristy) and his loving aunt Cheryl (an astounding Susan Tyrell) who brings him up after his parents die in a tragic auto accident when he was only three years old. What surmounts from the prologue is something that I never would have expected. We flash forward fourteen years to the eve of Billy's seventeenth birthday and an episode where auntie Cheryl calls over the local repairman to have something in the house fixed. When her sexual advances don't work on the bloke - and there is good reason why - all hell breaks loose and she kills the poor bastard with a knife as a horrified Billy watches outside through the window. Claiming it as an attempted rape, the local police cheif (Bo Svenson) doesn't believe her story and thinks Billy did the deed and that auntie is just protecting him. But little does everyone know that Mr. Fix It was playing for the other team and was seeing the local high school basketball coach whom the police think convinced Billy to kill him. To make matters worse, the cheif thinks that Billy is well, playing on the same court. Can you say, "gay love triangle"? And that's just one of the bizarre plots to this film.

The second plot involves auntie Cheryl, the loving 'mother' that Billy never had who is trying everything within her power to get her dear nephew to stay with her instead of running off to college with his girlfriend (Designing Women's Julia Duffy in a very surprising role). She loves her dear boy and the more you watch her around him, the more you hear her talk to him, the more you realize that there's more to her love for Billy that the film is willing to admit, at first. There is a very bizarre scene in which Billy is about to take a shower and aunt Cheryl walks in to talk to him, as he's standing in front of her stark naked and they stand there in front of one another, as if nothing. That really made my stomach churn a bit, even because I got to see little 'ol Billy's naked backside for a good three minutes. It slowly goes from her being his protector to outright jealousy. When she leaves for the weekend and comes home early to find Billy in bed with his amore, she makes a scene, throwing the poor girl out of the house, calling her every name in the book, and firmly setting her rules that Billy is not to be with any woman. Yes, and it gets worse. Her attempts to make sure he stays are so determined that she begins to drug his milk so that he'll fail in basketball to the point where he could lose the offer for an athletic scholarship. It's absolutely horrifying. But at the same time, it's amazing how horror films (or any films for that matter) in this day and age don't even go near this type of subject matter. And this one stands out, believe me. But, what is the secret that aunt Cheryl is hiding in her basement that nobody can ever know about?

If you really think about it, the story is rather sick on most, if not all, levels but it is presented and executed quite well. Billy has to defend himself from the chief (who loves to use the term "fag" which, in this film, is used over twenty times in the span of three short minutes) and the school bully (Bill Paxton in one of his first film roles) and with everything that's going on, he has to deal with the antics of aunt Cheryl. So what is a teenaged boy in love supposed to do? Get to the bottom of things, snoop around the house, get the girlfriend to help out, and finally expose the truth for what it is: Aunt Cheryl really killed the gay Maytag Man because he didn't like her sexually (who would with her psychotic disposition?), that Aunt Cheryl isn't really his aunt, she's his mother (even I didn't see that coming), her boyfriend who mysteriously disappeared one day is actually down in the basement in the form of a rotting corpse with a candle-laden shrine made to his memory, and she wants an incestual relationship with the boy who made her life complete. Now that is one messed up film plot if I'd ever heard of one before. But it works here and that's what counts.

The film stands out from the majority of the horror films of the era. Though I'm not sure as to why it remains on the DPP Video Nasties list, as there isn't much gore in the film at all. Maybe it could be because of the really bizarre nature of the film and the issues and subject matter it tackles head-on. I've never seen a movie like this before and I don't think anyone would make a film like this in today's modern world. With it being out of print on VHS, DVD distributors Code Red have already included this on their coming soon list so hopefully, 2008 will finally see this one get it's proper treatment. I would love to see an interview with Susan Tyrell, or at least hear her on the commentary, just to see what her viewpoints on the film were then and now. This is arguably her best role, period. While this one, for me, was really hard to get a hold of, I don't suggest seeking this out on VHS. If you're curious, Code Red's DVD should be out soon, and all their releases so far have had reasonable price tage on them, so wait for this to come out. This is one film that will stay in your mind for a while and will have you talking about it days after you've seen it. Definitely one that didn't go mainstream, and for good reason.

(Update: 5/25/2012) So it seems that Code Red is most likely not going to release this film on DVD, especially with the whole Nightmare fiasco that ran shock waves through the company. We've been waiting for many years for this one to come out and it looks like those of us who are lucky enough to have it on VHS are going to have to hold on tight to our copies of the Thorn/EMI cassette. It would have been really great to see an on-camera interview with Jimmy McNichol - which was the reason CR gave us that had been delaying its release. I actually transferred my copy to DVD-R so that way I wouldn't wear out or damage the VHS - since it seems that will be the way it will ever be in print of the U.S. It would have been also great to have a print of the film with both the original "Butcher, Baker" title card and the original trailer or TV spot that I mention at the beginning of this review. I'm not going to throw shade or talk smack about Code Red because they have at least made the effort of releasing some great old memories. Some fans expect way too much from a small distribution company not completely understanding the monies and sacrifices that go on behind the scenes just to put something on the store shelf. I love the fact that they've been able to put out gems like The Unseen, Boarding House and Sole Survivor - and for that I am grateful. 


Ross Horsley said...

Gosh, I seriously need to see this. Any idea when the Code Red DVD is due out? I had a look on the website but couldn't find it. I really like your blog, by the way, and I'm savouring reading back through it.

Anonymous said...

Great film....
Your blog is excellent too.
Shame about the homophobia.There was a little too much of it in this film.Could have been a little balance.

LeonelB said...

Thank you very much! Glad you're enjoying my little piece of handiwork!