Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Summer of Slash: Night Warning (aka Butcher, Baker. Nightmare Maker)


Also known under the much more intriguing title Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker William Asher’s Night Warning is a frustrating experience, for there is a good — even buried-treasure-kind-of-great — movie in there somewhere. However, the filmmaker’s compete lack of interest in genre aesthetics results in some horrifyingly dull sequences and bizarre choices that stick out like a sore thumb (the primary one being a squirm-inducing homophobic character). Night Warning boasts a few interesting setpieces, a helluva lead performance, and remains an incredibly flawed but intriguing enough curio that, if you’re a Video Nasties completist like myself, you should still check out.

The film opens with a young boy being dropped off by his parents at his aunt’s house. As the parents drive away, something goes horribly awry and the car drives right into the back of a truck with a giant pole sticking out of the back of the truck, decapitating the husband. As the mother tries to corral the wheel, she ends up driving off a cliff, getting herself all blowed-up. Okay, forget for a moment that there is an invention called an emergency brake and that if the husband had just shifted into neutral, coasted for a bit, and hit the e-break, then they may have gotten out of this with just some scratches—in spite of this, the opening setpiece (shot by an uncredited Jan De Bont) is really quite something for such a low-budget movie (Neil Marshall would use a similar sequence in his opening to The Descent).

We come to find that perhaps it wasn’t an accident, and that the young boy is Billy (Jimmy McNichol), who cut to as a senior in high school — a star basketball player looking for that scholarship to get him out of his low-rent town. Unfortunately, Billy’s aunt, Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell), has taken a liking to Billy and will do anything to keep him from leaving the nest. Yeah, it’s going to be that kind of movie. However unseemly the setup is, Night Warning has an interesting premise that is more akin to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Psycho with its narrative surrounding buried family secrets. It doesn’t take long for sweet aunt Cheryl to turn into psychotic aunt Cheryl when she kills a repairman one night and has Billy help her cover it up. It is here that we begin to see the cracks in Cheryl and that perhaps there is more to the story of Billy’s parents death.

Cheryl’s story really seems fishy to the racist, over-the-top homophobic sheriff (Bo Svenson in one of those great scene-chewing genre roles) who doesn’t understand her story about how the repairman tried to rape her so she had to kill him in self-defense, considering the repairman was gay. Linking this altogether for the sheriff is that the repairman had a secret relationship with the high school basketball coach who just so happens to be Billy’s mentor, and so in the mind of this bigot, that must mean that Billy killed the repairman because Billy is gay.

That seems like an awful lot of plot synopsis for a grimy little number like Night Warning, but it’s the narrative — and the way the characters act—that differentiates it from the myriad of slashers released in 1981-1982. Just when the film seems to be going off the rails, losing me in the process due to its horrendous overuse of the word “fag,” it takes a detour into the crazy, grabbing my attention (no matter how agape and dumbfounded I was while watching the film, it certainly had my attention) with a scene like aunt Cheryl purposely dripping milk on Billy’s chest so that she can drink it off of him. Yeah. You read that correctly.

It’s all played brilliantly wacked out, though, by Tyrrell. The downward spiral of aunt Cheryl (and Tryrrell’s physical transformation during said spiral) and her incestuous affection for her nephew is such a fascinating thing to watch. During the film’s final sequence, I found myself exhausted by Tyrrell’s sheer lunacy playing out in front of me. You don’t always expect this kind of performance from such a movie, but here it is, and it’s probably the main reason to see Night Warning.

There’s also Svenson’s performance as the sheriff. It is tiresome at first but overall an interesting choice considering such a horror usually has sheriff characters relegated to being nothing more than backwoods, slack-jawed bumblers. Here, however, the sheriff is a doofus, to be sure, but he’s such an assured doofus (and really, he is never wrong about who actually killed the repairman), so he’s extremely terrifying because he’s a bigot whose instincts are actually pretty honed.

And it is because of its portrayal of these characters that Night Warning feels so different; however, what make The Evil Dead or something like A Nightmare on Elm Street not “just another horror” movie are the aesthetic touches throughout that, differentiating it from other basic slashers with similar setups. The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street are just slasher at heart, but they’re slightly off-kilter way of approaching the slasher movie via narrative is coupled with an aesthetic that makes the viewer say, “wow.” What would The Evil Dead be without Sam Raimi and his now-famous “Raimi-cam?” Likely just another horror movie curio due to its distasteful scene where a tree rapes a woman and not the cult classic it is today. What would A Nightmare on Elm Street be if it just focused on slash and stalk sequences rather than putting so much energy and attention into creating a displacing experience with its outré dream sequences and bizarre bogeyman. Okay, what I’m getting at here is that Night Warning could have been so much more, had it any semblance of horror aesthetic. Hell, even something “lesser” (although I enjoy it quite a bit) like Jack Sholder’s Alone in the Dark is a basic slasher with an interesting twist and memorable setpieces.

Here, however, director Asher (who spent most of his time making movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini in addition to filming episodes of “I Love Lucy”) and co. seem to be going for a completely different effect. And that’s great, nobody appreciates that kind of effort to separate from the pack more than me; however, there needs to be something to look at here because it’s depriving its core audience of a few things: blood and that one “I must see this setpiece.” The former I can take or leave; great horror is not dependent upon blood and guts. The latter, however, is pretty inexcusable for a horror movie since the genre essentially asks us to check out logic at the door, lending itself to all kinds of potentially great setpieces because the same rules don’t always apply for horror films.

True, the opening decapitation/car accident is pretty phenomenal for a movie like this, but if Asher or his DP Robbie Greenberg could have just given any kind of effort (like the effort De Bont gave in his uncredited scene) in establishing some kind of disorienting point of view shots or brightening up certain scenes or whatever, then maybe Night Warning could be seen as something that rises above the routine . But it’s just too ugly to look at, and the aesthetic lets the narrative and the lead performance by Tyrrell down by not being able to match the weirdness underlining the narrative nor the effort that went into the off-the-wall  lunacy of its lead performance.

So, the premise is there to differentiate Night Warning from the glut, but it’s definitely something of a letdown after it announces pretty early that its not interested in being your typical post Friday the 13th slasher, and then just gets completely bogged down in the middle of the film due to the aesthetic being just too damn banal. Asher has no idea at all how to frame, block, or even conceive of an interesting shot that fits within the horror genre. And so ultimately this great performance from Tyrrell and this interesting, albeit disturbing, premise is wasted because there’s just nothing to look at (the lighting in this film is just atrocious). The film becomes more laughable by the end because Billy is ultimately a pretty dull character that we don’t care about (there’s a hilarious postscript to the film that fills in the blanks of Billy’s life after the fact as if we care about such closure with these kinds of movies), and we realize as an audience that best the filmmakers had they gave to us in the first five minutes of the movie.

Still (and I feel like I need to add this at the end here because I am somewhat positive about the film), as I often end these Summer of Slash posts, if you’re already a fan of the genre, specifically the slasher subgenre, then you should definitely seek this one out because it’s such an interesting little entry thanks to Tyrrell’s performance and the oddball, you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it narrative.


  1. "The director of the AIP beach movies also made a Video Nasty" is one of those completely unexpected discoveries that makes the world seem more beautifully unified than I could have ever predicted.

    1. I knew you would appreciate that. I just knew it. And, yes, when I looked up his credits, I smiled.

  2. "See the award-winning NIGHT WARNING!" Haha!

    Interesting that the trailer has exactly one shot of Susan Tyrell in it, and you'd never even know who she was or what she was doing in this movie from it.

    Yet the movie is an award winner! Yeah, I'm gonna have to reacquaint myself with this one. Thanks for the keen post, Kevin!

    1. Yeah, that trailer is really something else, isn't it? And, yes, it's odd how they omit the best part! Thanks for the checking this out, Dennis! Always an honor to know that you read what I write.

  3. I remember thinking this was moderately better than it had any right to be, and was actually pretty shocked at the themes they dropped into what is nominally a slasher film. You hit the nail on the head though in terms of what makes this a mostly unmemorable film, in that there isn't anything in it aesthetically that at all sets it apart.

    Also - Bo Svenson is one of those fun character actors that feels like he popped up in every Cannon and AIP film in the 80's. Probably played a cop or a general in all of them too.

    1. I can't remember if we watched this back in the Video Shack days or not. The title and some of the scenes were really familiar to me, but I don't think I ever sat down and watched the entire thing until recently. In addition to Svenson's awesomeness, Bill Paxton (as William Paxton) has a cameo as the tough guy jealous basketball player. I'll let that sink in.