Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Auntie Dearest: BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (1982)

WARNING: This review contains spoilers.  If you have not seen the film, I’d suggest not reading it.  If you like well written reviews, I also suggest not reading it.

Originally announced by Code Red for release in 2008 (!), the cult classic BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (1982) has finally hit DVD this year and this special edition is sure to be a treat for any fans of the film.  With a storyline more befitting nowadays of a Lifetime movie, BUTCHER is a film ahead of its time in many ways.  It is also the precursor to the popular late ‘80s/early ‘90s "________ from hell" subgenre (this being the "Aunt from Hell" entry). While the film itself could be considered a by-the-numbers thriller with some horror elements, it is still worth viewing for the absolutely amazing performance by Susan Tyrrell.

The movie opens with three-year-old Billy Lynch being left in the care of his Aunt Cheryl (Tyrrell) while his parents go away for a vacation.  En route to their destination, the brakes fail on their car on a winding roadway in the mountains, resulting in a spectacular car crash (the makers of FINAL DESTINATION 2 [2003] definitely saw this wreck choreographed by veteran stunt coordinator Paul Baxley, father of future stuntman/director Craig Baxley).  Fourteen years later, the seventeen-year-old Billy (Jimmy McNichol) is leading a normal life, having been raised by his Aunt in his parents’ old house.  Weeks from his birthday and graduation, he seems to have it all as he is dating Julia (Julia Duffy) and might be able to get a full athletic scholarship to college for basketball.

His seemingly ideal life is shattered when he comes home one day and finds his Aunt standing over the dead body of a TV repairman.  She insists he tried to rape her (audiences know otherwise since we see her trying to force herself upon him, screaming “I need a man!”) and poor Jimmy gets caught holding the knife after he pulls it out and some of Cheryl’s friends show up for his birthday party.  Enter Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), a world class bigot who doesn’t believe Cheryl’s story.  He comes up with an even more outlandish theory – since the victim was gay and a partner of Billy’s basketball coach (Steve Eastin), Billy must be gay too and killed the repairman in some convoluted love triangle that only an inept detective could envision.  Unfortunately, Billy must deal with the cop’s incessant hounding while slowly coming to the realization that his Aunt might have a few screws loose.

Far from being a sleazy horror cash-in by some young filmmaker, BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER was made by Hollywood pros with some really shocking backgrounds of their own.  Director William Asher actually helmed hundreds of episodes of innocuous TV shows such as I LOVE LUCY, BEWITCHED, and GIDGET; he was also the man responsible for the Frankie Avalon BEACH movies (!) in the 1960s.  To say BUTCHER is unlike anything on his filmography (he made it between stints directing episodes of THE BAD NEWS BEARS and PRIVATE BENJAMIN TV series incarnations) is an understatement.  I can’t remember the episode of LUCY that showcased an over-the-top violent finale featuring multiple stabbings, a garroting, a shooting, gutting by fire poker and a pickled severed head!  Yet his steady hand brings a great seriousness and even some jet black comedy to the proceedings.  The screenplay by Steve Briemer, Boon Collins and Alan Jay Glueckman is painfully similar to the earlier THE ATTIC (1979), going so far as to have the lead lunatic keeping a dead beau's corpse.  Where it stands out are several allusions to incest and the subplot involving the homophobic cop played by Svenson, which allowed for quite possibly one of horrordom’s first positive depiction of an openly gay character in the basketball coach. The cast is fine with lead McNichol, brother of Kristy, providing the right amount of innocence as Billy and Julia Duffy, as Billy's put upon girlfriend Julia, taking her fair share of hard licks, including a violent scuffle with Tyrrell in a swamp (no stunt doubles here). Sharp-eyed viewers will spot a young Bill Paxton as a high school basketball thug.

If the film belongs to anyone, it is acting dynamo Susan Tyrrell.  She begins the film stable enough with a 1950s look, doting over her teenage nephew and trying to convince him to stay with her. When it appears that Billy may end up getting a scholarship to the University of Colorado, the character of Cheryl becomes increasingly unbalanced. By the end of the film, she is completely nuts and it is hard to even believe that Tyrrell, grunting and cursing with uncombed, shorn hair, is the same actress seen 90 minutes earlier. It is truly one of the most terrifying performances, delivered with such passion that I actually feared for the actors on set.  If you need any indication of her power as a thespian, watch the milk scene where she switches from doting caregiver to vicious torturer (“Drink it!”) in a nanosecond.  She is so damn crazy that I swear I used to date her.  In the annals of cinematic psycho ladies, Tyrrell leaps into the top three craziest female performances of all-time, right next to luminaries such as Bette Davis (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) and Shelley Winters (WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?).

In fact, the filmmakers should have called this film WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH AUNT CHERYL or something. Having dealt with a glut of titles (including MOMMA’S BOY, THRILLED TO DEATH and eventual US title NIGHT WARNING), the film never got a chance to connect fully with theatrical audiences back in the day.  Thankfully a cult following emerged via TV and video and the film is fondly remembered today. This makes Code Red’s special edition a welcome gift for any fan.  The film is given a HD transfer from the original camera negatives and it is easily the best the film has ever looked.  Extras include two audio commentaries (one with Jimmy McNichol, the other with producer Steven Briemer and co-writer Glueckman) and over 45 minutes of interviews with cast and crew including McNichol, Eastin, Tyrrell, Briemer (who laments over the distributor renaming the film NIGHT WARNING), and FX guy Alan Alpone.  It seems everyone disliked Svenson, with some being diplomatic while other laying it out (Alpone says ol’ Bo got punched in the face after sexually harassing a crew member).  As with the film, Tyrrell once again dominates the proceedings.  She is shown in a ten minute clip reacting to portions of the film, which she says she has never seen.  She is initially very dismissive of the film (“Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture,” she jokes) but seems rather caught up in it (and her performance) during the crazed finale.  I have to agree with Casey Scott when he lamented on Facebook that he’d pay to see this entire on camera capturing of Su-Su.  As it stands, it is a nice reminder of one of the great crazy ladies, who sadly passed away in 2012.

Moments of Clarity:

2 Reactions:

  1. To borrow a phrase from one of the great crazy ladies: "Who do I have to fuck to get the entire feature-length SuSu video interview?"

    ReplyDelete
  2. SuSu HATED this film, but her opinion must have mellowed over the years. The Alamo Drafthouse screened it, Tyrrell came on to do a meet and greet, fell in love with Austin, and moved there to spend her final days.

    ReplyDelete

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