By JAMES TUCKER
Starring Susan Tyrell, Jimmy McNichol, Julia Duffy
Directed by William Asher
Written by Alan Jay Glueckman, Steve Briemer, Boon Collins
Produced by Steve Briemer
I watched all five seasons of Bates Motel. I’ve seen both the Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp series. So it’s no easy claim for me to make, nor should I be taken lightly, when I say that Susan Tyrell is one of the craziest mothers in horror film history.
Shudder recently added BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (a.k.a. NIGHT WARNING) to their platform, and I’ll admit that I didn’t expect much going into it. From the poster I was expecting some kind of psychosexual thriller, and, I suppose, in the end, I did get SOMETHING like that. What I got was an ’80s slasher with an incestuous motherly antagonist that would give Freud, himself nightmares.
Let me break it down.
After Billy’s (Jimmy McNichol’s) parents die in a mysterious car accident (which isn’t all that strange to the viewers, who can put two and two together when the antagonist leers at the camera), his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) adopts him as her own, keeping him at her home until the boy turns 17. She’s content living with just him (and talking to her ex in her shrine downstairs), and wants him to stay with her at all costs, getting jealous when he goes to hang out with his girlfriend and leering at him (and…caressing him) every chance she gets. When his coach manages to arrange for a talent scout to watch Billy play, he’s excited; if the talent scout likes what he’s got, he’ll get a scholarship to the university his girlfriend Julia (Julia Duffy) is going to in Denver, and become a professional basketball player. Aunt Cheryl, however, is much less pleased. You see, she fought so hard to make Billy hers, and she isn’t about to lose him to some “floozy” from school. What follows is a series of grounded, realistic, disturbing murders that culminate in one of the most enthralling climaxes in the slasher genre.
What this movie does right from the jump is that it makes you invested in both its characters and its world. You never want any of the characters to die, aside from a couple notable exceptions, and when they do it feels like a punch to the gut. They all feel like fully realized, likable people that have a place in this world and all want to see Billy succeed and become his own man. Unfortunately, we also have the all-too-believable antagonist, whose sublimated (Although at times, VERY apparent, maybe TOO apparent) incestuous desires translate into a desire to control every aspect of Billy’s life. She poisons his food to make him infirm, moves him out of his room into what looks like a baby’s nursery, frames him for murder and attempts, multiple times, to sabotage his pursuit at a scholarship. Cheryl is a terrifying character, both dramatically over the top and frighteningly real, and you’ll be rooting the whole time for Billy to see what his aunt really is and break free from her control. They also very smoothly transform her into an excellent slasher villain in the final act with some revelations that may remind you of the mother of a certain franchise slasher that really hates Fridays. Even with the obvious influence, it feels unique and well-grounded in everything that came before.
It’s worth taking a moment to talk about the homophobia in the film. You’re going to see a cop (played by Bo Svenson) who embodies conservative ideals in the ’80s: he’s a loose cannon with a hatred for immigrants and gay people, and he absolutely almost allows the antagonist to get away with it by following a homophobic theory in the case. The language here is rough, and may be triggering to some viewers, however, you’ll be happy to know that the film rejects these views, making sure he gets his just desserts and rebuking everything he stands for. This movie is fundamentally about saying “fuck you” to outside powers that would impose any kind of control over another’s life, and I love it for that.
In short, BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER is the kind of tense, grounded slasher with just the right amount of camp that I wish we got more of. It builds off the foundation its predecessors established to produce a disturbing, entertaining, over the top ’80s slasher that is downright unforgettable. I’m so thankful Shudder resurrected it so that I, and others looking for a unique slasher fix, can watch it again.
I’m giving it a 10. It’s a near perfect film, and I wish modern attempts at “slasher revivals” would follow it’s grounded, character driven approach.
BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER is now streaming on Shudder.