The things that can be said about Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker are vast. This is a film that has aged uniquely well for the subject matter that it covers and the performances in it are gems.
The story of this film is bizarre and can possibly explain a bit of how it’s been lost to the general populous for the better part of its existence. Released in 1981, it was directed by William Asher, better known for directing television shows such as Bewitched and I Love Lucy, it tells the story of an orphaned boy who finds himself wrapped in a murder investigation after his obsessive aunt kills a repair man. The whiplash of genres by the director must have confused audiences as much as Bob Clark directing Black Christmas or George Miller with Babe.
To confuse audiences further, the film has two titles it has gone by. It first had a limited release with the original title Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker and then received a wider release under the title Night Warning. The film was also considered too obscene by the British Board of Film Classification and was not given a rating and was subject to confiscation and destruction by police (see “Video Nasties”.)
Over the years, it has seen a few releases but has often been difficult to get due to those releases being limited and random and only a few releases on modern media with the first DVD release in 2014 and a first Blu-ray release in 2017.
Digging into the story, while this is technically a slasher film, the way it goes about the story tropes and the subject matter separate it from what came before and what has come since. For a good portion, it plays as a thriller and mystery of sorts.
The main character Billy (Jimmy McNichol) is a rarity in slashers as it is a final boy. While there are a handful of them out there, few of them ever stand out aside from Tommy Jarvis in his run of Friday the 13th films. Billy’s role really functions and performs on the same levels as the traditional final girl. His vulnerability and innocence is on full display throughout the film even to the point that he needs saved. If he could be compared to another character, it would be Laurie Strode in the Halloween (1978).
The standout performance though is easily Billy’s Aunt Cheryl played by Susan Tyrell. For the uninitiated, (of which I was myself) Susan Tyrell is an actress on another level. The reason this movie works as well as it does is because she was in it. The role is brilliantly written, but in lesser hands it could have easily come off as predictable. Tyrell plays a loving aunt, turned desperate, turned mad. The stretch within the 96 minute run time is inspiring. It hits camp, she chews every scene that she’s in and you will applaud her for it. Aunt Cheryl makes Betsy Palmer’s Mrs. Vorhees look downright civil and sane. Aunt Cheryl has more going on with her than most characters in a soap opera. Her obsession with her nephew Billy is uncomfortable and only gets worse as the film reveals more.
If the film had left the insanity at Aunt Cheryl as the antagonist, it would have been decent, and worth it for Susan Tyrell, but the film reaches to do more with its story and creates a brilliant portrayal of bigotry and homosexuality set in a very troubled time. For that, it gives us a handful of characters, a perceived love triangle, or maybe a square, and one bigoted Detective Joe Carlson played by Bo Svenson. Svenson’s sheer physical size imposes him into any scene he has, but the bigotry on hand feels more real than anything else in the film and drives him to ruin people’s lives and gives the film it’s endearing quality forty years later. Carlson isn’t an inept detective. He knows something is up with the murder from the start after Cheryl claims self-defense, but when he recognizes the victim is gay, he can’t see anything else and accuses Billy and his coach of being lovers.
Billy’s coach Tom Landers is the other rare factor in the film: he is a gay character that is portrayed as good hearted and non-stereotypical. This portrayal is something that Hollywood at large struggles with even to this day. The film as a whole comes across as refreshing as any gay character in any film even now generally has to either be purely about his sexuality or carry some level of stereotypical flamboyancy.
The film was released in 1981, just before the AIDS epidemic. I can’t help but imagine the inclusion of such as normalized, albeit straight passing, gay character is something that wouldn’t set well just a few years later, nor for thirty more years.
This seeming side story is one of abuse of power by Carlson, through and through, the final scene with Carlson is frightening in how truthful it still rings today. Racism and bigotry in law enforcement is the topic of journalism and Hollywood-fare today, however at the time, it was still shows like CHiPs and Cagney & Laceythat continued humanizing and heroizing officers following the likes of Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, and The Mod Squad among others.
For any fan of slasher films, this should be required viewing. The execution of filmmaking by William Asher is infallible, with several excellent performances and a scripted story that feels timeless, or at least far ahead of its time in so many unfortunate ways.