Night Warning (1983)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2012-06-27 06:40

Written by: Steve Briemer, Alan Jay Glueckman, and Boon Colllins
Directed by: William Asher
Starring: Jimmy McNichol, Susan Tyrrell and Bo Svenson

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“Perverts and sluts! They are doing everything they can to take him away from us."

Night Warning--or as it's also known by its much more evocative and cooler title, Butcher Baker, Nightmare Maker--is one of the more notorious Video Nasties and is typically grouped into the obscure slasher dustbin. It delivers on at least half of its reputation, as it certainly revels in sleaze at times; however, it doesn’t necessarily just wallow in violence--in fact, it’s barely a slasher movie, and you’ll find more impressive gore shows in its more mainstream contemporaries. Instead, Night Warning is more of an 80s update of psycho-biddy flicks, and it has just enough craziness and magnetic central performances to stay compelling despite itself.

Susan Tyrrell’s Aunt Cheryl is the central loony; after the her sister and brother-in-law collide with a logging truck (eat your heart out--or knock your head off, Final Destination 2!), Cheryl raises their son, Billy. Fourteen years after the accident, Billy (Jimmy McNichol) is his school’s star basketball player with aspirations of moving off to college with his girlfriend (Julia Duffy). Cheryl, who never married, is resistant towards the idea because she needs a man around the house and wants Billy all to herself--in every sense of the expression.

And if you’re expecting to see Cheryl hack and slash her way through anyone who comes between her and her nephew, you’ll either be sorely disappointed or pleasantly surprised depending on your disposition. Night Warning isn’t really a body count film (only 7 bodies are piled up, mostly towards the end), as it’s more of a clunky drama and police procedural. The police get drawn into things when Cheryl stabs a TV repairman to death for not having sex with her; her claims that he attempted to rape her sound a little suspicious to the police, who actually end up pinning the murder on Billy. This is where Night Warning manages to tack a little more sleaze onto its proceedings--as if incest and murder weren’t enough, it also finds a raging homophobic streak in the form of Bo Svenson’s detective, who somehow comes off as worse than a spinster looking to jump her nephew’s bones.

Svenson is an outrageous cartoon, a hate-filled yokel who constantly barks up the wrong tree, all the while dishing out casual epithets It’s almost comical--not so much the hatefulness, but the outrageousness of it all, especially when he’s paired with another detective (Britt Leach) who’s constantly unraveling Cheryl’s sordid past and arriving at the truth of the grisly murder scene. Svenson, who is convinced Billy killed the repairman as part of a gay lovers’ quarrel (after all, the poor guy “never got his pecker out!”) , constantly scoffs at the notion that a lady with the hots for her own kin might really be nuts. It turns out that Cheryl does have even more skeletons in her closet--well, one’s in the basement, actually, and she’s prone to having conversations with it when no one’s around. After a while, shrewd viewers will have pieced all this stuff together, and the film takes a while to officially give up its ghost, so it lumbers about a bit during the middle section that sees all the characters wandering about oblivious to Cheryl’s weirdness.

This part is a little dull, especially since McNichol and Duffy are hopelessly dull in a film that should be anything but. They threaten to sap the fun right out of the film whenever the film pretends to care about their burgeoning romance. When Cheryl catches them in the act, it’s a welcome reprieve from this soppy teenage bullshit, and it gives Tyrrell an opportunity to go into hysterics. She is clearly the film’s indomitable presence and is often a complete contradiction within the span of one scene; one second she’s throwing deranged fits (she even makes meat tenderizing an unnerving affair), the next she’s totally doting and motherly. The husky-voiced actress (who was actually nominated for an Oscar about a decade earlier for Fat City) is like the yin to Svenson’s yang in terms of insanity, and you’d think they’d get along better considering their moral slants, or at least the outward appearances of them. Both are deathly afraid of perversion and deviance, all the while remaining blissfully unaware of their own psychosis.

Tyrrell and Svenson also infuse the film with huge camp energy--the two are delightful to watch and salvage Night Warning by taking William Asher’s camp undertones and running with them. Asher is perhaps most famous for his work on the Frankie and Annette Beach Party films, wherein he created an idyllic teenage existence in the 60s; Night Warning feels like a direct attempt to tear that down (or at least reconfigure it) with a decidedly ugly and grimy film filled with blunt violence and general unseemliness. If there’s any genuine horror to be found in Night Warning, it’s in the destruction of family, which becomes twisted and distorted from its pleasant sitcom form (which Asher also had a hand in creating with his TV work). It’s a film that just feels like it should be dirty, what with the Oedipal complexes and homophobia, and the campy humor renders it all so bizarre. Night Warning doesn’t seem like the type of film you’d call fun, but it kind of is since it’s far too ridiculous to take seriously.

When it’s embracing this (and it generally is whenever its most memorable characters are on screen), it’s a hoot, a totally greasy and demented take-down of the blossoming moral majority. Beneath its sleazy veneer, it’s quite progressive--its sympathies (obviously) lie with its teenage protagonists and Billy’s gay basketball coach (Steave Eastin) who becomes unfairly maligned when he’s caught in Svenson’s crosshairs, and all of the terrible people are repressed in some way. One wonders how Night Warning might have turned out if the repairman had just boned Cheryl in the first place. We’ll never know, which is perhaps a delight to fans of this sort of thing; said fans still have to seek Night Warning out on VHS, as it still hasn’t made the leap to DVD. Code Red has been talking up a release for years now, but nothing has come of it so far (and given their recent distribution issues, who knows if it’s ever coming). I suppose anyone who’s been waiting for it for years will eventually snap it up regardless, but anyone who’s been curious about the film due to its reputation should find it fairly rewarding. If nothing else, it’s memorably lurid and delivers two compelling performances that prove how fun it is to watch terrible people. Buy it!

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