In 1982, Vipco, the UK distributors of Abel Ferrara’s 1979 sleaze classic Driller Killer, committed the apparently reprehensible act of advertising their new acquisition by buying full page ads in British movie magazines. To further identify their new release as Driller Killer, Vipco had the audacity to include in their ads the movie’s box art. By these very acts of savagery, the company destroyed a large chunk of the British people’s moral fabric. A large number of concerned citizens, despite few of their ranks having actually seen the movie, complained to the Advertising Standards Agency to protest the film’s release and, perhaps, its very existence. All of this was spawned by the promotional artwork: a special-effects shot of the title character and one of his victims, a power drill between the two and splashes of red around. Either a movie called Driller Killer should have fluffier promotional art, or is grossly insensitive to those who may have succumbed to drill killings, in either event, it was wrong in its sheer and utter wrongness.
Add to this a nice little old woman named Mary Whitehouse, head of The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, for whom moral outrage was her tea, biscuits and oxygen. An outspoken crusader against anything not wholesome and good in the British media, she was a watchdog who vigilantly harassed the BBC and, in particular, the BBC's Director General, Sir Hugh Greene. This made her a bit of a punching bag for satire shows, but that mattered not one whit to her. But then, another smartass distributor came along, this time with the brilliant idea of a publicity stunt. In order to promote the United Kingdom’s release of Cannibal Holocaust, Go Video wrote an anonymous letter to Whitehouse expressing their own outrage at this film’s release, nay, the film’s very exposure to light! Whitehouse responded as they’d hoped and decried the film, holding up the letter as proof that we’d all gone to hell and it was up to NVLA to save us all. What neither Go Video nor Vipco realized was that if you get enough busy-bodies riled up, someone will have to pay attention just to get them to shut up. And the morality police are always the fastest to mobilize, to prove that their civilization is good and decent and any outside contradiction is simply the motivations of minority freaks, sleaze-merchants, pimps and drug dealers.
Thus was born the Video Recordings act of 1984 and the rise of The Video Nasty. Under the authority of the British Board of Film Classification, and their enforcer the Director of Public Prosecutions (DDP), dozens of movies were yanks from the shelves of video stores and many were banned outright from classification, meaning that they would not be shown to anyone in the public, under any condition. And one of the movies that fell victim to this nationwide ban was Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (also known as Night Warning), which dealt less with its gory killings and more with its intrinsic themes of sexuality of both the budding male and the repressed female, homophobia, reverse-Oedipalism, incest and the emotional results of a tragic loss early in one’s life. An exploitation film on the surface, it was nonetheless nominated for a Saturn Award for the Best Horror Movie of 1982 by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, but has never been seen in the UK. And thanks in part to that country’s suppression, it’s become a veritable lost film today.
When Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol) was three-years-old, his parents were killed in a horrible (and lengthy) car crash, leaving him in the care of his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell). Now seventeen, Billy is about to graduate high school with the hope of going to college on a basketball scholarship. Aunt Cheryl, who displays an uncomfortable amount of barely-appropriate affection towards Billy, does not want to see him go. Playful kidding aside and familial reticence aside, she tells him point blank, “College is for rich kids and people with brains. You wouldn't fit in.”
Chalking it up more to “Oh, that Aunt Cheryl,” he dismisses it as one of her eccentricities, like her insistence on his drinking milk every morning and waking him up for school by pawing at his naked back and purring in his ear. Jimmy is just a wide-eyed dumb kid with a pretty photographer girlfriend, Julie (Julia Duffy soon to be of Newhart fame), and a coach that really believes in him. Things’ll all work out.
On the other hand, Aunt Cheryl is clearly a sexually repressed, regretful spinster and Billy’s imminent departure raises both her desperate libido and homicidal tendencies. In an attempt to seduce their television repairman, she gets dolled up in the best fashion she remembers. But Mr. Repairman Phil Brody (Caskey Swaim) refuses her attention. Enraged, Cheryl stabs the man to death in their kitchen, just as Billy returns home from school. Breaking down into hysteria, she insists that Brody tried to rape her and that the killing was in self-defense.
Police detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson) sees things otherwise. The way he has it figured, it was Billy on the handle-end of that knife, enraged at seeing his Aunt in a romantic tryst. Cheryl is only covering for Billy. It’s obvious that Billy, tall, thin, sensitive Billy, is one of those blood-crazed homosexuals. The more he digs, the more convinced he becomes because Coach Landers (Steve Eastin) is also gay, and that he’d been in a relationship with Brody! And if Brody was “one of those”, what interest would he have in raping a woman? That can only mean one thing: a homosexual love triangle. Doing his duty, he pressures Landers to resign to remove that unhealthy influence from the impressionable young men on the team who have to shower together yet keep eyes up.
Carlson, who isn’t above using a gun to intimidate a suspect into a confession, becomes obsessed with Billy and eradicating his vile gay ways. (Which levers more suspicion on Carlson, if you ask me.) Fortunately, his partner, Det. Cook (Britt Leach—you’d know him if you saw him), doesn’t believe the whole triangle, er, angle, and starts doing some digging on his own, against Carlson’s orders. When he discovers that the cause of the crash that killed Billy’s parents was tampered brake lines, Cook is told to forget all about. Go on vacation and keep your nose out of it! Which is darned good detective work, again if you ask me. Why go with facts when hunches are so much more the policeman’s trade?
With the police watching them, Aunt Cheryl is even more insistent that Billy stays with her. The day of the Big Game complete with a scout from Denver University, which could make or break Billy’s educational career, she makes sure that he drinks his milk beforehand. Once it’s been properly prepared with some special medication. Billy not only blows the game but collapses unconscious on the court. So back to Aunt Cheryl he goes. But not to school. “You don't want to go back, you've learned enough. Besides, it's full of perverts!”
Now, in addition to both Carlson and Cook nosing around into their lives, Julie decides that Aunt Cheryl is definitely not on the up-and-up and begins her own investigation. This, of course, leads to deflowering Billy and getting caught by Aunt Cheryl and a brand new psychotic hissy fit from her.
The next morning, Aunt Cheryl has chopped her flowing locks into a shorter hairstyle resembling that of a startled badger. All the better to show off her wild and crazy eyes. Which prompts Billy to join the separate investigations, hoping to uncover the truth about his parents’ death and the real source of Aunt Cheryl’s obsession, now spiked in the red on the Creepy Meter. The real dilemma for Billy is who does he protect himself from first: Aunt Cheryl or Det. Carlson?
While taking occasional dips into exploitation territory, Nightmare Maker / Night Warning is more a character-driven thriller than a horror film. The bulk of the gore is crammed into the final act when Aunt Cheryl is full-blown bananas, and even that is largely restrained, more shocking in its rage and intensity than for its spurting red. On the surface, we have a pair of incredibly unnerving villains, a shocking decapitation, a naked Julia Duffy and an early appearance by Bill Paxton (as the team bully, Eddie), so that should be more than enough to lure even the vaguely interested.
But the screenplay by Stephen F. Breimer and Alan Jay Glueckman and Boon Collins (the unequivocal genius between Abducted and Abducted II: The Reunion), really packs a lot of social and psychological commentary in what could have been a routine slasher flick. Obviously the writers had strong feelings about homophobia and abuse of authority because the character of Carlson is such an toxic force in the film, and Bo Svenson does a good job of keeping the cop a dimension ahead of what could have been characture. While the direction by veteran television William Asher (the inventor of the television sit-com with hits like Our Miss Brooks, I Love Lucy and Bewitched) is serviceable and he excels at keeping up the claustrophobic and near-unsanitary atmosphere, he pays particular care to the scenes between Billy and Aunt Cheryl. This could be because of his tempestuous relationship with his own abusive and alcoholic mother drawing him to the material. Regardless, the scenes between Tyrell and Lynch are squirm-inducing and play not like exploitation but with real incestual overtones.
Tyrell, it should be noted, is the undisputed star of the movie. McNichol is only okay and Duffy is plucky and likable, Tyrell effortlessly transforms Aunt Cheryl from a lonely, sympathetic lady at one moment to a frightening immovable force in another. Her descent into psychosis is gradual, but when she hits bottom, it’s believable due to the surprisingly subtle bits of business she employs at the beginning. The little Psycho moments with her and a mummified corpse in the basement are unnecessary. Aunt Cheryl is frightening because Tyrell brings her to life. She’s a real person who could live next door to just about anybody, caring for a kid who has no idea what a “real” relationship with a devoted relative is like. From his perspective, the constant touch of an aunt, her walking in on him while he showers, dresses, etc., is normal behavior.
So why would this movie get lumped in with the other video nasties? Likely it had nothing to do with the underlying content. The incestual nature is not explicit, nor is it acted upon, and in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the homophobia would have been applauded. Perhaps the sexuality both on screen and smoldering beneath, combined with the schlocky violence and the demented adult themes were too many ingredients for the BBFC. The unpleasant stew was too difficult to shrug off as another splatter fest. That it remains effective even today should give you an idea of how it was received by a very staunch and proper government concerned with moral authority. For an outwardly-trashy horror flick, Nightmare Maker is rife with uncomfortable subtext.
For a country that can be worked up over an advertisement, the entirety of Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker might have been just too much for them.