The opening scene of Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981) was filmed with a different director and cinematographer than the rest of the movie. Michael Miller (Jackson Country Jail, 1976) reportedly took too long making it, so was replaced by William Asher. The cinematographer was Jan de Bont (Speed, 1994; Twister, 1996, The Haunting, 1999.) He was replaced by Robbie Greenberg. It’s a terrific sequence and I wonder what the rest of the film could have been in Miller and de Bont’s hands.
The scene reminds me of the unforgettable one from Paul Verhoeven’s The 4th Man in which an automobile accident results in a steel pipe sliding off a truck in front of the car, crashing through the windshield, and going right through the driver’s head. For years, it has caused me to consciously avoid following a truck carrying anything that could slide off and impale my face. It's interesting that the scene in Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker came first. I would expect it to be the movie borrowing from another.
It’s all downhill from there, but not without some very interesting, sometimes problematic, plot points. Jimmy McNichol plays Billy Lynch, an orphan raised by his crazy aunt, Cheryl Roberts (Susan Tyrrell.) I mean, she’s certifiable! And this isn’t a spoiler; one look at her holding baby Billy as his parents drive off to meet their fate and you know it. Subtlety is neither part of her performance (supposedly at Asher’s direction) nor part of the story, especially when it takes a surprising turn in which the plot revolves around homosexuality.
When Aunt Cheryl kills the TV repairman, Phil Brody (Caskey Swaim), her claim of self-defense that he tried to rape her goes out the door when we learn that he was gay… and in a relationship with Billy’s basketball coach, Tom Landers (Steve Eastin.) The homophobic detective Joe Carlson’s (Bo Svenson) theory is that Billy killed Phil as part of some three-way love affair gone bad. The theory, and Carlson’s attitude, is somewhat offensive; however, when Billy spends time behind closed doors with the coach, I guess it’s not entirely unimaginable.
I never thought for a minute that Billy was gay. He has a girlfriend for whom he genuinely seems to care, Julie Linden (Julia Duffy.) However, a comment at the bottom of the Trivia section in the IMDb listing has me thinking…
The film actually has two mysteries: first, did Billy commit the murder the police officer suspects him of, and second, is Billy gay. The latter is never resolved.
I’d like to dig into this a bit. First, it’s not a mystery, to us, anyway, that Aunt Cheryl kills Phil Brody. We witness it. Since Billy watches through the window, then rushes in to help and pulls the knife out of his neck, that’s what friend Margie (Marcia Lewis) finds when she enters with Billy’s birthday cake (he’s turning 17.) So, it’s a mystery for anyone who didn’t see it happen, especially the detective investigating. (By the way, why is neither arrested? These days, we’d immediately arrest someone and ask questions later.)
Again, there’s no mystery to resolve. I don’t think it’s even resolved for Detective Carlson, who is so hell bent on his theory that he doesn’t listen as others discover the truth. In fact, oblivious to the evidence before him, he ultimately points his gun at Billy. He’s really got a grudge against the gays, as he perceives Billy to be. I’m guessing he had an unwelcome encounter in his earlier years and is probably closeted himself. His dated use of a term we don’t use anymore to describe a homosexual is full of hate and uncomfortable to watch.
It’s irrelevant if Billy is gay because he didn’t kill Brody. The only thing it would add to the story is that Carlson wasn’t wrong about him. However, if that is the case, there are two things that could have been done to take advantage of the plot point. First, the movie could spend a little more time with Carlson, letting us get to know him and perhaps develop a sympathetic bond. Second, the movie could add a stinger at the end where we learn that Billy is definitively gay, making Carlson’s fate more impactful.
My last thought about this topic is that Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is a very homoerotic film. McNichol is shirtless with his handsome 20-year old body exposed in more scenes than not. How about some shirts and skins basketball? We even see a full-length naked McNichol from behind as he enters the shower. In some ways, it’s like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) because Billy is the final girl just as Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) is the final girl in it. McNichol’s Billy doesn’t fit the feminine stereotype of a gay man, though.
There’s also the stereotype that a gay man often springs from a home where he’s raised by overbearing women. Keeping this notion from being offensive is that, despite Carlson’s actions and beliefs, gay men are actually treated favorably in Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Coach Landers delivers a sensitive performance without stereotype and his actions are noble, even sometimes heroic. It’s heartbreaking when he comes to Billy’s defense by admitting that Brody may have tried to rape Cheryl because he was once married… to a woman.
All of this aside, which is more than I ever expected to get out of the movie, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is entertaining as over-the-top grand guignol in the vein of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962.) It has some sinister moments and shocking set pieces, although I’m not sure someone comes back to their senses so soon after being hit in the head with a meat tenderizer, then nearly drowned. Watch to enjoy, and enter one of its rabbit holes if you find one.
AKA Night Warning
Written by Steve Briemer and Alan Jay Glueckman & Boon Collins
Directed by William Asher
Starring Jimmy McNichol, Susan Tyrrell, Bo Svenson, Marcia Lewis, Julia Duffy, Britt leach, Steve Eastin
RT 96 min.
Released Nov. 20, 1981 (Salem, OR)
Home Video Code Red (Blu-ray)