OCTOBER 2, 2012
A while back I said I'd try to watch all of the Video Nasties before the end of the year, and obviously I didn't accomplish that. But hopefully I can catch em all before I wrap up the site, and thanks to Phil Blankenship and The Cinefamily I will be putting a pretty good dent in that "unseen" part of the list, as they will be screening 30 of its entries, one per night (midnight), including several I haven't seen alongside the big guns like Evil Dead and whatever you want to call Fulci's zombie movies (I can't keep track anymore). Kicking things off is Night Warning, aka Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker - it doesn't matter which title you use as neither of them have a damn thing to do with the movie.
As Cinefamily guru Hadrian pointed out during his intro, they've tried to pace the films so that they start off relatively tame and ramp up to pure insanity, so that at first you'll say "Why was this banned?" and by the end you'll ask "Why isn't this STILL banned?". So it wasn't surprising that Night Warning was actually pretty tame; there's a gonzo car accident in the first few minutes (one partially shot by none other than Jan De Bont!), and some icky brushes with incest (brief kisses that are in no way proper between family members), but otherwise it's a pretty tame sorta-slasher about a deranged woman who kills anyone that threatens to disrupt her lonely life with her nephew, a basketball star who is about to start applying for colleges. There aren't many kills, and they're not particularly gory (most of the impact shots are off-screen, in fact), so if you know of its "Nasty" status and settle down for Cannibal Holocaust levels of depravity, you'll be very disappointed.
However, if you're up for a minor classic in the realms of WTF cinema, this will hit the spot (and then some), mainly courtesy of Susan Tyrell's unhinged turn as Aunt Cheryl. Even when she's doing something like pouring a glass of milk or giving her nephew a birthday card, she excels at making you uncomfortable in the process, and the script thankfully lets her get more and more insane as it goes. By the third act she's chopping off half her hair, making cat noises, poisoning her nephew, and murdered a few innocent folks. There's a touch of Betsy Palmer/Mrs. Voorhees in these later scenes (especially when household "weapons" come into play), but Tyrell is on a level of her own - if there were awards for playing the crazy in a horror flick, she'd even beat out the posthumous nominees.
And in terms of scenery chewing, she's nearly matched by Bo Svenson, who has the thankless role of one of the most homophobic characters in film history. Early on, Cheryl kills a repairman who rejects her advances, and somehow Svenson gets it in his head that Billy (the nephew) was the actual murderer, killing him after a lover's quarrel. He then proceeds to call him a "fag" about 395 times, and even when his partner (played by Britt Leach, best known (to me) as the clueless manager from Silent Night Deadly Night) starts finding plenty of evidence that proves that a. the kid isn't gay and b. Cheryl was most likely the killer, he ignores it all - he's hellbent on taking this kid down, mainly because he seems to hate gay people. Even for sleazy early 80s flicks, it's a pretty weird subplot, topped only by its denouement, which I had to confirm actually happened because it seems like something I'd make up in my sleep. I won't spoil it, but this film has the best surprise "on-screen text epilogue" since American Graffiti - even the damn TEXT in this movie is nuts.
The pacing is a little off, however. After the great opening and the death of the repairman a few minutes later, the middle doesn't have a lot going on, to the extent where I wondered if this was actually a horror movie (not all of the Nasties are). The final reel or so makes up for it with a few kills in rapid succession, plus Tyrell's transformation into full blown loon, but to get there you gotta watch a lot of repetitive scenes where Billy tries to have a little independence, only to get caught by Aunt Cheryl. A fight will break out, then she'll apologize and do something creepy, and then it all starts up again. There's a subplot about his rivalry on the basketball team with a young actor named "William" Paxton (his biggest role to date), but he never meets a grisly end courtesy of Cheryl, so this stuff is just padding. Oh, and then Svenson/Leach will pop up from time to time to discuss who they think killed the repairman, but we know the answer so it's not exactly exciting when they find clues. There's still a lot of weirdness in these scenes (Leach has a great bit where he talks to Billy's girlfriend), but in terms of horror, there's a good 30-40 minute chunk that really could have benefited from a kill scene (or even a full blown Cheryl freak out) to give it a shot of adrenaline. The climax has a meddlesome neighbor AND the girlfriend sneaking around - the neighbor should have been dispatched much earlier, as now she's just kind of in the way since we know she's a goner, whereas the girlfriend is a bit of a wild card.
Of course, this is only an issue for those watching at home. In theaters, the crowd never stops reacting to the weird dialogue, complete lack of political correctness, Tyrell's occasional looks (or actions) of lust toward her nephew, etc. As a crowd movie it's damn near perfect, but those lulls might be a bit of a concern if this deranged curio ever finds its way onto legitimate DVD. However, if you can't wait that long, Amazon actually has a novelization for the thing (under the Butcher... title), which I've linked below and will most likely buy on Friday once I get paid. If the book is from Cheryl's perspective... oh man.
What say you?