Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981)

William Asher was credited by many as inventing the TV sitcom. He brought Our Miss Brooks from radio to TV, directed 100 out of 179 episodes of I Love Lucy, produced and directed Bewitched (which starred his second wife Elizabeth Montgomery) and also had episodes of Make Room for Daddy, The Twilight Zone, The Patty Duke Show, Gidget, The Dukes of Hazzard and Alice on his resume. He even planned JFK’s inauguration ceremony along with Frank Sinatra.

He was also one of the leading beach party directors, with Beach PartyMuscle Beach, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, Beach Blanket Bingo and Bikini Beach to his credit. Of this time in his life he would say, “The scripts of the Beach Party films were sheer nonsense, but they were fun and positive. When kids see the films now, they can get some idea of what the ’60s were like. The whole thing was a dream, of course. But it was a nice dream.”

I tell you all this to set you up for one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen — imagine what that entails — and one that has stuck with me for years:: Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker.

Originally, Michael Miller (Jackson County Jail, Silent Rage) was set to direct this film, but he was replaced by Asher (he had also recently lost the job on The Eyes of Laura Mars to Irvin Kershner). He did direct the opening, however.

And what an opening it is!

Years ago, Billy (Jimmy McNichol, brother of Kristy, who is shirtless pretty much for the entire film) was sent to stay with his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell, owning this movie like no one has ever owned a movie before). However, not only did their breaks give out, but a giant log beheads Billy’s dad and the car goes off a cliff, where we see a photo of young Billy float out into the water as the car explodes. Yes, all of that, in the very first scene of the movie!

Now, Billy is a high school senior living with his aunt. He has a dream of playing basketball on a scholarship at the University of Denver, but Cheryl is having none of it. His school life isn’t much better, as his teammate Eddie (Bill Paxton!) is jealous of his closeness to their coach Tom Landers (Steve Eastin, Field of Dreams). But there’s a bright silver lining in that the school’s newspaper photographer, Julia (Julia Duffy from TV’s Newhart) is into him.

On Billy’s seventeenth birthday, his aunt changes her mind about the scholarship just in time for her to put the moves on TV repairman Phil Brody (William Caskey Swaim, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning), who rebuffs her, only to then pull down his pants and tell her to “work it.” She flips out and attacks him, so he shoves her down. She retaliates with a kitchen knife as Billy watches from outside the window as blood sprays all over his birthday balloons.

Cheryl hysterically tells the police that Phil tried to rape her. But his blood is all over Billy and so are the kid’s prints on the knife. That brings in Joe Carlson (a brutal Bo Svenson), whose homophobic mindset deduces that Billy’s coach Tom was his love and that Billy killed Phil — who was Tom’s lover — as part of a love triangle gone wrong. He thinks Cheryl is just covering up for her nephew when the truth is anything but that.

What follows is Cheryl going bonkers, doing all manner of things like drugging Billy’s milk so that his basketball tryout goes wrong and shearing her hair into an unmanageable chunk of a hairstyle. Oh yeah — she also treats her nephew way too lovingly, to the point that it’s uncomfortable. And then she goes completely insane when she catches Billy in bed with his new girlfriend.

Of course, by the end of the film she’s nearly murdered that girlfriend twice, stabbed a noisy neighbor, killed a cop and we discover that she’s really Billy’s mom and his birth father’s body in mummified in the basement while his head floats in a jar of formaldehyde.

Even after their final confrontation, Billy must deal with Joe the cop and his bigoted ways. To say that this movie builds to a fever pitch is an understatement. And I really don’t want to give all that much more away. Yes — even with those spoilers above, there’s so much more to explore here.

Nearly all of the major creative forces of this film came from places of personal pain. Asher lived through the Depression, losing his father before he was even a teenager. His mother (stage actress Lillian Bonner) became an alcoholic so he escaped by way of the Army Signal Corps at the age of 15.

Screenwriter Alan Jay Glueckman (his script Russkies was made into a film directed by Halloween II and Halloween: Resurrection director Rick Rosenthal, plus he wrote two home invasion made for TV movies, The Fear Inside and Face of Fear. Plus, his short film Pickup was the first film appearance of Glenn Close) continually wondered about who his birth parents were and had a tumultuous relationship with his adoptive ones due to their refusal to accept his homosexuality.

And Susan Tyrell, the heart of this film, was born into show business. Her father was a top agent at the William Morris Agency, representing Loretta Young and Carole Lombard. Yet she always described her proper upbringing as miserable, due to her demanding British mother, a socialite and member of the diplomatic corps in China and the Philippines during the 1930s and 1940s.

By her teenage years, Tyrell had cut off contact with her mother, of whom she would say, “The last thing my mother said to me was, “SuSu, your life is a celebration of everything that is cheap and tawdry.” I’ve always liked that, and I’ve always tried to live up to it.”

She stayed in contact with her father, who was able to use his connections to get her a bit part in a touring play with Art Carney, as well as have Look magazine follow the show. He’d die a few months later from a bee sting.

Even her Playbill obituary says that she specialized in roles like “whores, lushes and sexpots.” Perhaps her most famous role was in John Huston’s Fat City, which earned her an Academy Award nomination. She also was part of the Warhol Factory scene and appeared in plenty of films that are part of my collection, such as being the Queen of the Sixth Dimension in Forbidden Zone, Solly in Angel and Avenging Angel, the miniature Midge Montana, wife to Kris Kristofferson’s ringmaster in Big Top Pee-Wee and Ramona Rickettes, the grandmother to Johnny Depp in Cry-Baby.

What I’m saying is, this is a movie made by people who actually lived.

This movie has it all — malignant motherhood, a modern day retelling of Oedipus, an inversion of the final girl trope where Billy becomes the victim and Julia the helpful savior and — strangely enough for a film made in 1981 — the homosexual characters are the positive characters in the story and not the monsters. In fact, Billy may be homosexual himself, if you chose to read the movie that way.

Of course, this movie was pretty much dead on arrival, thanks to a disastrous test screening and a new title, Night Warning, that says nothing about what the audience is about to see. It’s also a movie so strange that it seems to occupy its own universe, unlike any other film before or since. I can see why the general public wouldn’t enjoy it. In England, it made the infamous category 2 video nasty list.

Basically, what I’m saying is rush out, find this and watch it. Now.

This sold out the last time Ronin Flix offered it, so I’d head over to their site ASAP to grab one. It’s such a weird slice of cinema that demands to be in your collection.

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