Thursday, November 08, 2012


Once upon a time (i.e. the late 1960s) Mom and Pop leave li’l Billy in the care of his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) before heading off on a long car journey. The kid’s screaming his head off, and with what happens in the next 90 minutes it’s almost as if he knew what’s coming. As Mom and Pop drive off, Cheryl turns away, obscuring Billy from view and smiling a knowing smile. Director William Asher freeze-frames the moment. It’s the first indication that something isn’t quite right.

We rejoin Mom and Pop far enough into their car journey that they’re navigating a twisty mountain round. Mom’s looking at snapshots of li’l Billy and cooing over how cute he is. Pop’s opining that he’s missing the li’l guy already. Hands up everyone who’s already marked these mawkish sentimentalists out as our first victims. You’re absolutely right. Pop begins the mountain road descent, tamps the brakes and … whaddaya know? … they don’t work. He reacts in the time-honoured tradition of characters in movies who find their brakes non-functional: he drives faster and steers wildly.

Allow me to pause for a rant. The implication is obvious (and is confirmed later in the movie): Cheryl wants Billy all for herself. Therefore the brakes have been sabotaged. Therefore Cheryl must have cut through the brake lines before her sister and brother-in-law left. So, rant the first: are we honestly supposed to believe that Mom and Pop have travelled far enough to arrive at a fucking mountain pass without once having to use the brakes? No stop signs, no intersections, no requirement to slow down because of volume of traffic or someone pulling out in front of them? Suburban house to mountain pass without ever needing to brake?

Allow me to indulge in another rant. Why do characters in movies who discover they’ve got no brakes always respond by mashing the accelerator pedal to the floor and jerking the steering wheel side to side? Why not, y’know, pop the motherfucker in neutral and yank the handbrake? Sure, you’re going to knacker the sychromesh, you’re looking at an insurance write-off and you’re probably going to suffer a little whiplash into the bargain, but – hey! – the chances of survival are infinitely better.

However, back to Mom and Pop on their own personal highway to hell, and Pop decides to go with the drive faster/steer wildly option and damned if the family saloon doesn’t go into the back of a logging truck with ten foot of tree-trunk overhanging. Said lumber goes through the windscreen and pulverises Pop. Mom gets hers when what’s left of the saloon goes over a cliff and plunges into a river whereby it explodes. Cars generally explode if an impact triggers a detonation of the fuel tank. This particular car has already been submerged in water.

So, I’m five minutes into ‘Night Warning’ – also known as ‘Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker’, just plain ‘Nightmare Maker’ and ‘The Evil Protégé’, none of which have a lot of bearing on the film itself – and nearly 500 words’ worth of ranting is marching through my head. Then we flip forward 14 years and it’s the early 80s. Yup; we’re in a cinematic landscape of high school, tight tee-shirts and dodgy perms. And that’s the guys. Li’l Billy is now 17-year-old Billy (Jimmy McNichol) – he’s living with aunt Cheryl, pinning his hopes on a basketball scholarship and dating wholesome girl-next-door type Julie (Julia Duffy).

Cheryl isn’t too keen on any of this. “College is for rich kids and people with brains,” she tells him discouragingly: “you wouldn’t fit in there.” The real trouble starts on Billy’s birthday. Having refused to let Billy bring Julie home as his date for his birthday meal (“I’ll be your date,” she coos ickily), Cheryl packs him off to school and stays in to await the arrival of the TV repairman. If you think this scenario sounds like it belongs in a cheap porno, then wait till you get a load of Cheryl’s cringe-making seduction technique. The TV repairman declines her advances and gets a kitchen knife in his back by way of remonstration. Billy walks in on a scene of carnage.

Less than half an hour in the proceedings, and the potential narrative developments are manifold: we could have Billy coerced into corpse disposal and the movie play out in cat ‘n’ mouse as he tries to extricate himself from Cheryl’s control while her domineering behaviour threatens to become murderous once again; we could have Billy’s fragile emotions lead him down a dark path where he becomes the killer in order to safeguard his aunt from prosecution (a concept that would justify the ‘Evil Protégé’ alternative title). Both of these options would certainly play up to the heavily implied incest theme. Or we could go the “Billy is imprisoned by Cheryl while Julie, suspecting something is afoot, sets herself up for final girl duties when she decides to investigate” route. Or we could jump forward another 14 years (although this would have made ‘Night Warning’ essentially sci-fi) and explore the thirty-something Billy’s life as he struggles to keep the past in the past and that skeleton of aunt Cheryl walled up in the cellar.

Instead, Asher and his three scripters – Steve Breimer, Alan Jay Glueckman and the wonderfully named Boon Collins – have a couple of neighbours barge in (rant number three: why the fuck don’t movie characters who are faced with unexpected corpse disposal requirement lock their front doors first?), the police are called and Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson) immediately smells a rat. With Cheryl having sustained no bruising and none of her clothes ripped, he doesn’t buy her rape attempt/self-defence story. And with the first witnesses at the scene putting the murder weapon in Billy’s hands, he begins to wonder what the real story is.

Ordinarily – for the slasher film is a great respecter of stereotypes – Carlson would be the tenacious cop who, for all his instincts, is always one step behind as the bodies pile up. Ordinarily. But not here. Carlson is out and out obnoxious, a detective who questions suspects by repeatedly yelling at them, calling them liars and asking impertinent questions about their sexuality. Pace the latter, he’s a homophobe of the highest order. And when he does some digging and discovers that the TV repairman was gay and in a relationship with Tom Landers (Steve Eastin) – Billy’s basketball coach – his bigotry breaks ground and creates havoc.

And it’s here, against all odds, that ‘Night Warning’ – otherwise a blandly-directed and often lazily scripted piece of work – manages to be interesting. With its obvious genre trappings and its ooooh-isn’t-this-controversial incest subtext, the film suddenly (if only temporarily) side-steps overt melodrama in the form of the clearly demented Cheryl and instead mines a squirmily unpleasant seam of social horror from Carlson’s attitudes and behaviour.

Initially given over lambasting Billy with questions like “It doesn’t make a whole lotta sense for a fag to be raping your aunt, does it?”, and later shown to pull a gun on a (notably Hispanic) suspect, the filmmakers seem to set Carlson on course to becoming the most loathsome (and potentially dangerous) character in the movie; a character whose venality stems not from insanity, dark secrets from the past or quasi-supernatural influences but a social prejudice that is still depressingly prevalent. Hints of misogyny and xenophobia shore-up Carlson’s gay-bashing mindset. And this guy carries a gun and badge!

Carlson’s crusade against Billy and Landers – misreading their relationship as two sides of a gay love triangle – occupies the middle third, with Cheryl’s machinations weaving in and out of the narrative in the background (her milk-and-cookies approach to scuppering Billy’s basketball scholarship attempt is as malicious as it is subtle), until everyone involved in the production suddenly seems to remember that Cheryl’s supposed to be the villain of the piece. At which point Tyrrell – always one of Hollywood’s more eccentric talents – ramps up her performance from wannabe milf …

… to outright loony …

… while the screenplay piles up the final act excesses like melodrama’s going out of style. Lurching from hidden corpse to dark familial secrets revealed to secondary character trapped in House of Psycho to final girl running through the woods shenanigans to despatched villain coming back one more time to nutcase cop getting the wrong idea to an end credits “what happened next” crawl that’s as ludicrous as it is abrupt, ‘Night Warning’ spirals off into increasingly contrived histrionics as if hellbent on holding back an actual conclusion ... as … long … as … possible.

It’s easy to see why it ended up on the DPP’s video nasties list in the UK in the 80s (albeit as a peripheral title rather than one of the 39 that were actually prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act), but it’s so over-the-top that the only elements of the film liable to truly offend are the atrocious sound editing (particularly in the final act thunderstorm that seems to come and go depending on whether someone’s about to get offed) and the demented intensity of Tyrrell’s performance.

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