In an Albuquerque theatre in 1981, an audience of mostly teenage girls was recruited for a test screening of a new thriller featuring a handsome young actor they knew from television and magazine coverage. A movie about a harridan long denied love, an authoritarian content to be hated, and a youth destined to be adored. They were surely not prepared for a story that involved disturbing themes of familial longing and queer panic, and by the time the horrors reached a climax, they erupted in screaming that, according to the film’s producer, lasted for eight minutes straight, all the way to its closing credits. Thirty-plus years later, this reaction pattern is still the general template for the first-time viewer of this film, whether under its original planned title Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker, or its more common and less evocative release moniker Night Warning.
The story’s teen protagonist, Billy Lynch, has spent almost his entire life raised by his possessive and never-married aunt Cheryl Roberts, after his parents died in a freak accident. Their close bond becomes frayed as he turns 17, pursues a girlfriend, and seeks to win a basketball scholarship that will take him to an out-of-town college and away from her. Amidst this circumstance, Cheryl impulsively kills a repairman she had attempted to seduce, and Billy comes upon the aftermath. Cheryl claims self-defense, but when it is learned the victim was the companion of Billy’s openly gay gym coach, narrow-minded detective Joe Carlson is convinced Billy is the true murderer, and repeatedly stalks and harasses him in the hopes of obtaining a confession. Already under unrelenting threat from his aunt and this detective, Billy tries to discover facts that will exonerate him, only to learn even more gruesome, long-buried secrets.
There is a special kind of spiritual convergence involving the primary talent that came together to make this film. Granted, that could be the description for any film where people with either colorful life experience or vivid imagination tap into those reserves in the creative process. But considering the unsettling climate depicted within, the fact that so many provided background relatable to the material is a firm source of pause.
The late screenwriter Alan Jay Glueckman had been an adopted child, thus he had long wondered about the unknown details of his lineage. And having been a lover of horror films, he was particularly fascinated at the idea of dark, nasty surprises being involved in that hidden past, such as criminal behavior or madness in his bloodline. As he approached adulthood, and came out to his family as a gay man, he was struck at the recurring denial he encountered from his parents about this revelation; that despite what seemed like concrete and obvious evidence to the contrary, they were insistent that he was merely in a phase. These two themes provided the backbone for this, his first-produced feature film screenplay, initially christened Mother’s Dead.
At first, producer Stephen Breimer had hired Michael Miller, director of the Roger Corman-produced Jackson County Jail with Yvette Mimieux and Tommy Lee Jones, to helm the project. Miller had previously been set to reunite with Jones as director of Eyes of Laura Mars, but producer Jon Peters replaced him with Irvin Kershner before shooting began. With cinematographer Jan De Bont, Miller would direct the opening sequence depicting the car crash that claimed Billy’s parents. However, the investors found Miller’s production pace too slow, and befitting the irony of filming a scene where ostensibly important characters are killed off, Miller and De Bont themselves were eliminated from the film.
Replacement director William Asher, who made his reputation supervising over a hundred episodes of “I Love Lucy” and “Bewitched,” as well as several of the Funicello/Avalon “beach” musicals for AIP, probably did not seem to be a prime choice to shepherd this kind of story. However, Asher himself had come through a difficult childhood that included Depression-era poverty, losing his father at 11 years old, his mother descending into alcoholism soon after, and faking his way into Army enlistment at 15, memories that certainly gave him empathy to Billy’s odyssey. Asher also grasped from the outset the darkly comic moments that Glueckman included and which producer Breimer had sought to heighten, observing during filming that setting up a scare required the same artful timing as setting up a joke. And rather than play it safe like his prolific TV output, Asher energetically chose to fully exploit the very elements of sex and violence that would cripple, if not fully ruin, the film’s chances of being aired on television later on.
Even within the immediate origins of the film’s production, it would be hard to believe that any other actor than Susan “SuSu” Tyrrell would be considered for the role of Cheryl. SuSu had been raised by a volatile mother, recovered from a breakdown, and had lived with Warhol Factory legend Candy Darling before becoming a full-time actor. She regarded her Academy Award-nominated performance in John Huston’s 1972 Fat City as more curse than blessing, remarking, “I couldn’t even get a job as a bag lady. I went up for bag lady parts and they’d say, ‘You’re too beautiful now. We thought you were a bag lady from Fat City.’ Then I’d go up for beautiful parts and they’d say, ‘You’re not beautiful enough’.” She followed with some studio and television fare, but mostly worked in smaller fringe projects, and spent her free time on wild escapades and throwing parties that would sound right at home in one of Bill Hader’s “Stefon” sketches on “Saturday Night Live.” “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.” Writer Glueckman was first introduced to her during a visit to the set of Forbidden Zone, and eagerly approved of her casting soon after. Her accumulation of personal pain and amused detachment brings poignancy to her performance as Cheryl; she creates a villain that can be mourned for her unhappy past, laughed with for her ingenuity, and when she meets a just fate, bid adieu with relief.
By contrast, the casting of Bo Svenson as the blinkered and menacing Detective Carlson, may not have been intended as a subversive act, but it must have carried that kind of impact to a specific subset of genre movie lovers. Svenson likely understood the implications of his casting, though; producer Breimer credited him directly for the inspiration to play the role in a hyper-masculine and hostile manner, maintaining character so thoroughly that most of the cast felt equally hostile towards him. The tall imposing actor had never played a full-on villain in a film before – even his bank robber character in the comedy Special Delivery was more of an amoral rogue than a bad guy. So when he first came on screen, taking the post-mortem from Cheryl and Billy, audiences naturally thought okay, Buford Pusser is here, he’s gonna straighten things out. But as his exchanges with them grew smug and nasty, and incongruous anti-gay invectives spewed from his mouth, Walking Tall fans must have felt the kind of betrayal that 8000 Hulk Hogan fans endured at Daytona Beach in 1996 when he turned heel and joined the NWO. The lawman with the club may be here, but he has not come to help the good guy! And he’s probably going to use that big stick on him, too!
These elements instantly provided Butcher Baker with a lasting appeal to its original audience of adolescents and horror-loving misfits, and predicted tropes of young adult books and films for decades to come: a teenager living in relative comfort is thrust into dangerous circumstance beyond their preparedness or comprehension, and discovers that neither parental figures nor the law can be trusted. Hell, many of us in our advanced age still have nightmares of this sort and never quite transcend that basic fear. It’s this theme that probably kept those teenage girls in their seats when the subject matter started getting really icky and they would have been tempted to leave for the mall. Well, that… and a very sympathetic leading man…
Jimmy McNichol never quite achieved full star parity with his sister Kristy, but for the prime years of his adolescence he was a handsome and well-liked young actor who was regularly in demand. Before he turned 18, he had already starred on two series, made several TV movies, recorded an album with his sister, and hosted a talk show/pop culture program. After the cancellation of his TV projects, with a boost from producer Jerry Weintraub, McNichol booked three top-billed feature film roles without having to audition, including this project. Producer Breimer once opined that had McNichol not been preordained to star, he would have cast his promising co-star Bill Paxton as Billy. But while Paxton would ultimately demonstrate massive versatility over his long-yet-still-too-brief career, he would have lacked the vulnerability that made McNichol extremely appropriate for the role.
Butcher Baker may not be a proper “slasher” film as many have erroneously labeled it, but Billy, in an intriguing reversal, is very much the male equivalent of a “final girl” character, in that not only is he directly injured by the villains and survives against the odds, he is also extremely attractive, feeding into the unhealthy motivations of those who threaten him within and the desires of the audience watching him outside. When ABC executives once told “Happy Days” producer Garry Marshall that Henry Winkler as Fonzie should only be allowed to wear a leather jacket while atop a motorcycle, Marshall famously told his writers, “Never let him offa that bike!” Similarly, someone on this film must have issued the maxim, “Never let us not see Jimmy’s chest!” McNichol spends at least half of the movie shirtless, and his tops are always either very tight or at least small, flattering, and revealing his soft, fit body. During production, the film’s title was briefly changed to Momma’s Boy, which provided numerous multiple readings of Billy’s image to others – to his ersatz parent as a personal keepsake, to his rivals as a kept child, to the homophobic cop as an effeminate man. Where exploitation films often use beautiful women to keep viewers’ attention, for once the man is the sex object here.
To add to the script-flipping, Billy’s girlfriend Julia effectively takes on what would be the helpful boyfriend role. While she is subject to certain obligatory horror-film girl-behaviors, like doing a nude scene and being endangered herself (Eh, they had to give the jock viewers something to get them in the seats), it is Julia who comes to Billy’s defense and aid as the threats increase. There’s always a desire for a girlfriend to take care of her man, and here it’s steered in a fresh direction. Curiously, Julia Duffy was 30, ten years older than McNichol, during the making of this film, and even curiouser, SuSu was only 36 herself, which puts just a little real-life frisson over their on-screen intimacies with him. Glueckman had specifically wanted to have a strong female character to serve as a counterbalance to Cheryl’s villain and Billy’s victim. Years later, he would further girl power by writing a pivotal first-season episode for “Xena: Warrior Princess” called “The Black Wolf, where Xena first said the words, “I have many skills.”
Thus with all the emotional heft and narrative skill at work, it is unfortunate that despite the reaction of that Albuquerque test audience, and good early press from “Entertainment Tonight” and other teen media, this film was not a large success, and has languished in the shadow of better known but less distinguished ‘80s horror. Many involved with the production put the blame squarely on the use of the title Night Warning, which Breimer derided as sounding like a Naval rescue adventure. Previously, producer Richard Carrothers had come up with the alliterative Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker, an ad campaign was created for it by the Aspect Ratio ad agency, and early test engagements used that name and poster. (It has since been restored to the film’s DVD release by Code Red) However, Utah-based distributor Comworld acquired the film, and applied the generic Night Warning title to it, in the same fashion that Tom McLoughlin’s mausoleum thriller Rest in Peace was retitled One Dark Night and Andrew Davis’ outdoor slasher Bump in the Night went out as The Final Terror. Night Warning did earn a small place in history by being banned in the UK by the BBFC during the “Video Nasties” mania of 1984.
Today, Jimmy McNichol engages in entertainment projects at his own leisure, Bo Svenson has a newly revived fanbase thanks to DVD availability of his early hits and roles in Kill Bill Volume 2 and Inglourious Basterds, and SuSu, who lost her life to blood disease in 2012, was able to win vindication in her later years as a respected and fearless performer, eulogized by Stacy Keach as, “the Billie Holliday of the dispossessed.” And audiences of any age can freshly discover the gifts they brought to an ahead-of-its-time tale of the dangers of willful blindness – and scream like a teenage girl in 1981.
Night Warning screens May 30.