Saturday, July 5, 2014

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982) review



Jimmy McNichol (Billy Lynch), Susan Tyrrell (Cheryl Roberts), Bo Svenson (Lt. Joe Carlson), Marcia Lewis (Margie), Julia Duffy (Julie Linden), Steve Eastin (Coach Tom Landers), Britt Leach (Sgt. Cook), William Paxton (Eddie)

Directed by William Asher

The Short Version: This obscure, yet brilliantly insane horror movie from a director known primarily for beach party movies and famous television programs cuts loose in this outrageous psycho thriller. Asher's underrated, unsettling, blackly humorous exploitationer is of THE TOOLBOX MURDERS (1978) school of psychological quasi-slashers, but superior in every way. Virtually all the major slasher conventions are trotted out here; not to mention both the attic and the basement harbor deadly secrets just waiting to be discovered. Performances are strong, and Susan Tyrrell redefines over the top; particularly while beating her meat (just see the film!). A very unusual, extremely entertaining horror thriller.

After his parents are killed in a brutal car accident, Billy Lynch is raised by his over-protective aunt Cheryl. Fourteen years later Billy is a high school basketball star, has a girlfriend, and has an offer for a scholarship upon graduation. The thought of losing Billy forces Cheryl's dormant homicidal tendencies and dark secrets to the surface. She has no intentions of letting Billy go, and will do anything, kill anyone to keep him close to her. 

This strong psychological horror film got unjustly lost in the shuffle amidst an onslaught of slasher movies that stalked theaters during the early 1980s. It bears some of those traits, but does more with them than the average 'stalk and kill' flick. William Asher's ambitious killer thriller is likewise reminiscent of the 'crazy old lady' sub-genre akin to those birthed by the Betty Davis-Joan Crawford classic WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962). The film does go off the rails at the finale with an additional payoff during the last five minutes that seems unnecessarily excessive. As outrageous as it is, it somehow fits with all the maniacal twists the film embraces as it draws closer to this rapacious, exasperating ending. 

Asher's wacko horror movie is fascinatingly topical, and ahead of its time in its characterizations. It also fluctuates between wanting to be a serious, if unwholesome look at mental instability, and a sleazy, gory slasher type exploitation vehicle. Amazingly, it succeeds at both. Since its release, BUTCHER BAKER has maintained a solid cult following, but deserves to be much better known than it is.

One of the major selling points is an aggressive performance by Oscar nominated actress Susan Tyrrell. To say she's over the top is an understatement. By the halfway point, she's devouring the entire picture. If BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER were a dinner party, everyone would go hungry. She consumes nearly every frame upstaging anyone within camera range of her. Tyrrell's Suzie Homemaker persona goes in the trash once she cuts her hair off at just over 60 minutes in. At that point, the film takes a massive nosedive into depravity. Prior to that, there's a queasy ambiance dominated by touches of incest and homophobia that only accelerates when Tyrrell goes full-blown psycho; and she does so in such radical fashion, her entire physical appearance changes. She appears older, utilizes peculiar body language with bizarre facial contortions, and she walks hunched over akin to a neolithic cave dweller. It's really an amazing, if grotesquely extravagant portrayal that gets more unpleasant in the last reel. 

Within the first ten minutes you know there is something terribly wrong with Cheryl, yet the filmmakers manage to maintain a solid air of mystery surrounding her, and secrets she holds that steadily unravel as the picture progresses. 

If Jimmy McNichol looks familiar, it's likely you saw him back in the day on a slew of TV shows, or on magazine covers, and occasionally photographed with his sister, Kristy McNichol. He's very good as the troubled young teen, Billy Lynch. McNichol exhibits lots of emotion throughout, and he garners a great deal of audience sympathy. This all comes to a head at the finish. Additionally, the last shot in the movie is a bravura moment of sentimental resonance. With but a single tear and whispering 'I love you', the actor delivers 90 minutes of poignancy in but a few seconds.

Bo Svenson valiantly tries to outdo Tyrrell in the unrestrained acting department. Both performers share one scene together, and as per Svenson's line, engage in a "hollering contest" for a few minutes. Svenson seems to still be in Buford Pusser mode, essaying the Tennessee lawman if he were a sadistic, bigoted policeman (Doesn't it bother you he's a fag?") who hinges on derangement. His character is more of a bully than a public servant. There are a few fleeting moments where it seems his frustration is born out of an influx of crime, but any scrape of sympathy derived for the Lieutenant is summarily tossed out the window at the end. Granted, there's something Billy does at the end that, despite being ridiculous, reaffirms Detective Carlson's postulation from earlier in the film.

Svenson is a cult icon within fan circles for films like WALKING TALL 2 (1975) and FINAL CHAPTER-WALKING TALL (1977). He played Buford Pusser in the single season television series from 1981. Other credits include the vigilante thriller BREAKING POINT (1976); the leader of the original INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978); the Major in Kinji Fukasaku's epic disaster movie VIRUS (1980); and even a Conan clone in the atrocious WIZARDS OF THE LOST KINGDOM (1985) among dozens of others in his lengthy career.

Bill Paxton has a small role as Eddie, a thuggish rival of Billy's who occasionally torments him out of jealousy. Billed as William Paxton, film fans will remember him vividly from such favorites as ALIENS (1986) and NEAR DARK (1987). Some of Paxton's other early roles in the genre include the awful MORTUARY (1983) and THE TERMINATOR (1984). 

You may not know his face, but the name William Asher might trigger one of those 'tip of your tongue' moments in that you know you've heard that name somewhere before. He's been listed as a director on dozens of popular television shows -- some of the most well known being I LOVE LUCY, BEWITCHED, ALICE, and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD to name but a few. Asher helmed few features, with most of them in the 60s with a string of popular teenage beach movies like BEACH PARTY (1963), MUSCLE BEACH PARTY (1964), BIKINI BEACH (1964), BEACH BLANKET BINGO (1965), and HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI (1965).

Asher's cult horror picture had a multitude of titles attached to it prior to its release. Some of them gave away certain plot details, but others were just as generic as the films alternate title of NIGHT WARNING; one of them was 'Scared To Death' (which was also the title of a William Malone monster movie from 1981), and 'Thrilled To Death'. Personally, 'Don't Go In the House' would have been a good choice. Cheryl's home becomes a veritable roach motel -- those who enter never leave.

Bruce Langhorne's music is exceptional, and captures the morbid mood perfectly. The intensity of the cues match the frenzied qualities that come at the end. It's another highlight in a film filled with them. It's such a shame this exemplar horror thriller failed to find an audience while less stellar fare made more of a lasting impact.

Fans of FINAL DESTINATION 2 (2003) and that bit of noggin obliteration that did to drivers behind logging trucks what JAWS (1975) did to swimmers will relive that moment all over again with a nearly identical scene here. Alongside rotted corpses, pickled heads in jars, it's one of many memorable moments -- most of which involve Susan Tyrrell. 

Whether she's mercilessly pounding cuts of meat, nearly ripping Julia Duffy's hair out during a fight scene, or clobbering, stabbing, chopping victims with knives and machete's, Susan's maniacal tour de force is the center of the universe by which Asher's movie occupies. She is to this film what Joe Spinell was to MANIAC (1980).

Highly recommended, BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER (1982) does everything right. It might spiral out of control in the last half hour, but it does so with gusto, and the utmost sincerity. It's nearly impossible not to be drawn into Asher's spectrum of morbidity, violence, and psychological depravity. The script is unexpectedly sturdy for this sort of material, as are the cast and their acting. The gore is modest, but nice and splattery when it's used. All these things make this underrated cult film one of the must-see, must-own DVD releases of 2014. 

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD.

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