Color, 1982, 92m.
Directed by William Asher
Starring Susan Tyrrell, Jimmy McNichol, Bo Svenson, Julia Duffy, Marcia Lewis, Britt Leach, Steve Eastin, Bill Paxton
Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Completely lost in the shuffle of early '80s slasher films was this excellent little shocker, which was announced with much fanfare in magazines like Famous Monsters and had a paperback tie-in novel on the stands many months before anyone actually had a chance to see it. Originally entitled Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, it barely played a handful of theaters in the U.S. and was promptly shuffled off to VHS from HBO Video as Night Warning. Most likely due to its bloody cover art, it also drew the wrath of the BBFC in the United Kingdom (under the title Nightmare Maker) where it was withdrawn and stigmatized as part of the video nasties scare. Fortunately the quality of the film itself was enough to earn strong word of mouth among fans, and it frequently popped up on lists of underrated horror films in various fanzines.
Much of the appeal lies in the go-for-broke performance of the late Susan Tyrrell, a fiery actress known for her work in films like Fat City, Island in the Stream, and Forbidden Zone. Here she delivers a character unlike any other in horror history, the domineering, homicidal Aunt Cheryl, who nurtures an unnaturally close relationship with her nephew, Billy (Jimmy McNichol), after his parents are killed in a violent car accident (a show-stopping opener if there ever was one). With Billy firmly in adolescence and expressing an interest in girls, specifically classmate Julia (a pre-Newhart Julia Duffy), Cheryl feels threatened by the potential loss of her baby boy. Things get even more complicated when Billy comes home to find Cheryl covered in blood and a TV repairman lying dead on the floor; though his aunt claims she was defending herself from a rape attempt, the bigoted investigating officer, Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), gets it into his head that Billy committed the murder as part of some insane gay spat. As we quickly learn, Cheryl is really nutty as a fruitcake and easily provoked into wielding a butcher knife, which makes Billy's passage to adulthood far more violent than usual.
Marketing this film must have been a tricky proposition considering this film has plenty of blood and thunder but can't quite be classified as a slasher movie. If anything it's a descendant of the "horror hag" cycle of the 1960s, but the teen angle gives it a markedly different, queasy spin. Furthermore it's wildly ahead of its time in its depiction of an openly gay, non stereotypical character, Billy's gym coach (Steve Eastin), who is depicted throughout as a positive character and - in a real rarity for the time - doesn't die. Svenson's venal character is also one of the most repugnant villains of the era, a sexist and homophobic monster who makes Tyrrell's murderess far more sympathetic by comparison. Stylistically the film is fairly straightforward thanks to director William Asher, who was known at the time for a slew of TV sitcoms and most of the AIP beach party movies. He was a bizarre choice to be sure (maybe the thunderstorm finale reminded the producers of an AIP film), but somehow it all came together with much stronger performances than were usually found in American horror films of the period.
After that VHS release went out of circulation, Butcher, Baker became extremely difficult to see. For years it continued to pop up on "most wanted" DVD lists of genre titles, with rumors circulating every couple of years about an impending release somewhere in the world. Finally the 2014 edition from Code Red makes that a reality with a new HD transfer from the negative (once presumed lost) bearing the Butcher, Baker title, and needless to say, anyone familiar with the old video transfer will be shocked by the improvement. (If you ever get the chance to see any of the beautiful 35mm prints still floating around, by all means don't miss it.) Colors and detail look great, which should be enough to make fans hope that a Blu-ray release might happen somewhere down the road; the movie certainly deserves it. The mono audio sounds nice and clear throughout.
The plentiful extras kick off with two audio commentaries, the first with Jimmy McNichol (who made his feature film starring debut here and also enjoyed a career as a rock singer) and moderator Jeff McKay, with Code Red's Bill Olsen occasionally chiming in. The beginning is a little bumpy but McNichol soon finds his groove, remembering plenty about the film and sharing anecdotes about all of the cast members. The second commentary is moderated by yours truly and was recorded several years ago with producer/writer Steven Breimer and co-writer Alan Jay Glueckman, who go more into the background production of the film including Asher's input, distribution issues, and the real-life inspirations for many of the film's key scenes involving real life maternal traumas. The original trailer (under the Night Warning title) is the first of the video extras, followed by five featurettes. McNichol gets an 8-minute chat about his career at the time, his current life in Colorado, and memories of Tyrrell, Duffy, Svenson, and a very young Bill Paxton; he's still proud of the film and points out its value today as a snapshot of attitudes at the time towards sexuality and growing up. Then you get an 11-minute interview with Tyrrell, who never saw the finished film and "hated every dang minute of it!" We basically see her reacting to a screening of the film, which makes for a pretty astonishing experience as she hurls out bon mots like "Ew, ew, is that his head?,""God, what a butt!," and "What is that, a drunken Mexican?." She will be missed, to put it mildly. Then Breimer returns for a 12-minute interview in which he goes a bit more into the film's temporary obscurity, its fan following, and the inexplicable retitling which led to a thwarted ad campaign. A 9-minute chat with Eastin is also worthwhile as the veteran character actor talks about auditioning and getting the role of "the gay basketball coach," plus stories about working with the three leads with a particular emphasis on Tyrrell. As with the others, he describes the production as a "real fight" to get made, which makes it all the more amazing it turned out so well. (His comment about his own sexual orientation is a keeper, too.) Finally, makeup effects artist Alan Apone has a 5-minute piece (in his studio), with a very abrupt ending, about the film's low budget pitfalls including a hairdresser punching out Bo Svenson and a blood-pumping gag gone awry. Absolutely worth the wait, this is one no self-respecting horror fan should pass up.