Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
Slasher movie rules were decided by the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. These seminal films laid the foundation for the subgenre’s early days, but there were the occasional outliers. Beyond all the terrorized babysitters, run-ins with random madmen, and summer camp massacres were films like Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (also known as Night Warning). In this 1982 movie, a teenager is suspected of murder by a small-minded detective. It’s Cops ‘N’ Killers at Nightmare on Film Street this month, and William Asher’s coming-of-age slasher fits the perp’s description.
A young Billy is left in the care of his aunt Cheryl as his parents leave for an extended trip. En route to their destination, Billy‘s mother and father die in a horrible traffic accident. Billy is now in high school and living with Cheryl. On the eve of his birthday, Billy mentions his getting a basketball scholarship for college. This revelation spurs the woman to later stab a man in a blind rage. Billy, who only saw the tail end of the incident, backs up his aunt’s claim that she was acting in self-defense. The detective assigned to the case, Joe Carlson, is highly skeptical. As details of the victim’s personal life become apparent, Carlson is determined that Cheryl is covering for her nephew.
“In addition to a fleshy serving of matriarchal horror, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is unique for its inclusion of a respectable queer subplot.”
Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is riddled with fatal themes. The most obvious of them all is the destructive force of motherhood. In this case, we have an aunt who has become the source of danger. Everyone around her is unable to escape her maternal fury and grief. Having no biological children herself, Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) was thrown headfirst into a new role after her sister died. She raises Billy (Jimmy McNichol) — an inversion of the final girl trope — as her own without the benefit of a partner. And, when her surrogate child declares he wants to leave the nest, Cheryl has a monstrous reaction.
Cheryl wants Billy all to herself. She sees anyone who comes between them as a threat. For instance, finding a condom in her nephew’s wallet elicits more jealousy than concern. She also feels the need to exclude Billy‘s girlfriend Julia (Julia Duffy) from his birthday party. Cheryl may want to believe what she’s doing is in Billy‘s best interest, but it’s all entirely self-serving. That sense of entitlement ultimately manifests into wanton abuse and violence.
Having grown up with her, Billy doesn’t pick up on his aunt’s toxic behavior. At least not until it’s too late. This is the life he’s used to so he understandably sees everything she does and says as normal. As for Aunt Cheryl, the idea of her child leaving her is too much to bear. Her immediate response is to attack. She denigrates Billy — she insinuates he’s not smart enough for higher learning — in hopes of keeping him from going away. When that doesn’t work, Cheryl does the next best thing—replace Billy if he’s so inclined to move out. This entails Cheryl using her feminine wiles to attract a mate, any mate, who can provide her another child. Unfortunately for a television repairman named Phil (Caskey Swaim), he’s caught the woman’s indiscriminate eye. When Phil rebuffs her advances, Cheryl interprets this as a denial of her right to motherhood. Hence her explosive and homicidal reflex.
Cheryl‘s murderous impulses didn’t begin here. The car accident that took Billy‘s parents away from him — a gruesome set piece amazingly crafted by co-writers Alan Jay Glueckman, Stephen Breimer, and Boon Collins, then actualized by the film’s original director, Michael Miller — was likely caused by Cheryl. Her motivation for that is revealed later in the film, but it ties into her desperation to be a mother. In a society where women are often made to feel incomplete if they are childless, it’s not a surprise that Cheryl would go to extraordinary lengths to meet cultural expectations.
Comparable to Bette Davis’ all-out performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the late Susan Tyrrell threw her entire soul into the role of Cheryl Roberts. The physicality is daunting; her commitment is brave. Every scene she’s in is hers and hers alone. Despite the character being a reprehensible killer, Cheryl is immortalized thanks to Tyrrell. She is not only the story’s driving force, but she’s also the face of the movie.
In addition to a fleshy serving of matriarchal horror, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is unique for its inclusion of a respectable queer subplot. In and around this era of movies, it was more likely a gay character would be villainized. Rather, the writers do the opposite. Carlson (Bo Svenson), a detective as inept at his job as he is tall, learns that the victim was in a romantic relationship with Billy‘s basketball coach, Tom (Steve Eastin). In his head, Carlson envisions Billy and the two men were in a sordid love triangle that ended badly. Everyone else, including the surprisingly competent and more level-headed Sergeant Cook (Britt Leach), says otherwise, but Carlson is consumed by unfiltered hate.
Like Tyrrell, Svenson is appallingly convincing in his part. The all-around despicable detective doesn’t even flinch as he spews slur after slur. Carlson is a character most people will have no trouble disliking; there’s just nothing redeemable about him. Although other actors might attempt to humanize him, Svenson is bound to keeping things absolutely nasty. There are points in the movie where audiences might ask who’s the real villain here: Aunt Cheryl or Carlson?
Something groundbreaking about Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is how the writers depict Tom. He is not a sick pervert despite Detective Carlson thinking he is. The movie also refrains from caricatures that were all too common back then. Instead, Tom is shown to be a good guy who so happens to like other guys. He’s a paternal figure for Billy even when it’s at his own risk. As much as Susan Tyrrell steals the show, the film’s positive portrayal of a gay character is outstanding in a movie all about exploitation.
“Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker remains one of the most noteworthy movies to come out of the “golden age” of slashers.”
Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker remains one of the most noteworthy movies to come out of the “golden age” of slashers. It appeared at a time when the subgenre was already at risk of becoming stereotyped. More akin to psycho-thrillers like Peeping Tom and Psycho than other teenage horrors, this film has both camp and academic appeal. It’s a grand-scale character study whose contributions to the genre are equally important and timeless.