The bumbling detective movie is a reliable (often comedic) subgenre which subverts the idea of competence in law enforcement officials while simultaneously portraying an underdog-type character who, despite their shortcomings, will come out on top in the end. Often, these (usually) men, have an inordinate amount of confidence in their abilities as sleuths despite nearly always bungling the investigation. Peter Sellers’ and later Steve Martin’s Inspector Clouseau may be the most famous version, but you don’t necessarily have to be a trenchcoat-wearing bloodhound to fail miserably at basic detective work. Lt. Frank Drebin from Police Squad is often oblivious to the chaos and mayhem he causes. If it weren’t for Penny and Brain, Inspector Gadget would be a mechanized freak who’d more likely be dissected than employed by a police department. Actual private investigator Harry Crumb literally has to have the bad guy spell everything out for him to even begin comprehending the facts of the crimes he’s been exploring. What do all of these men have in common? By the end of the movie, despite their best efforts, the perpetrators are either dead or in custody and they’re hailed as heroes. But what happens when an investigator is dead wrong about their hunch? I mean, all of their work and dogged determination to uncover the truth is a waste of time?
Let’s get this out of the way. Susan Tyrell is undeniably phenomenal in Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981, aka Night Warning, what the hell is a night warning?). Her level of commitment and operatic depiction of a deeply troubled woman may be one of the greatest horror movie performances of all time. There’s a reason her role as Cheryl Roberts works as the heir apparent to Bette Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and can even be traced to Toni Collette’s powerhouse performance in Hereditary (2018). The filmmakers made it quite clear they drew inspiration from Baby Jane, but they needed an actress who could realistically bring a sense of realism to a complex character. Her first line in 1976’s The Killer Inside Me is “Trick or Treat.” That line is apropos for an actress who refused to be pigeon-holed thanks to a uniquely intense look and screen persona. She's the ‘big bad’ of the film as far as the plot goes. The monster/antagonist who screws everything up for our all-American boy Billy (Jimmy McNichol, child star and obscure heartthrob of the early 80’s). There are, however, really two monsters in Butcher, Baker Nightmare Maker, and the other is Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson).
All Carlson had to do was listen to Mr. Simms. Sure, this time around, Britt Leach isn’t the toy store owner who loves to get shitfaced in Silent Night Deadly Night (1984). He’s just Sgt. Cook, another small-town cop who doesn’t believe the cover story provided by potential rape victim Cheryl and her “nephew” Billy. While Cook does some real snooping, Carlson pursues his own misguided theories. Joe is a ball of hateful energy: always suspicious, always probing, and never one to mince words. Throw in an exorbitant amount of homophobia, we’re talking a guy who really needed a few hours of sensitivity training before getting hired by the Sheriff’s department. Tough guy actor Bo Svenson has a quiet intensity that’s served him well throughout his career. Taking over the role of Buford Pusser in the Walking Tall series after Joe Don Baker vacated the role, he worked steadily on other projects like the fascinating North Dallas Forty (1979) and Menahem Golan’s hilariously stupid (It’s just like the Nazis!) The Delta Force (1986), along with small bits in Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Inglorious Basterds thanks to lifelong fan Quentin Tarantino. Now, he’s focused on writing and has received a great deal of attention for Don’t Call Me Sir! (2020).
The 80’s were not a good time for nuanced and sensitive references to gay culture. The other F-word is thrown around like there’s a drinking contest going on. Most of us try desperately to ignore the use of “fag” in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989, but shot a few years prior). Carlson refuses to accept any other motive behind the murder of homosexual TV repairman Phil Brody (Caskey Swaim) besides a love triangle between Brody, Billy, and Billy’s basketball coach Tom Landers (Steve Eastin). There was a lover’s quarrel between Billy and Phil, a scuffle, and someone ended up dead. Cook continuously presents real evidence that negates Carlson’s theory, but his misguided efforts to indict Billy for Phil’s murder are shockingly incorrect. It’s clear that his homophobic attitude and possibly his own sexual hang-ups are to blame for what ultimately occurs in the final scene. It’s legitimately fascinating that a character who should be working toward finding the real culprit ends up stubbornly trying to rig the game once he realizes he’s been wrong all this time. Still, he’s not the main character, so let’s start from the top. Oy. The ‘top.’ Carlson would definitely use that term against Billy.
The top, as it were, is our title. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Much has been written about this film, more than most horror movies, at least, and many examinations note the Oedipal undertones as well as the infantilization of Billy for his constant drugging through milk consumption. There’s even a theory that Cheryl’s extreme parental tactics match up with the belief that an overbearing mother can result in a gay son. Carlson mentions that the boy grew up without a father, adding credence to his doubt that Billy likes women. Since the current title is a play on a lyric from the 18th century nursery rhyme “Rub-a-dub-dub,” a viewer has to assume that Cheryl’s desire to keep her son forever as a child is the reasoning behind the title choice. Taken literally, it’s really nonsense. Thinking about it in terms of plot, it’s barely coherent, unless you make the leap that Cheryl is a nightmare maker for what she does to Billy. The alternate title is Night Warning. Again, what is a night warning? I Googled it, and this movie comes up, front and center, with no other definitions. So, another nonsense title. Even the tagline makes little sense: “They didn’t go looking for trouble. They were just too curious. Now…They know too much to live.” What the hell? Sure, this tagline would make sense if you start the movie about a half hour before the ending, but otherwise, it’s completely wrong. I’ll be the first to agree that marketing the movie as what it’s really about was probably not the best tactic to make a buck. The subject matter alone would turn most people off, but come on! That’s the best they could come up with?
One bit of trivia describes early versions of the film leaving Cheryl’s motivations much vaguer, saving her reveal as the villain of the piece until much later. This brings up an intriguing question. Is a film more suspenseful or less suspenseful when you know who the villain is at the start of the picture? I’m not entirely certain since a great twist can really bowl an unsuspecting viewer over. Then again, knowing this woman clearly has issues keeps the viewers on their toes since we’re waiting to see when she cracks. If I had to choose, I’d say they made the right choice. I also appreciate the origin of her behavior being explored much later, giving some explanation for her actions; although whether she has always had mental problems is never addressed. A young Cheryl, with an odd hairdo, holds 3-year-old Billy while his parents set off on a trip to the mountains. We get a sinister freeze frame of Susan Tyrrell’s face, or maybe that’s just the way she always looks?
It’s of little importance, but the opening car crash was shot by future blockbuster director Jan De Bont and directed by Michael Miller, whose Silent Rage (1982) would achieve immortality by being featured in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007). I’ve always questioned the realism of tampered brakes suddenly failing long after a car’s been driven. If a brake line is cut, you’d know it. They’d need to apply the brake at least a few times before getting on that mountain road and realize there’s a problem. On much older cars, it’s possible, but not very likely. Still, the scene is decently constructed, with the brutality continuously rising. First, the car smashes into the back of a logging truck, causing a long tree to snap Billy’s father’s head backward and presumably off. Next, the car frees itself but tilts over a cliff, careening down the mountain face and into a shallow river. Finally, the car explodes just to add insult to injury since I’m pretty certain Billy’s mom is already dead.
We jump ahead 14 years and Cheryl has assumed the role of Billy’s guardian. After she finds a picture of Billy’s girlfriend Julie (Julia Duffy, who would score on Newhart a couple years later) and a weird-looking yellow condom, she runs her nails across Billy’s bare back and purrs like a cat. Hoo boy, here we go. She rags on him for not being domesticated and drinking directly from the milk carton. “This is a glass,” she points out. He replies, “Whatever makes you happy.” After he leaves, she whispers to herself, “You make me happy.” Awww…it’d be sweet if she weren’t batshit crazy. He hops on his moped and we get a solid transition where he tosses a basketball into his house hoop and there’s a cut to practice in the high school gym. William Asher, the Emmy-winning replacement director, stages the film with no-nonsense economy. Checking out his filmography, it seems he’d settled into a successful career in television and Butcher stands out, not so much like a sore thumb, but definitely as a favor. Look back farther, and you’ll be shocked to find he’s responsible for several beach party movies, including the iconic Frankie and Annette musical Beach Blanket Bingo (1965).
A very young Bill Paxton, so young that I didn’t initially recognize him, plays Eddie, the resident whiner of the team. He thinks Billy is a hotshot, which he is, and resents him for it. Oh, and he doesn’t like to be touched, so he warns Billy to “keep your queer hands off.” Wow, is his last name Carlson? Billy’s a good kid and the coach dotes on him. Coach Landers lets Billy know that a scout from the University of Denver is coming to check him out at the next game and if all goes well, he’ll get a scholarship and the chance to go to the same college Julie will be attending.
The news doesn’t go over so well with Cheryl. At first, she can only mutter, “Gee, that’d be nice,” but soon she lets loose an onslaught of guilt trips on Billy. I appreciate the way Billy loves her but also won’t tolerate her crap. He gives it right back, she slaps him for it, and he storms off.
The next morning, his birthday, she gives him a card. A cute little poem lets him know that he can accept the scholarship. It’s clear she has no intention of letting him go anywhere, but she knows how to play him like a fiddle. That night, Phil Brody comes by to fix the TV and Cheryl makes a pass at him. He’s not interested. Whether or not this is all part of her master plan is iffy, at best. I’d assume that it doesn’t matter whether he sleeps with her or not. She’ll claim rape either way and force Billy to stay and take care of her. Cheryl has a temper, though, and stabs him repeatedly just as Billy arrives home. He finds her covered in blood, which she slathers on him during an inopportune hug. Family friends Margie (Marcia Lewis, two-time Tony nominee, Chicago, Grease) and Frank (Cooper Neal) make their way into the house with a cake while Margie warns Frank not to say anything about the poor quality of the pickled tomatoes Cheryl gave them. They discover the body and the cops are called.
“You buy attempted rape?” “Nope. Do you?” “Nope.” A fun little exchange between Carlson and Cook is followed by Carlson lamenting, “Poor guy…didn’t even get his pecker out.” The intact fly on Brody’s pants leads Carlson to believe that the carefully-constructed story Billy is giving him is not the truth. First, he questions Cheryl’s sexuality since she’s never been married and has no boyfriends. Then he practically throws a dress on Billy and tells him to march in a pride parade. He has some major issues with gay people, or people he assumes are gay. In many ways, it’s a wonderfully written scene as Carlson irritates the hell out of Cheryl and Billy.
While Billy is at school, Cheryl smashes down a boarded-up doorway, revealing a secret shrine for a man we don’t know yet. She definitely planned all of this since she tells the picture, “I fixed it.” Feeling remorse about killing Brody, she reveals a great deal by saying “He hit me…just like you did.”
Carlson puts his “gay conspiracy theory” in motion, continuing to pester Billy with questions like “Do you like girls?” We get a hilarious phony flashback as Carlson “postulates” about how things went down. We see Billy murdering his “lover” Phil. He even has the balls to tell Billy to keep his wrist limp when he shoots a basket. It’s unbelievable. A very amusing exchange between Carlson and Margie goes like this: “You talking to me, lady?” “Yes.” “Don’t.”
He shows up at Billy’s basketball practice and confronts Coach Landers. It turns out Phil had a ring that was given to him by Landers, indicating they were secret lovers. Carlson advises Landers to resign, lest he get lynched. Butcher has been praised for its non-judgmental and sympathetic portrayal of a gay character. Although Carlson is horrible for exposing Landers, Steve Eastin stands his ground and never gives the detective the satisfaction of seeing him react to his life being upended. Later, Billy shows no prejudice against his coach and expresses his regret regarding his resignation. I won’t call Butcher a wildly progressive movie for its portrayal of gay characters, but simply allowing Eastin to play the role as a decent, normal man is admirable and sadly, also quietly revolutionary. Credit writers Steven Breimer, Alan Jay Glueckman, and Boon Collins for crafting a nasty screenplay that is way more layered and complex than it had any need to be. This film may be unique, but it’s still basically a slasher film, and slashers don’t usually have this sophisticated of a plot.
Susan Tyrrell even eats angry as she lays into Billy about how “very, very sick” homosexuals are. Billy defends the coach, although McNichol’s performance here and throughout the movie is a tad shaky. His weakest scenes are his big emotional outbursts. They come off as downright hokey. In parts where he needs to behave normally, he’s fine. Natural, even. Being surrounded by great actors like Tyrrell, Svenson, and Eastin make it tough for him to keep up.
Carlson has only one good quality. He has a dog. Not just a dog, but a black German Shepherd named Mackie he keeps in his office. He even gives him a cookie. It’s a cute pupper but he’s also corrupting the poor dog’s mind. I have a black Shepherd and although he’s an idiot, I don’t fill his mind with bigoted thoughts. Landers shows up to let Carlson know that Brody was married to a (gasp!) woman once. Carlson fires back that a kid was molested the previous evening and he insinuates that Landers is to blame. There’s just no reasoning with this guy. He even explains to Mackie that Landers is a “deviant.” Carlson tracks down Julie next and asks shockingly inappropriate questions like whether she and Billy are “making it.” What’s clever about the script is that since people (understandably) don’t want to answer these kinds of questions, they come off as evasive and fuel the fire behind Carlson’s theory, even though his ideas are baseless.
Still, his constant interfering does seem to spur Billy and Julie to have sex more, so when Cheryl is supposedly out for the night, they sleep together. We get a POV shot, indicating a killer is making his/her way into the house. The only problem here is that it’s obviously Cheryl. Who else would it be? Carlson is ridiculous, but he’s still following some semblance of the law. No one else has been proven to be dangerous besides Cheryl, so when she bursts in and says “You get dressed and get that slut out of here!,” it’s not much of a surprise. She rants and raves about “perverts and sluts” while talking to the photograph again, saying “I’m gonna keep him here, like I kept you.” It’s a bit on the dim side, but we can see the remains of a body near the shrine for a brief moment.
Billy is headed out for the big game and Cheryl wants to make amends with some milk and cookies. Unfortunately, milk does not do a body good since she’s dosed it with…something. Really not sure what, but it comes in a little bottle with an eye dropper. Her manipulation is stunning as she supports all of his dreams while simultaneously rigging it so he’ll never succeed. She goes to the game and although Billy complains to Julie about being dizzy, he’s obviously a superstar because he scores point after point early on. The drugs start to take effect and he trips; slamming head-first into a wall. Julie comes to help, but Cheryl shoves her out of the way.
Billy wakes up surrounded by children’s toys. It’s super creepy and gets even weirder when Cheryl tells him “You don’t need to go back to school. It’s full of perverts. I’ll teach you things.” I bet you will, lady. It’s such a disturbing premise that someone you love could be evil and crazy. She’s officially keeping him hostage, although he doesn’t know it, and she continues to feed him spiked milk. He wanders into her room and finds a box containing letters and keepsakes. The plot thickens as he finds a love letter written by a Chuck Strang, whom he believed was his mother's boyfriend but was clearly Cheryl's. She catches him and McNichol is once again pretty terrible in this scene, delivering his lines in a flat, lifeless tone. Sure, it's tough acting with a virtuoso like Susan Tyrrell, but his reading of "Something's going on," is awful.
Welp, turns out ol' Chuckie is the dude in the shrine room. Not only that, but perhaps the reason those pickled tomatoes sucked is because Cheryl is much better at preserving human heads than vegetables. She's also not great at self-haircuts since she hacks most of it off, making her look even more deranged. Julie arrives to distract Cheryl while Billy does some poking around. He's gotta be a better sleuth than the insane, witch hunting, vendetta-carrying Carlson. Cheryl yells (what else is new?) at Julie, who just wants to apologize, then Cheryl changes tactics. She's tenderizing some meat and asks Julie to grab something out of the fridge. Bad move, Julie. Whammo! Meat tenderizer to the back of the head! I might as well address the simple fact that Julie must have Homer Simpson Syndrome. Her head takes an astonishing amount of punishment in this movie, and yet she appears to only suffer from a slight bump on the noggin. Let's see how long she lasts before she has a brain aneurysm or literally has a psychotic break later in life.
Margie swings by to check up on everyone. Cheryl quickly rubs the blood off the fridge, then gives Billy some dosed milk. The stuff works fast because he collapses right away. While Margie eavesdrops, Cheryl admits that she is Billy's real mother. Chuck was his father and wouldn't marry her, so her sister and husband adopted Billy, likely to avoid a scandal. In the film's funniest moment and most brilliant choice by Tyrrell, she continues to explain, then hears the telephone. Her mood shifts abruptly from deeply sad and tragic to light and upbeat as she says, "Be right back!" It's beautifully played and shows her complete understanding of dark humor and how to play the character. Susan Tyrrell knows exactly what she’s doing. In many films featuring gigantic performances, it’s obvious when an actor doesn’t realize they’re playing it too broad or too over-the-top. This bit feels like a sly wink to the audience.
While Carlson is threatening a Mexican gentleman with a loaded handgun, Cook keeps digging up dirt on Cheryl, including how her boyfriend Chuck mysteriously disappeared years ago and the rumors about the brake tampering on Billy's parent's car. He gets a call from Julie's mother, who called Cheryl to ask if her daughter was at the house. Cook replies that he also finds Ms. Roberts to be "peculiar." He heads over to the house.
The movie shifts into 12th gear as everything comes to a head. Cheryl forces the milk down Billy's throat to keep him incapacitated. Margie questions Cheryl's odd comments to Julie's mother over the phone. It turns out Julie has been unceremoniously dumped in the Chuck Shrine. Margie knows something's up and gets a machete to the stomach for her trouble. Julie is in the shed and gets cornered by Cheryl, but Cook enters. I partially blame Julie for what happens next, since Cheryl simply slinks back into the shadows and waits for Cook to enter while Julie just watches. If she'd yelled out, Cook might not have had his hand chopped off and then his throat cut. Cheryl looks over at Julie and stuns once again by making kissy-faces and saying "C'mere, slut." Wow. Actors make choices and Susan goes for it. She grabs a small ax (hatchet?) and stalks Julie with a weird, bow-legged gait that makes her resemble an evil troll. She tries to hack Julie but ends up getting the ax stuck in Margie, which is really quite funny. There's a fight in a small pond where Cheryl takes a large rock and pummels Julie's skull in. Seriously, she's already gotten a meat tenderizer to the head. This girl is definitely dead or at least a vegetable.
Billy tries to call the police and Cheryl's hand creepily comes into frame and presses down on the receiver. She wraps the phone cord around his neck and even says "I'm your girlfriend now." The allusions to incest have been pretty fast and furious, but now it's all out in the open. She starts to beat him, but he stabs her. He calls his coach, instead of say...THE COPS!!! Cheryl pops up like a goddamn jack-in-the-box and there's some fine POV work here as she slashes Billy. He falls over but luckily grabs a fire poker, which she's promptly impaled on. It's over...for one of the monsters, at least.
The police are checking things out and Carlson enters the living room. He draws his gun as Landers tends to Billy's wounds and an officer helps Julie. Carlson clearly realizes that he's made a huge miscalculation and refuses to admit it. He orders the cop to take Julie outside and pistol whips Landers before turning his gun on Billy. Coach smacks the gun out of his hand and Billy picks it up. He hesitates, but finally opens fire on Carlson, plugging him several times. The officer and Julie re-enter. Thank goodness the cop has a brain because although there's no dialogue, he conveys his understanding of what happened. I guess everyone knew Carlson was a loose cannon. There's a super lame end scroll letting us know that Billy was acquitted on all counts and he now goes to the University of Denver...with Julie. No way Julie is still alive or able to function in any shape or form. She suffered major head trauma. This is one of the only weak points. The screenwriters seem to have written themselves into a corner where they couldn't kill Julie but she had to be incapacitated. It's all very silly.
Speaking of silly, the Emmy William Asher won was for directing Bewitched. Since he directed many situation comedies, he was used to three-camera set-ups on large stages. Here, he seems to be employing that same philosophy but this time makes scenes feel claustrophobic and desperate. His direction here isn't inspired, just adequate. It feels like a missed opportunity with such a great pair of performances and a very dark script; if this had been helmed by a horror veteran or possibly an up-and-comer in the early 80's, say Joseph Zito or George Mihalka for instance, this film could've been an all-timer.
The night scenes are well-shot, even though the use of a thunderstorm is cliched. Credit to Robbie Greenberg, the Emmy-winning DP who would begin his career in the 70's with horror fare like Doctor Dracula (1978) and Lucifer's Women (1974) and then transition to larger projects like Swamp Thing, Free Willy, Under Siege 2, and several fine made-for-tv movies. The only shoddy work here is the crappy slo-mo during the murder scenes. Coming off the heels of Friday the 13th (1980), which also used this effect, it’s understandable but comes off as cheap.
Bruce Langhorne's music is eerie and appropriately weird, especially for the shrine scenes. Editor Ted Nicolau would put together some amazing pictures like the underrated Tourist Trap, Ghoulies, Trancers, Stuart Gordon's Robot Jox, before embarking on a long directing career, most notably as the director behind TerrorVision and Subspecies.
The strength and joy derived from the film is due to the dual performances of Tyrrell and Svenson. They make life a living hell for Jimmy McNichol, whose performance would probably be weak even if he weren't so overmatched. Svenson is unapologetic in his portrayal of a small-town detective with major prejudices and his work here is delightfully malicious. Of course, the movie belongs to Susan Tyrrell, in one of the most challenging lead roles I've ever seen in a horror film. The film asks her to be many people at once. One minute, she's kind and nurturing; the next, violent and angry, and even after that, she comes off as sympathetic once we discover her backstory. It's easy to point toward the "hag horror" aspect of Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, but I see her more as an undiagnosed schizophrenic whose sanity clock has run out. She may have killed a bunch of people, but I gotta say, Detective Carlson is a real prick.