Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker (1982)

The British Government Video Nasties list is as eclectic and perplexing in its make up today as it was 30 years ago. While there are some undisputed and famous classics (Evil Dead, Tenebrae) and some bona fide stinkers (Don't Go Near the Park, Cannibal Terror), there are also some flawed and fascinating gems, such as Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker (aka Nightmare Maker, Night Warning, The Evil Protégé). Despite the flat made-for-TV look, the oppressive atmosphere, transgressive subject matter and flashes of violence make for compulsive viewing

Orphaned as a boy, high school basketball star Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol) has been raised by his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell). When Cheryl kills a TV repairman who spurns her advances, bigoted police detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), tries to frame Billy, convinced that the killing was the result of a homosexual love triangle involving Billy's basketball coach. However, Aunt Cheryl has been growing increasingly enamoured with Billy - and she is not going to let him go without a fight.

This is a real stand out both from the Video Nasties list and the slasher film genre more generally. Even though it has some of the ingredients of the latter (knives, blood and teenagers), it also has elements of a teenage coming-of-age story, and hints of Southern Gothic Melodrama. With a few tweaks to the script, toning down the violence and making the sexual subject matter less explicit, you could almost imagine Joan Crawford and Montgomery Clift starring in a version of this story, and certainly Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Crawford’s performance in that has to be one of the influences.

Rather than suspense or cheap shocks, the focus here is more on the characters. Genre favourite Svenson plays Detective Carlson as an obnoxious, pig headed, testosterone filled tower of hate, while Tyrell gives a performance so unhinged and disturbing that it is sometimes easy to forget that you are watching a performance.

Against this Billy is always going make a bit less of an impression as a character, but interestingly the script focusses more on the torment that he goes through, both from his harassment at the hands of the law, and harassment at the hands of his aunt, as well as the normal pressures of teenage life.

Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker is also unusual for the genre in the fact that it explores rather than exploits the issue of teenage homosexuality. Granted this is more based around Billy being wrongly thought of as gay, but the bigotry Carlson represents is chilling enough, and anyone who has any experience of growing up in the slightest bit different from the norm in a small town will identify with Billy and his situation.

Director William Asher had a day job making TV shows such as Bewitched, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and it unfortunately shows in the direction that is a bit flat and pedestrian. That said he does create a suitably oppressive gloomy atmosphere that matches the oppressive small town life.

Despite being a lot less gory than other horror films of the time, Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker still ended up labelled a Video Nasty. I can only assume the government looked at the subject matter not the film in this case, but perhaps at least the notoriety has saved it from total obscurity, as it is an unsettling piece of work and well worth a look.