In this video nasty from 1982, Billy (Jimmy McNichol) is a high school basketball star who lives with his kooky Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell). She’s a sweet old maid, but she’s also the maniac behind the car wreck that killed his parents. Aunt Cheryl loves Billy—like, really loves him. She dotes on him to an almost incestuous degree. But he’s got his eye on a college scholarship that would take him and his gal Julie (Julia Duffy) out of state. That’s no good. In fact, for Aunt Cheryl, that’s downright unacceptable.
Not because she’s overprotective, no. It’s because Aunt Cheryl is damaged goods, a repressed nut whose time has more than come around. And Billy’s departure would confirm to her what she already knows: She’s lonely and unlovable. And kneeling at the candlelit shrine to her old boyfriend won’t help. Neither will throwing herself at the TV repairman, who rebuffs her. No, Aunt Cheryl is done for.
And when she snaps (in graphic slo-mo, no less), her bloody spiral is bound to leave a trail of sliced and diced bods among the pickled tomatoes.
Rather than see right through her claim of self-defense, though—hell, instead of considering the evidence that’s in his fricking face—the cop on the case (Bo Svenson, the tall Swede of Walking Tall 2 fame) decides the repairman was the victim of a gay murder plot. One that implicates Billy and his gay coach (Steve Eastin, in a performance free of stereotypes).
Meanwhile, Aunt Cheryl continues to lose her mind: In a show of real nerve, Billy has sex with Julie in the house. Bad move, Billy. Aunt Cheryl will have to lace his milk with drugs and chop her hair. Yes—‘batty’ is right. And Aunt Cheryl has plenty of bats in her belfry.
William Asher, the film’s director, was an old veteran of the TV biz. His approach here is unobtrusive. As such, the film has the vibe of a cheap-looking afterschool special—albeit one that goes off the rails. And because we spend so much time in Aunt Cheryl’s house (which looks big on the outside and seems cramped inside), we start to feel a creeping sense of claustrophobia. Whether that’s intentional on Asher’s part, I can’t say. But the film’s tedious midsection gets him into trouble. The cop’s investigation begins to drag, as do the scenes with Julie. The wait for the climax—for Aunt Cheryl to go full cray—is damn near interminable.
Still, Svenson is fun to watch; and as nutso as his hateful, homophobic cop is (degrading and bullying the men he suspects are Killer Gays—has he no decency?), I loved the ride. Tyrrell amazes, but Svenson’s turn as a bigot (who could be gay himself) is just as entertaining. In some circles, I hear it said that the movie posits this pig as a statement against small-town witch hunts. Yet… That reading might be a stretch. No matter. Svenson is a marvel of juicy trash. Fitting for slash-ploitation, indeed.
But friends, everything leads back to Tyrrell, who gave one of the great unsung performances of the 1970s in John Huston’s Fat City. In Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, she’s unhinged, a petulant child lost to the world. From the first scene on, something about her is off. Way off. It’s breathtaking, a mind-melting performance of epic proportions. Really, folks—it’s up there with the greats—with Piper Laurie’s god-fearing matriarch from hell in Carrie (1976), with Faye Dunaway’s kabuki Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981). When it comes to the horror hag trope, Aunt Cheryl may be the finest exemplar this side of Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).
So, is Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker a genre classic? Not exactly. Tyrrell and Svenson beam in from a separate universe. The film often seems unworthy of them. But it left me sickened, and a tad disturbed, as though I saw something transcendently queasy and had to take a shower afterward. And Tyrrell is the reason it stays with you. She gives a hypnotic masterclass in acting. If that doesn’t sell you on the movie, nothing will.
The Kino Lorber Code Red Blu-ray is a 2017 2K Scan of the original camera negative. Special features include two audio commentaries, one by McNichol, the other by producer/writer Steven Breimer and co-writer Alan Jay Glueckman. You also get the theatrical trailer and on-camera interviews with makeup artist Allan A. Alpone, Breimer, Eastin, McNichol, and the now-deceased Tyrrell (who, in a highlight reel, reacts to a screening of the movie in real time. She’s wonderful).
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