Monday, October 1, 2012

Nightmare Maker (1982) dir. William Asher

a.k.a. Night Warning; Butcher, Baker Nightmare Maker

Logline: Billy (Jimmy McNichol), a hunky orphaned teenager in the middle of a sexuality crisis, is about to discover that his Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) will literally kill to keep him at home with her.

Crime in the Past: Girl meets boy, boy gets girl pregnant, boy ditches girl, girl kills boy and stashes him in basement, girl gives child to sister and her husband, girl regrets this-- girl kills sister and husband, raises child as child's aunt.

Bodycount: 7, all fed milk and burped beforehand.

Themes/Moral Code: One of the more sympathetic engagements with homosexuality I've yet seen in a slasher film-- heck, make that horror cinema in general. To begin with, the protagonist, Billy, is coming to terms with his own sexuality during the film and we watch as he faces the unkind probing and questioning of his Aunt, his schoolmates, even the police (!). All of these parties are intent on forcing Billy to decide upon coming out as straight or else being run out of town. (Thankfully, his girlfriend is a bit more sympathetic to his troubles, defending him to those who are suspicious while she eagerly waits and hopes for him to hop into her bed). Moreover, the community at large is hysterical in its aversion to homosexuality: the fascistic Sgt. Cook is convinced that there's a gay conspiracy underwriting Aunt Cheryl's murder spree involving Billy and his basketball coach, the coincidentally gay Coach Landers. Landers, who the film shows to be a level-headed hero ready to run to the rescue, is forced to resign from his position because of Cook's probably totally serious lynching threats. (Is it any wonder that the film's two major villains are also those two most resistant to the very notion of homosexuality?). As the film's raging homophobe, Cook is--during the film's resolution--even willing to ignore the obvious chain of events and the identity of true murderer for the mere opportunity to shoot Billy, ridding his town of an unquestionable "fag." I'd say it's apparent that the film's sympathies lie with the blameless Billy and Coach Landers-- it even expresses a progressive point of view with regard to their relationship. Arguing against the claim that allowing homosexuals to occupy the role of mentor or authority figure is a surefire way to transform the youth of America into a bunch of gays, the relationship between Billy and Coach Landers is never displayed as anything other than a strong and productive friendship, despite the villains' accusations to the contrary. Billy's wavering sexuality appears independent of Coach Landers' influence-- and the fact that he ultimately chooses a heterosexual lifestyle attests to this point.

On a final note, I also found it interesting that Billy's is the only body eroticized by the film's gaze, often but not exclusively through the leering perspective of the covetous Aunt Cheryl. Even in a scene with both Billy and his girlfriend lying naked in bed, the camera is drawn toward Billy. This is almost unheard of in a slasher film, where female bodies comprise the typical visual feast. It's apparent that Nightmare Maker is interested in bucking trends, even those that in 1982 would still be fairly recent ones. Director William Asher, who died earlier this year, is best known as one of the primary directors on the rather wholesome though occasionally progressive sitcoms I Love Lucy and Bewitched. In the 1960s, he also directed a string of Beach Party genre films, pieces of cinema known for their gleeful fantasies of burgeoning teenage sexuality. Nightmare Maker is a curious extension of that theme, and a welcome one.

Killer's Motivation: Abandonment issues, mostly. But let's get more specific and say that Aunt Cheryl is suffering from a sort of Jocasta complex, raising her son as her nephew and so developing some pronounced incestuous feelings towards him. (Aunt Cheryl loves giving shirtless back rubs). This more-than-motherly affection's perversion of genuine maternal bonds is highlighted through her character's actions: Aunt Cheryl drugs Billy's milk to keep him passed out in bed rather than playing basketball or getting naked with his gal pal, rendering maternal nourishment into a debilitating poison preventing growth away from that initial bond. It's interesting that Aunt Cheryl is herself quite perverted considering her vehement dislike for "fags" and "sluts" and her blunt statement to Billy that his school "is full of perverts." Her use of such terms, coupled with the ostentatious crucifix hanging on her bedroom wall, certainly encourages one to ponder the filmmakers' opinions of self-righteous hypocrites.

Final Girl: The final girl here is Billy's photographer girlfriend Julia (Julia Duffy), and I'd rate her a cut above many, even if she's undervalued by the narrative. For one, she's soon heading off to college whether or not Billy follows along, demonstrating a healthy amount of independence apart from her high school sweetheart. But the more pertinent things about Julia is that she's way into having sex. (Need I remind that canoodling and popping up on screen in your birthday suit are two blatant violations of the slasher movie code. Julia does both, with poise and grace, and lives). She's interesting because she's sexually aggressive in a totally normal, healthy way-- she desires to sleep with Billy, but is also cool enough to give him a lot of time to figure out his whole sexual identity. (Would Billy rather have sex with Julia or get them both glasses of water instead? For awhile there, it's hard to tell). She's also quite physically resilient-- she receives blows from both a meat tenderizer and a large rock courtesy of Aunt Cheryl, but she's still on her feet come the denouement. Though she sort of takes a narrative backseat for the majority (after all, Billy is our protagonist, and Aunt Cheryl is granted the most screen time), there's no mistaking her for anything other than a final girl come her big scene: a protracted, brutally physical chase and tussle with Aunt Cheryl through a night rainstorm, calling to mind a quite similar scene between Alice and Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980).

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  Nightmare Maker is an immensely entertaining movie and a very strong start to this 31 day journey-- glancing over the titles of those to come, I won't be surprised if it's all downhill from here. That said, this film is a rather unconventional slasher (which may be adding to my appreciation), though it does often fall back on stock genre conventions (we're given two P.O.V. stalking sequences, and then there's the aforementioned swiping of Friday the 13th's final brawl). Even then, there's very little obvious slashing. The mystery is not at all the killer's identity (which we're aware of from the first kill onward) but rather the motivation driving her. None of the revelations are particularly surprising, but Asher allows them to unfold with a certain sophistication reminiscent of a good old fashioned thriller as opposed to a bodycount picture. Here's a list of some things I liked: a rather brutal opening log-through-car-windshield accident; a basketball rivalry between our hero Billy and a young Bill Paxton (the year prior to his turn as the morbidly chipper killer in Howard Avedis' Mortuary) that culminates in a bottle of milk being dumped over one of their heads; the fact that Aunt Cheryl hides in a bush and makes cat sounds before splitting open her best friend's belly; the moment when the blade of a hand axe gets momentarily stuck in the leg of corpse. And this is all without mentioning Susan Tyrrell's performance as our murderess-- has their truly ever been a more captivating homicidal aunt captured on film?


  1. Great write up of a film that really took me by surprise last year when I saw it. Just bonkers. AND Julia Duffy topless. These things matter to me. And I love love love your banner. Baghead Jason is the best. Slastober is off to a great start!

  2. Thanks, Brad!

    Yeah, I'm about halfway through the 31 films I'll be reviewing this month, and this is still probably my favorite one (though I also really really liked the yet-to-be-posted Death Valley, too). And Julia Duffy has been, without question, the best final girl.

    Baghead Jason shall preside over this month of slashing, skewering, and stabbing as only he can.