Monday, August 21, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Sometimes Aunt Cheryl Does Dreadful Things

Year: 1982
Director: William Asher
Cast: Jimmy McNichol, Susan Tyrrell, Bo Svenson
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Like many an 80’s slasher, our movie for today is known by multiple titles. Although the litany of monikers includes Momma’s Boy, The Evil Protégé, and Thrilled to Death, the two most common ones are Night Warning and the inarguably more evocative Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Frankly, it doesn’t really matter which you choose, considering that none of them are applicable to a scrap of the film they claim to describe. Although one title clearly stands out above the others, to avoid my typing fingers cramping up, we’ll be referring to the film as Night Warning from here on out.

So now, without further ado, from the director of Beach Blanket Bingo and hundreds of episodes of Bewitched and I Love Lucy… a slasher movie called Night Warning!

This’ll be great, I can feel it.

So, here’s the plot. After his parents were killed in a suspicious car accident, high school senior Billy (Jimmy McNichol) was raised by his neurotic Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) in Flagstaff, Arizona. When his basketball coach (Steve Eastin, who played a cop in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) tells him about the impending visit of a scholarship scout from the University of Denver, he is thrilled because that means he might get to go to the same school as his devoted girlfriend Julie (Julia Duffy, also of Wacko). This sends Cheryl into a nervous breakdown.

Desperately trying to find a new man of the house, she attempts to seduce TV repairman Phil Brody (the delightfully named Caskey Swaim, who played the non-murderous paramedic in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning). When he resists her sweaty, shrill advances, she stabs him to death and claims he tried to rape her. Although she’s half-telling the truth, local Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson) is a racist, homophobic, just kind of general trash bag, who discovers that Brody and the Coach were in a homosexual relationship, so he assumes that Billy was involved in a deadly love triangle and his Aunt is covering for him.

After that, kinda nothing happens for 40 minutes until a cadre of suspicious individuals descend on the house in the third act. That’s what you get for not building in a pool of body count victims.

Three screenwriters contributed to this film, and apparently not one of them could be bothered to crack open a Friday the 13th for research.

Night Warning is dominated by one thing and one thing only, and that is Susan Tyrrell. Her bravura performance is so gleefully, whole-heartedly bugnuts that it towers over everything else, casting a long shadow over the tepid high school drama. Her deranged, bulging eyes and fidgety physicality make for a perfectly wonderful villain, though it might be a bit of a stretch to call the performance “good.”

Her chopped-back hair creates an off-kilter silhouette and she’s always framed behind shots of kitchen knives looming ominously on the counter. She melodramatically smears blood across everyone and everything in her shrilly incestuous path of destruction, dropping Champion Dialogue-worthy lines like “Don’t go to school anymore. You’ve learned enough, and it’s full of perverts!” like delirious bread crumbs every three minutes.

If they made an inspirational wall calendar of Aunt Cheryl quotes, I’d be the first in line.

The only second that comes even close to reaching her is Detective Carlson, who is a hilariously bitter amalgam of the worst stereotypes of small-town bigotry. His blatant homophobia and racism are made bearable only by the film’s tone, which clearly hoists him to the status of a secondary villain. The film’s portrait of its actual gay character is reasonably sensitive: the Coach is masculine, not a pedophile, and caring – a victim of an evil man who doesn’t deserve the vile scrutiny he’s being put under.

Night Warning allows you to laugh at Carlson, and it also asks us – rightly – to be terrified of the possible violent consequences of his closed-mindedness. So the movie certainly does not want for compelling antagonists. But everything else is just kind of… there.

At least it’s well lit enough that I can see it. I’ll take what I can get.

The kills are bloodless and tedious, taking too long to ramp up and never really delivering a satisfying pay-off, and the plot is too aimless to drum up any sort of sustained suspense. Frankly, Night Warning is a complete hash of a slasher. The deranged character study at the center is what keeps it from total system failure, and even that can’t be bothered to hook itself to any truly compelling psychology. It’s just high-energy weirdness, a sugar rush that fades much too soon.

Plus, other than the fresh and sleazy opening flashback, there isn’t really a defining aesthetic to the film. It trots along through the drab grey interiors without a flair in the world. Even the title card is a half-assed affair, flashing onscreen so briefly that it feels almost like a subliminal message. Nobody whose named wasn’t Tyrrell cared about this movie, and thus that performance feels like a dazzling gem carelessly discarded in the gutter, wrapped in a bit of used tissue. At no point is it especially bad. It’s just thoroughly underwhelming.

Killer: Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell)
Final Girl: Billy (Jimmy McNichol)
Best Kill: Billy’s Dad’s head is Final Destinationed by a log that falls off the back of a truck.
Sign of the Times: A bully in a crop top has the gall to imply that Billy is the one who seems gay.
Scariest Moment: Cheryl hisses “I’m your girlfriend now,” to Billy.
Weirdest Moment: The end credits feature a scroll describing what the surviving characters are up to, as if this were a college movie.
Champion Dialogue: “College is for rich kids and people with brains. You wouldn’t fit in there.”
Body Count: 7
  1. Dad has his head smashed with a log.
  2. Mom falls off a cliff in a car, which explodes.
  3. Phil Brody is stabbed in the neck.
  4. Margie is axed in the stomach.
  5. Officer Cook is axed to death. 
  6. Cheryl is impaled on a fireplace poker.
  7. Detective Carlson is shot to death.
TL;DR: Night Warning is a thin slasher with lame kills that hinges entirely on a truly demented pair of antagonists.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1065

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