Surprises Await in Unusual Early-1980s Teen Horror
DIRECTED BY WILLIAM ASHER/1981
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: AUGUST 3, 2021/CODE RED (VIA KINO LORBER)
I went to high school with a young woman whose full name, when said aloud was very, very similar to “Butcher, Baker.” Because it would be cruel to use her actual name here, we’ll call her (Her Name). My best friend in high school had been in her fourth grade class and had witnessed her perform the most mortifying of childhood activities: she spontaneously vomited in front of a group of her classmates. Mortifying and nearly ubiquitous, I think. I personally didn’t eat Captain Crunch with Crunchberries for 20 years thanks to the nauseating pink nightmare that I projected all over my faux leather satchel and the three unfortunate kids closest to me one morning in the early 80s at South Point Elementary. Some merciful mental faculty has blocked their identities, but I know that I soaked those poor kids right down to their Underoo’s.
Anyway, upon witnessing her accident, my friend, whose wit has always trumped his empathy, immediately dubbed her “(Her Name), Nightmare Maker.” Though we never discussed it, I assume it was since the similarly titled film was out around that same time. Every time I’ve seen her or heard her name since hearing that story, I think “oh that’s (Her Name), Nightmare Maker,” which is probably a stain on my character, but it’s catchy dammit. That this appellation is both extraordinarily cruel and no fault of the person at which is it aimed is appropriate, given the plot of Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker.
The first thing that I have to mention about this film is how excited I was to see it again. I have vague but powerful memories of it from childhood and was raring to revisit it as soon as this Blu-Ray was announced. Imagine my surprise when about 20 minutes in I realized that apparently my brain had invented a movie in the place of this one, and that although I still think I must have seen it at some point, this viewing was like watching it for the first time. So I’m not sure if that colors my evaluation, but I wanted to toss it out there.
In the actual movie, Jimmy McNichol stars as Billy Lynch, an All-American high school senior and star player on the varsity basketball team. He has an excellent mentor in Coach Tom Landers (Steve Eastin), an aunt/caretaker who loves him and a pretty girlfriend (Julia Duffy, who would shortly go on to fame on television’s Newhart). On the surface, Jimmy seems to have it all going for him.
Oh man, does he ever not have it all going for him.
It’s really that second factor, the aunt who loves him, that’s the real problem. To say that she loves Billy way, way too much would be an understatement of extra-creepy proportions. Susan Tyrrell steals the show as Billy’s Aunt Cheryl, a one-stop shop for scenery chewing, vibrant lunacy, and sheer character volume. When Susan Tyrrell is in a room, all eyes are on her, but don’t assume that’s an unfettered compliment. Tyrrell is a fascinating actress, but a grizzly bear being attacked by wasps in locked a room full of decorative porcelain would also be fascinating in a way that wouldn’t be dissimilar. Tyrrell’s Aunt Cheryl is an emotional wrecking ball, infused with enough allure to keep you watching even when her antics beg you to turn away. Also, don’t assume that this is damning criticism; I like Susan Tyrrell. She’s weird and she commits completely to a role. But her style makes me think of a person shouting on a street corner more than a craft-person leveraging personal charisma and raw talent. But no matter what, you’ve gotta hand it to her: she can put on a real spectacle.
Cheryl’s affection for her nephew starts with a cringe-y quality that quickly accelerates to terrifying, but she’s not the only obstacle that our long-suffering 70s heartthrob/protagonist encounters. In addition, Jimmy has a sneering nemesis on the basketball team, played by a near-embryonic Bill Paxton in a role that is almost certainly the high school version of his character Chet from Weird Science (1985). But the biggest hurdle in Billy’s reality is the murder his aunt commits which brings Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson) into their lives.
Carlson, a cowboy-shaped sack of toxic masculinity, is one of the more infuriating authority figures to appear at the end of a decade resplendent with such characters. He gets Billy’s coach fired for being gay, which we are reminded was tantamount to being caught eating a human infant in 1981. Having Coach Landers detached from Billy’s life removes the one adult that has any grasp on decency, responsibility, or sanity and the film becomes an exercise in making the poor kid suffer various inequities and indignities until the very end. Thematically, this often gives it the flavor of a made for TV movie written by angsty teenagers in the midst of an argument with their parents. However, it’s that same plot point that makes this film stand out for one community in particular, as Coach Landers might be American cinema’s first example of an identifiably gay character who is also heroic, admirable, and (in this case) a better person than literally any other major adult character in the film.
Relatively speaking, I feel like this film probably resonates most with Gen-Xers like myself who remember two things particularly from their childhood: one, the look and feel of the ABC Afterschool Specials of the 70s and 80s which it resembles quite a lot for about half its runtime; and two, the cultural juggernaut that was Kristy McNichol in that same era, and to a slightly lesser extent, her little brother Jimmy. For those of us that have been agonizing over the question “what the hell ever happened to Jimmy McNichol?” our prayers have been answered. In addition to a remastered 2K scan from the original negative, this new Blu from Code Red (in conjunction with Kino Lorber) features an interview and an audio commentary with the actor, who has been mostly MIA since this film’s release, except for a couple of walk-on roles for TV.
As with the film itself though, the real star of the special features is a perfectly batshit interview with Susan Tyrrell who claims to hate the film and also claims not to remember it, which is answered brilliantly by the filmmakers sitting her down to watch it, recording her reaction. Tyrrell hooting and screeching at herself from 30 years on is worth the cost of the disc alone, if you enjoy your trains mostly wrecked.
I like this movie because it surprised me. It’s weird even though it starts out feeling like it’s going to be some paint by numbers exercise you’ve seen a thousand times. It’s like a spoonful of your favorite sugary cereal that someone snuck a meatball into- a thing that feels very familiar until you get your teeth all the way into it; then it’s something else indeed. Plus it’s pretty entertaining and made well enough to not be distracting. Because of that, when I hear “Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker” from here on out, I won’t picture a child vomiting while other mean children cackle at her, or some film I apparently made up, so thanks to Kino and Code Red for those mercies at the very least.