This is an unexpectedly odd psychological thriller from 1981.
Okay, well, actually, I guess the technical term for this film would be “slasher” because it does feature a dark secret from the past and a series of gruesome murders and some 20-something teenagers getting naked. That said, calling this movie a slasher brings to mind thoughts of Friday the 13th and Halloween and, as much as I’ve defended those films in the past, it’s hard to compare them to a film like Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. Nor is the film comparable to more giallo-influenced slashers that came out in the late 70s and the early 80s. The identity of the murderer is revealed too early for that.
The murderer is Cheryl Roberts (Susan Tyrrell), who may seem like a perfectly normal suburban widow but who has some bad habits. For instance, when she’s sexually rejected by television repairman Phil Brody (Caskey Swaim), she reacts by grabbing a knife and stabbing him to death in the kitchen. When the police arrive, she says that he attempted to rape her. When it’s later revealed to her that Phil was gay and in a committed relationship with the local high school basketball coach, she snaps that “Homosexuals are very sick people!” Cheryl goes on to murder several more people, all because she views them as a threat to her relationship with her nephew, Billy (Jimmy McNichol).
Billy is a senior in high school. His parents died in a mysterious car crash when he was an infant and he’s been raised by his aunt Cheryl. Billy has an opportunity to go away to college on a basketball scholarship but Cheryl isn’t happy about that. Cheryl never wants Billy to leave and she’s not above drugging his milk to make sure that he has a bad game while the college scouts are watching. Cheryl is also not happy that Billy has a girlfriend, Julia (Julia Duffy). When she finds out that Billy and Julie are sexually active, Cheryl’s response is to trap Julia in the basement.
Aunt Cheryl is not Billy’s only problem. There’s also Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson). Carlson has been assigned to investigate the murder of Phil and he quickly becomes fixated on the fact that Phil was gay and that he was in a relationship with Billy’s coach, Tom Landers (Steve Eastin). Despite all of the evidence that Cheryl’s killing people left and right, Carlson becomes obsessed with proving that Billy’s gay and that he murdered Phil as the result of a love triangle. It quickly becomes clear that Carlson, who brags about his own military service, is incapable of going for more than five minutes without accusing someone of being gay. (Of course, Carlson never says “gay.” Instead, he uses a slur that begins with the letter F and he uses it a lot.)
What sets this film apart from other horror films of the era is that the rampant homophobia is not played for laughs or for shock value. Traditionally, being gay in a 1980s horror film meant that the character was either going to be held up as an object of ridicule or, in many cases, turn out to be the murderer. Instead, in Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, the gay characters are literally the only fully sympathetic people in the entire film. Instead, the film’s villains are homophobes like Carlson, Cheryl, and Eddie (Bill Paxton!), a bully who gives Billy a hard time over his friendship with the coach. As many people as Cheryl kills over the course of the film, the bigger monster is Carlson, who is so determined to indulge his prejudices that he’s blind to everything that’s happening in front of him.
It makes for an unexpectedly thoughtful slasher film. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker has its flaws, to be sure. I wish, for instance, that Julia and Billy weren’t such bland characters. (They’re well-acted but neither is written with much depth.) There’s some pacing issues as well. But overall, this is an unexpectedly good thriller which features two horrifyingly plausible performances from Susan Tyrrell and Bo Svenson.