Horror Film Review: Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (by William Asher)

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.


Automotive Stardom: The California Kid (1974, directed by Richard T. Heffron)

In 1973, a customized 1934 Ford three-window coup appeared on the cover of the November issue of Custom Rod.  The car had been created by legendary customizer Pete Chapouris and it was called The California Kid.  The cover caught the attention of television producer Howie Horowitz, who thought that maybe the car could become a star.

A year later, the car starred in it’s own made-for-TV movie.  Naturally, that movie was called The California Kid.

The California Kid takes place in 1958 in the small town of Clarksberg.  Clarksberg is known for being a town that does not tolerate speeders.  Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) lost his wife and daughter to a speeder and, ever since, he’s become a fanatic about making sure that people respect the speed limits.  He’ll give a ticket to anyone who he sees going too fast.  He’ll even impound your car.  And if you don’t learn your lesson or if you try to outrun him, he’ll get behind your car, give it a push, and send both you and your vehicle plunging over the side of a mountain.

That’s what happens to Don McCord (Joe Estevez), a Marine who was just trying to get back to back to his base on time.  After Don and his car go over the side of a cliff, the official ruling is that it was an accident.  However, Don’s brother, Michael (Martin Sheen, real-life brother of Joe Estevez), doesn’t buy that.  Determined to prove that his brother was murdered, Micheal rolls into town, behind the wheel of the California Kid.

The California Kid is a typical 70s car chase movie.  There’s not much going on other than the sheriff chasing the Michael and the California Kid.  Martin Sheen coasts through the movie, doing the James Dean impersonation that he perfected in the previous year’s Badlands and Vic Morrow plays his thousandth sadistic authority figure.  The supporting cast is full of familiar names who don’t get to do much.  Michelle Phillips plays the waitress who falls in love with Martin Sheen.  (It’s always a waitress.)  Stuart Margolin is Morrow’s deputy and keep an eye out for Nick Nolte, playing a mechanic.  Interestingly, The California Kid was written by Richard Compton who, a year later, would direct Notle in his first starring role in the 1975 car chase film, Return to Macon County.  Of course, the real star of the movie is the car and the California Kid earns its star billing.  The movie might not be anything special but there’s no way you can watch it and not want to drive that car.

This is a made-for-TV movie so you won’t hear any profanity and the characters are all as simple can be.  However, there are enough shots of cars going over cliffs to keep chase enthusiasts entertained.

Horror on TV: Tales From The Crypt 1.4 “Only Sin Deep” (dir by Howard Deutch)

You may remember, from previous horrorthons, that I like to end each day in October by sharing a classic example of televised horror.  Over the previous two years, I shared several episodes of The Twilight Zone and everyone seemed to enjoy them.  I know I certainly did.

Unfortunately, I can’t do that anymore.

All of the episodes of the Twilight Zone that were on YouTube have been taken down.  Copyright infringement, they say.  And, unfortunately, Hulu is no longer allowing people to watch The Twilight Zone for free.  I can still embed Hulu videos on this site but unless you’re a subscriber, you wouldn’t be able to watch them.

Which sucks, by the way!  Seriously, I was soooooo mad when I discovered what had happened…

However, fear not!  While I may not be able to share any Twilight Zone episodes this October, it turns out that every episode of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt has been uploaded to YouTube!  And what could be more appropriate for Halloween than a little trip to the crypt?

So, with all that in mind, here’s the fourth episode of Tales From The Crypt.  It’s called Only Sin Deep and it originally aired on June 14th, 1989.  It tells the story of a prostitute named Sylvia Vane (played by Lea Thompson) who agrees to sell her beauty for $10,000 and the chance to marry a rich man.  Sylvia doesn’t take the deal seriously.  You won’t be surprised to learn that was a mistake.  Only Sin Deep is an entertaining little morality tale.  Don’t mess with karma.

(As well, I’m going to assume that the name Sylvia Vane is meant to be an homage to the name of Angela Lansbury’s character in The Picture of Dorian Gray.)

Only Sin Deep was directed by Howard Deutch, who also directed Lea Thompson in Some Kind of Wonderful.  (And, of course, he also married her.)  It was written by Fred Dekker, who directed the classic Night of the Creeps.

And yes, the story is introduced by the infamous Cryptkeeper.