- Preston Fassel
Kill Like a Man: Night Warning (1981)
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
"No one would take him from her...and live..."
It's a balmy Oklahoma evening. Summer 2009. And for one night only, The Deuce has come roaring back to life.
There are no hypodermics floating in the toilets of Tulsa’s Circle Cinema. No streetwalkers offering their favors on the pavement or pipeheads wandering the lobby. Indeed, the lobby - a chic, raw-brick affair ruled over by a massive 80s-era projector - is especially pristine, a cool oasis bereft the bullet holes and bloodstains that typified even the more upscale moviegoing establishments on 42nd Street. Inside the theater's sole auditorium, it's a different story altogether. This is where the age of Mishkin and Landis and Milligan has come back to life, at least in spirit.
Cut to: the auditorium. Pure chaos. Screams and catcalls echo through the densely packed space, populated not necessarily by the dregs of Tulsa but those brave, curious, and caffeine laden enough to endure a ten-hour, five-movie marathon affectionately known as "The Slumber Party". Many pay homage to the evening's theme by arriving bedecked in rumpled pajamas and toting sleeping bags, blankets, and wafer-thin pillows to keep them comfy through the night.
Some of the titles on the evening's bill are familiar, mass market affairs. The festivities were kicked off with the crowd pleasing Return of the Living Dead (1985), whose title screen was met with a chorus of applause. The crack of dawn heralded the final feature: the Warren Oates/Peter Fonda drive-in staple Race with the Devil (1975). Yet It's the more obscure offerings that really get the blood pumping, eliciting jeers, riffs, and one-liners that create a feedback loop of joyous anarchy. One intrepid soul keeps a running tally of the number of nude scenes on display throughout The Burning (1981), encouraging the rest of the denizens of The Circle to join in with a sarcastic refrain of "That Glazer!" in accompaniment not only to that particular character's mounting acts of violence but every subsequent kill.
Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hausu (1977) elicits gales of nervous, giddy laughter - still on its theatrical tour of North America ahead of an unexpected Criterion Collection home video debut, its name has not yet become a byword for cinematic absurdism, and more than one audience member lets out an audible shriek in anticipation of some trademark J-Horror mayhem that never arrives.
It's the middle feature of the evening, though, sandwiched between zombies, slashers, and wood-panel loving cultists that strikes the most powerful emotional chord. Projected onto the not-so-big screen in the form of a heavily-scratched, muffled 35mm print, the contents of this rusted film can serve to resurrect the long lost better angels of the grindhouse movie-going experience. From the moment a dummy head was torn asunder from its body by the merciless battering ram of a poorly-placed logging truck, the Circle descended into total pandemonium. Those who weren't literally running through the aisles screaming were on their feet hooting at the screen, offering up gratitude for a cinematic transmission unlike any they'd seen before. For on that night, a hundred-something very lucky people got to watch Night Warning (1982), and while their lives would remain relatively the same, their brains had arguably been forever altered.
Many exploitation pictures sound more lurid on paper than they are in cinematic practice; the natural byproduct of a business model built on playing to people's basest urges. "Exploitation" in the name does not come, as Eli Roth would have us believe, from the exploitation of the film's performers, after all, but rather an audience eager for its fair share of cinematic sin. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is notoriously bereft of the blood and guts its title implies, while the fantastically deranged setup of The Psychopath (1973) - what if Mr. Rogers were a vigilante? - give us a film that, while thoroughly entertaining, could easily be shown on network television with few, if any, edits.
Night Warning? The tagline could easily be "it goes there". Perhaps never before has the setup for a film - an unhinged suburban woman is sexually obsessed with her hunky nephew and will kill anyone who comes between them - so dramatically undersold what deranged lunacy a film truly contains. What's more, perhaps no other grindhouse classic has ever achieved the dual feat of at once being quite so simultaneously regressive and progressive, in its unexpectedly sensitive portrayal of coming out, self-acceptance, and queer positivity. Meanwhile, Bo Svenson tosses the word "fag" around as easily as he breathes through that big barrel chest of his. In short, Night Warning is the Schrodinger's Cat of homophobia and gay pride: at once endlessly offensive and unexpectedly empowering.
The pervy, possessive surrogate parent in question is Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrell, turning in a career defining performance), who obtains custody of l'il Billy after his folks meet their untimely end at the hands of some faulty brakes and the aforementioned logging truck (sidebar: within its opening five minutes, Night Warning not only beats Final Destination 2  to the face-pulverizing punch by over two decades, but also throws down a second gore gauntlet with the logging truck decapitation scene to top all logging truck decapitation scenes). Flash forward some years and Billy (Jimmy McNichol) has grown up into a sweet-souled, sensitive, but dimwitted young man whose great loves in life are, in order of increasing importance, basketball, his girlfriend Julie (Julia Duffy, another of many incongruous names to pop up in this) and dear Aunt Cheryl, whom Billy regards as something more of a best friend than a caregiver.
Having never married or even dated, it's been Cheryl and Billy against the world for most of their lives, and in a show of devotion that would make any Jewish mother proud, Billy worries about what's best for Aunt Cheryl above all else. Nevertheless, he's seventeen, and regardless of his level of filial devotion, the other two loves of his life are calling - Billy's basketball prowess has earned him a shot at a college scholarship, and Julie is exactly the kind of girlfriend every teenage boy dreams of and every parent prays for. Sure, Julie's just hormone crazy as her point guard dreamboat, but also possesses a maturity and intelligence that'll prevent the both of them from doing anything dumb.
Well, it's clear from the outset that Cheryl sees Julie as something approaching a rival, one of the first of many clues that something is rotten in the State of California. When Billy makes it clear that he intends to stake his own way in the world and move away to college with his main squeeze come year's end, something snaps in Dear Aunt Cheryl and she makes the inexplicable decision of trying to live out the plot of the world's most cheapjack porno, faking issues with her television in a bid to seduce the gruff repairman, Phil (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning's Caskey Swain). Sadly, the TV guy isn't as into an 80s-era Susan Tyrell as one might expect of a schlub named Phil, and being rebuffed by two men in one day causes the rejected homebody to viciously assault the hapless schmuck. As it happens, Billy comes home right in the middle of what at first appears to be an attempted rape, and he stands by as Cheryl shanks Phil to death with a kitchen knife, Norma Bates style.
Under most circumstances, this would've been an open and shut case. As far as Billy is concerned, he witnessed a maniac try to assault his aunt, and Cheryl certainly isn't telling the cops about her failed attempt to remake Raunchy Repairmen Part 8. Still, this isn't most circumstances, and the detective assigned to the case is Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), a man who would consider Mike Pence to be too liberal for his tastes.
The walking personification of a Coors-soaked MAGA hat, Joe is a hate crime waiting to happen. The movie wastes no time in establishing he's bad news, with him first insinuating that Billy has the hots for his aunt (the closest he comes to being right about anything over the course of the "shit show" investigation to follow) before asking Cheryl if Phil "touched yer boobies" and questioning why he didn't manage to actually rape her based on his physicality. Detective Carlson's interrogation is such a disgusting display that Joe's own partner (Silent Night, Deadly Night's Britt Leach) excuses himself from the room.
Just when you think Joe can't sink any lower, he hits homophobic paydirt: see, it turns out the reason Phil rebuffed Cheryl's advances was because he's gay. The repairman is actually in a committed-yet-clandestine relationship with Billy's beloved mentor, Coach Landers (Steve Eastin). Now, instead of eyeballing Cheryl as the likely culprit, Joe starts seeing gay people jumping out of closets and lurking in the shadows everywhere, deciding that Billy, Phil, and Landers were part of a far-reaching, sinister homosexual conspiracy and that the murder was the act of a jealous boy-toy. The revelation sends shockwaves through Billy's high school, with kindly Coach Landers becoming the object of homophobic scrutiny and a gay panic that threatens his position in the community. Meanwhile, Billy himself is ostracized by his sexually insecure, macho man teammates (including an early appearance by Bill Paxton, essentially playing a teenage version of his Severen character from Near Dark ), who assume that Billy's emotional intimacy with the coach - he never had a daddy, after all - speaks to a repressed desire for physical affection. Yeesh.
As poor Billy's dipshit present spirals hopelessly out of control, everyone around him begins plotting for dominance of his future: Cheryl wants to exploit the murder to keep him at home, Joe begins a campaign of harassment dedicated to getting Billy or Sanders to "confess," and Julie - the only person in the movie who can genuinely smell bad news from a mile away - goes all Nancy Drew and sets about learning the truth behind Billy's parents' deaths. To spoil the third act of Night Warning would be a crime against cinema. This is, again, a movie that opens with a dude being decapitated by a logging truck (seriously, I can't talk enough about that logging truck) and then calmly lets you know things are only going to get more nuts from there. It's not for nothing that the Circle Cinema audience sank into such a state of ecstatic thrall eleven years ago, or that the memories of it are as vivid for me today as they were back then.
It's startling that, in a movie with virtually no nudity and a level of violence that wouldn't entirely be out of place on a re-run of CSI, Night Warning retains the power to shock into the 21st century simply by knowing how to exploit its subject matter and narratively do things that're traditionally verboten in "polite" filmmaking. While horror cinema is certainly no stranger to Oedipal themes, only Night Warning has the guts to make the viewer sympathize with Aunt Cheryl, to the point that when she finally realizes her Jocastian goals in one particularly unexpected scene, the Circle crowd's kneejerk response of disgust quickly morphed into applause, with one lady in the crowd sincerely yelling "good for her!" at the screen. The final thirty minutes deliver sexual conspiracies of both the real and imagined variety, ancient murder plots, mutilations, mummies, and a climactic alpha-bitch throwdown in a swamp during a thunderstorm. Because this is Night Warning y'all, and it didn't come to fuck around.
It's all a testament to the power of the film's script, a lightning-in-a-bottle, once-in-a-lifetime feat that was the product of a three-way collaboration between writers Alan Jay Glueckman, Steve Breimer, and Boon Collins, the latter of whom was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time to talk about the project's genesis. "I was working for AIP in LA on a series called Comeback with James Whitmore," Collins recalls. "Alan Glueckman was one of the other writer/directors on the show. This was in 1979-80, when AIP was pumping out horror and biker flicks. We loved being in that free wheeling inventive atmosphere. Alan had this rough idea for a horror movie. I expanded it into a screenplay and created the opening scene when the logging truck kills Billy's parents. I live in British Columbia. Steven Breimer told me later they pitched that opening scene to sell the movie. The title of the movie was Momma's Boy. Alan took our screenplay to Steven Breimer who did another draft and put the whole picture together. It was very cleverly packaged starting with hiring Bill Asher as the director. He started out directing I Love Lucy when he was 20. He was now a seasoned director who put together a wonderful cast."
A brief digression: Collins' recollection raises an interesting point regarding the film's title. While the print that played the Circle owned the moniker Night Warning, the name under which the film's most readily available on VHS, the movie's original theatrical run was under the more lurid Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker, accompanied by equally lurid cover art depicting a nude Cheryl and Billy in an embrace. (Says Collins: “the distributor changed the title and created the poster, which turned out to be a classic. Artwork was very important because the picture was four walled by Comworld. [That’s] when you flood a market with TV advertisements for a week, rent a theater and keep all the proceeds. It proved a great success.”) The film owns no fewer than four other English language titles alone, including Nightmare Maker, Thrilled to Death, Evil Protege, and Little Boy Billy, the latter of which was derived from the incongruous Joni Mitchell-esque folk song that serves as the film's theme.
Aiming to fuse a character-driven Gothic drama with the then-popular slasher subgenre (as Breimer recalled in an interview for the Code Red DVD), Night Warning is, at all times, walking a very precarious tightrope between John Waters-style camp-kitsch parody, earnest Baby Jane-esque melodrama, sincere horror flick, and, most startlingly of all, thought provoking social drama. Indeed, it's hard to pinpoint what's more surprising: that this is a movie where you find yourself earnestly cheering for an incestuous maniac to bag her nephew in-between listening to a redneck beefcake utter a slew of racial and sexual slurs, or that this is a movie that seriously and sensitively looks at the topic of coming out and male homosexual identity in a pre-Making Love (1982)/Longtime Companion (1990) world.
At the time of Night Warning's production, gays in mainstream cinema - even grindhouse cinema - were a largely forbidden topic for compassionate discussion. Just the year before, Cruising (1980) had debuted to the chagrin of the LGBT community, mostly due to its portrayal of homosexuality as synonymous with S&M leather subculture. By the middle of the decade, the rise of Moral Majority American politics would make the positive portrayal of LGBT characters a risky prospect for any studio seeking box office success (so, basically, all of them). From this standpoint - hell, even from a modern standpoint forty years on - Night Warning is an oddly progressive picture. Neither Phil nor Landers are ever treated as anything less than fully human and, though he's only a supporting character, Landers gets his own arc, learning to not only embrace his sexuality and stand up against his homophobic persecutors, but to also "be a man" in spite of societal expectations to the contrary.
It's a powerful thematic statement that the villain of the film is a stock archetype of American masculinity. Joe Carlson's take-no-prisoners, doesn't-play-by-the-rules, trash-talking vigilante cop is cut from the same cloth as Dirty Harry Callahan, and it would be easy to see Svenson's performance here as something aproximating both a burlesque and deconstruction of that character. This, the film almost seems to say, is what ol' Harry would REALLY be like to deal with, and it ain't pleasant. Meanwhile, the soft-spoken, kind-hearted, and most importantly queer Sanders emerges as the true hero and true "man" of the film, assuming a responsible, paternalistic role in Billy's life and providing him the sensible, clear-headed guidance the fatherless boy needs. By the climax, he even assumes the traditionally macho-coded role of last-minute-savior, physically stepping up to protect Billy from his tormentors.
A gay man, Night Warning quite plainly tells us, can be far more "manly" than those who ostensibly fill that role, and there's no honor in being the sort of swaggering, toxic asshole that Joe Carlson embodies. Equally compelling is the way the film handles Billy's own complicated feelings about his mentor's sexuality. It's not beyond the pale that a sensitive young kid raised in Billy's generation would find himself questioning his own sexuality after learning that the man he modeled his life on is gay. Far from turning this into an excuse for gay panic, the film treats Billy's journey as one of serious self-reflection. It's one he makes it through with the support and understanding of Julie, who - though she may not come out and say it - lets him know she'll still love him even if he does decide he's not entirely straight. This is the sort of heady material that Hollywood wouldn't be tackling for another decade.
The power of the script is bolstered by bombastic performances, particularly Susan Tyrell, whose turn as Aunt Cheryl places her alongside Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the Camp Queen Hall of Fame. Beginning the movie playing Cheryl as low-key burlesque, she slowly transforms into a high-octane lunatic that would have Carrie White's mom running for cover. Putting even early-career Jim Carrey to shame, Tyrell demonstrates a talent for rubber-faced mugging that's matched only by her raw, genuine talent as an actress. There's something so endearing, so genuinely wounded and vulnerable about Cheryl that, again, you kinda want her to win out in the end.
Far from simply imbuing Cheryl with an energy through facial expression or her booze-sodden voice - which vacillates between quiet, maternal comfort and batshit shrieking - Tyrell also demonstrates herself to be a fantastic physical performer, giving Cheryl a variety of tics and gestures that inform her character's mental state. Allegedly, Tyrell got so into the part, she had to be brought to heel. Says Collins, “Alan, who was at the shoot -I was back in Canada - told me that the scene where she slaps Billy was so out of control that they had to tone Susan down, because Jimmy's face was getting all red and swollen.”
In the other corner is Bo Svenson. A Swede by birth who also served in the US Marine Corp, Svenson had the benefit of being able to look at modes of American masculinity both from within and without, and it's hard to imagine a genuine Southern Fried actor like Joe Don Baker (whose Buford Pusser role Svenson assumed in the Walking Tall  sequels) to play it at once so straight and at once so critical. Joe Don would've played the part with a lack of self-awareness that would've cast the role too far into the realm of parody. Instead, Svenson becomes a murderous buffoon - someone it's easy to laugh at until he's set his sights on you. While McNichol, Duffy, and Eastin perform admirably in their roles, the quiet dignity and low-key approach to their parts means they ultimately emerge as the unwitting chess pieces in a match between Tyrell and Svenson for dominance of the film.
No discussion of Night Warning is complete without a peek at its novelization. While countless horror films in the 80s received cash-in tie-ins, Night Warning's - penned by authors Richard Natale and Joseph Burgo and published by Pocketboots in 1981 under the Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker title - stands out for a number of reasons. Although Collins is credited on the author's page, as he himself tells it, Natale and Burgo "took many liberties with changing the story," adding for clarification, "I didn't care."
Indeed, while many movie tie-ins are hastily written cash-grabs that essentially convert the film's script into prose and call it a day, Night Warning's adaptation is actually...kinda good? In defiance of all expectations, the Butcher Baker novelization acts on its own as a work of genuine Reagan-era literary horror, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with anything by Andrew Neiderman in terms of weaving together lurid plotlines with genuine suspense, richly drawn characters, and complex arcs. One could be forgiven for mistaking the book as having come first, and I had to have Collins confirm that it didn’t.
The "liberties" he references are far more than changing a character's name or altering certain plot points. Aside from rearranging the events of the movie so that the circumstances around Billy's parents' deaths remain a mystery, the pair also give most of the characters deeper backstories and more complex motivations than what could be shown onscreen, in addition to changing their physical descriptions and sometimes even their professions to suit an altogether different narrative. On the page, Landers is an English teacher as opposed to a coach and Billy an aspiring writer, which undercuts some of the film's messages about preconceptions regarding masculinity, yet also allows Burgo/Natale to interrogate equally damaging stereotypes about young men interested in the arts.
At the same time, Cheryl emerges as a much less campy, more genuinely disturbed figure. Lacking Tyrell's perfected physical menace, she spends much of the early part of the book seeming like a sweet, genuinely nurturing figure who's simply dealing with the natural stress of a single parent letting their only child flee the nest. In another intriguing narrative tweak, the reader only sees Cheryl's "assault" from Billy's point of view, and it's not until deeper into the book we learn the true circumstances surrounding Phil's death.
Even Joe Carlson gets a surprising upgrade in terms of humanity, if not sympathy, earning a new backstory in which he struggles to come to terms with his own son, a bright and independent young man who's decided to eschew his father's toxic ideas of masculinity. Described here as a mustacheoid burnout, the literary Joe is no less a piece of shit than his cinematic counterpart, but the glimpses inside his head are fascinating for their authenticity. Natale and Burgo know how a bigot's mind ticks, and even if they have no love lost for the way he acts, they're at least empathic as to why he acts the way he does. In fact, virtually every character gets their moment in the spotlight, with fascinating internal monologues laying out their feelings and motivations, with a particularly touching, original epilogue focalized through Landers, giving the climax of the story a more hopeful and life-affirming quality than the movie's "oh-shit-we-ran-out-of-money" coda. Basically, what the book loses in camp sensationalism the novelization makes up for in enhancing the story's more thoughtful elements, succeeding in being a deep-dive examination on life out of the closet.
Night Warning has had a complicated life. Released in California in 1981 under the Butcher Baker title, it expanded to a wider market in '82 before a national (re)release in '83 under the new Night Warning label. It enjoyed unexpected success in West Germany thanks to PolyGram and Screentime, but fared less better in Thatcherite England, where - under the titles Evil Protege and Nightmare Maker - it was deemed one of the Video Nasties, a distinction that at least served to turn it into a totem of cult curiosity.
Stateside, it primarily thrived under under the Night Warning label via VHS, selling itself on the fraudlent claim that it'd won Best Picture at the 9th Annual Saturn Awards (it didn't - that honor went to An American Werewolf in London ; Night Warning wasn't even nominated in that category). Never achieving the same cult love as so many other grindhouse greats that enjoyed second lives thanks to mom and pop rental shops (Blockbuster never would've touched this shit), it eked out a quiet place for itself in the hearts of queer cinema theorists and those few who'd bothered to rent it.
It wasn't until the 2000s - about the same time as that legendary Circle Cinema screening - that the film began to pick up some cultural cache, with Code Red finally releasing it to DVD in 2014 and Blu-Ray in 2017. But, if the opportunity ever arises again post-COVID, the best way to see it is unquestionably the way I did, late at night in a packed theater full of people half-delirious and caught up in the insanity. In a post-MAGA world more than ever, Night Warning has a special, maniacal power all its own, one best shared with those who're vibing on it as much as you are.
Preston Fassel is the Managing Editor of Daily Grindhouse and the award winning author of Our Lady of the Inferno.