This is, unbelievably, a film that lives up to its title.
It’s trashy exploitation horror movie with incest, a body count, an Academy Award-nominated actress giving a schlocky part her all, a minor Bill Paxton role, and a shockingly positive portrayal of a gay character. It was directed by William Asher, who specialized in sitcom episodes and movies like How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and written by a three-person team–Stephen Breimer, Boon Collins, and Alan Jay Glueckman–who have all been lost to history, or at least to Wikipedia. It’s a curiosity, exactly the kind of thing Shudder is good at turning up. It’s also an over-the-top–and sometimes nauseating–delight.
Ever since Billy’s parents died in a car crash, he’s been raised by his Aunt Cheryl. Now he’s seventeen, as sweet and earnest a teenage boy as you could possibly imagine, and he’s excited by the basketball scholarship that seems to be heading his way. Cheryl is less enthused, clinging to Billy with sticky-sweet possessiveness. She never wants him to leave. She makes one possible attempt to redirect her Billy fixation, and it’s bizarre and tragic, as if her only notion of adult male companionship comes straight out of porn: she hires a TV repairman and offers to pay him with sex. When he refuses–when he makes her self-contained, toxic little bubble break–Cheryl stabs him to death. Billy catches the tail end of this, but he believes Cheryl’s claim that the man was trying to rape her. (I said it was progressive about its gay character, not about anything else.)
The murder brings in Detective Carlson, an absolute asshole who becomes obsessed with the revelation that the TV repairman, Phil, was gay and that his partner–in a small, oddly touching detail, the dead man wore an engraved ring–is Billy’s coach, Tom Landers. Carlson quickly spins a self-generated fantasia of queer depravity, one where Billy and his coach were sleeping together and Billy killed Phil in a jealous rage. He’s less concerned with investigating the murder than he is with harassing Billy and Landers.
And it’s in the portrayal of Landers that the film unexpectedly shines, because he’s just an ordinary middle-aged guy in a small town. He’s essentially married–and the movie gets a tiny bit of pathos out of the fact that he can’t really admit that and grieve his loss more openly. He’s fundamentally decent. His friendship with Billy attracts endless mockery and suspicion, but he’s actually never anything but a good, genuinely caring mentor. And Billy responds to him in kind, staying loyal, respectful, and trusting despite all the uproar.
Meanwhile, Billy’s aunt is drugging him, sabotaging his future, and licking his neck. The big symbol in Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is the milk that Cheryl repeatedly poisons: it’s the supposedly wholesome stuff you have to worry about.
This is not necessarily a good movie. Cheryl’s backstory is needlessly complicated, and the plot is kind of a mess. But this is weird and rough and distinctive in an incredibly likable way; it rewards analysis and offers up some pleasant surprises. And it’s all tied together with a dark and manic lead performance by Susan Tyrrell, who throws herself into the part with both conviction and glorious camp.
Butcher, Baker, Nightmaker Maker is streaming on Shudder.