An orphaned teenager finds himself being dominated by his aunt who’s hell-bent on keeping him with her…at all costs.
Director: William Asher
Starring: Jimmy McNichol, Susan Tyrell, Julia Duffy and Bo Svenson
‘Psycho for Laymen’.
This is probably the best way to sum up Night Warning, although it isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds.
It examines a perverse relationship between mother and son, oozing slowly into the very uncomfortable arena of incest, with a nice side portion of backwards homophobia for good measure.
Unusually for this kind of subject matter, it isn’t explored in a particularly art-house fashion or indeed with any real subtlety at all. By the time it reaches the horrific climax, we are following the tragic heroine through a thunderstorm, being chased by a manically screaming, middle-aged woman brandishing a machete.
Has it been mentioned that the original title for this film was ‘Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker’?
Whatever you might say about its faults, Night Warning is a very enjoyable film to watch.
It flows at a nice and easy pace, demanding little from the audience except for them to revel in its more unsettling scenes. Tension builds slowly but steadily, and reaches its pique ten minutes before the end credits.
It’s just such a shame that it never stops escalating from there, flailing its arms blindly on the edge before eventually falling just a few inches over the line into absurdity.
What makes this derailment from reality acceptable and almost appropriate is the wildly enthusiastic performance that Susan Tyrell submits as the dangerously unhinged Aunt Cheryl.
She throws herself into this role, balancing a level of chilling madness with homicidal fury. She owns the screen, a real treat to behold.
Which is just as well, as her co-star, the fresh-faced Jimmy McNichol is frankly quite dull as pretty boy Billy.
While his performance in general is lacking, he is fortunate in that he shares terrific chemistry with Tyrell herself.
Often his wide-eyed uncertainty mirrors our own as we watch Aunt Cheryl take wider and wider strides into the depths of lunacy, and while hardly breath-taking, it is all too easy to get swept along for the ride.
Some elements of the film are dealt with using a light touch, and this too feels fair.
The odious Detective Joe Carlson, portrayed memorably by Bo Svenson, is the tool used to segue uncomfortable homophobia into the plot, treating the one homosexual, and anyone he believes to be homosexual, as second class citizens.
It is easy to convince yourself, first of all, that this is just the typical expression of a hateful individual, just one of his many bad qualities.
As time goes on, and focus on this particular quality intensifies, it is easier still to believe that the director is attempting to make a political statement about equality, but fumbling badly along the way with his constantly crude use of the word ‘fag’.
But eventually realisation dawns that it is his intention to come across as crude, and to actually make the viewer distinctly uncomfortable in mishandling this delicate issue.
This is wonderfully expressed in the few occasions that he butts heads with Coach Tom Landers, the aforementioned “fag”.
He is depicted as purposefully sympathetic, downtrodden yet noble. When they clash, it is plain to see the contrast between black and white, good and evil.
Detective Carlson is an isolated swine of a character, but rather than representative of evil itself, he represents the worst parts of a society in which homophobia was still rampant, making the uncomfortable squirming resonate with significance.
These sections are dealt with professionally, but the incestuous madness aspect is demonized in the most simplistic Hollywood manner.
While more prestigious film projects might try to explore the more intriguing aspects of such a delicate state of mind, Night Warning is more or less just looking for a villain, and in that, they are successful.
This message is conveyed honestly and bluntly as Cheryl takes clearly signposted steps further and further into madness. This is never more strongly emphasized than when, for no other reason than to highlight how unhinged she is, she cuts her long hair into a frayed and frenzied shag cut, which compliments her bulging eyes and gnashing teeth in the final act.
And while it is a clear and shallow attempt to create a memorable villain, it works thanks, once again, to Tyrell’s knock-out performance.
A little silly, a little smart, Night Warning is an oddly imbalanced affair that nonetheless delivers a perfect slice of fun for horror fans.