In Praise of 1982’s Night Warning

A loving look at the lurid 1982 Susan Tyrell-starring psychodrama Night Warning

In the never-ending search for horror cinema’s craziest and mast dangerous women, rarely do you hear many experts cite Susan (Andy Warhol’s Bad, From a Whisper to a Scream) Tyrell’s malevolent, manipulative and murderous Aunt Cheryl in Beach Blanket Bingo director William Asher’s undervalued 1982 thriller Night Warning. Heck, not many cineastes cite the movie for much of anything. Maybe it’s because the picture was released during the wave of crass slasher crap that belched out of the early ’80s with pedestrian, lowbrow regularity. Maybe many critics just got confused by the fact it was known under a slew of none-too-subtle titles like Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker and sometimes just simply Nightmare Maker before ending up with the rather innocuous and misleading Night Warning handle. Maybe it’s the fact that it has never been released in any sort of serious and pretty extras packed Blu-ray edition yet (though Code Red did release it on DVD a couple of years back), nor does it have any celebrity champion like Quentin Tarantino or Eli Roth slobbering all over it or trying to remake it.

But for this writer’s money, you will never, ever, EVER find a more psychotic screen she-monster more blood-chilling than Tyrell in this deeply twisted, melodramatic Gothic shocker, a sort of dark amalgam of the ’60s “horror hag” movies that usually starred Bette Davis and/or Joan Crawford, stuff like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Strait-Jacket, tempered with the psycho-sexual obsessions of the Italian giallo and the mundane ins-and-outs of the after school special. But really, these clumsy allusions don’t do Night Warning any service. Because the movie has a sickly, unsettling and deliciously trashy vibe all its own. And Tyrell’s monstrous Cheryl has rarely been matched.

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The film tells the story of sweet young teen Billy (Jimmy McNichol, brother of Kristy), an ace basketball player who has been given the chance at a scholarship to an elite out of town university, the same school that his equally lovely girlfriend Julia (Julia Duffy, from TV’s Newhart) is also going to. Seems like the future is bright for the young lovers. But there’s one problem: Billy’s hideous Aunt Cheryl. Cheryl is a human monster, feral and drooling and, as we learn from the spectacularly violent opening sequence, homicidal. Cheryl became Billy’s ward when he was 3, after his parents went off on a drive down the California coast and, after their breaks failed (thanks Aunt Cheryl!), met their screaming demises. Dad is decapitated by a log that comes crashing through the windshield and the then blood-spattered Mom is thrown from a cliff to her final, fiery destination (and yes, the sequence is a clear influence on the opening of Final Destination 2). It’s an astonishing start to an unyieldingly cruel and paranoid movie.

Anyway, Billy tells Cheryl about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that his beloved Coach Landers (Steve Easton) has given him, but she’ll have none of it. Because no one leaves Aunt Cheryl. Tyrell plays the character like a hyper-sexual, petulant child, who has to get her way at any cost. After arguing with her nephew, the sickening Cheryl sets up a scenario with a repairmen, trying to feign seduction which the blue-collar dude rejects. When he pushes her away, she pulls out a butcher knife and stabs him a dozen times in the chest. When Billy witnesses this murder, Cheryl insists that the man was trying to rape her and, when Detective Carlson (Bo Svenson from Walking Tall, Part 2 and the original The Inglorious Bastards) shows up to investigate the gory crime scene, Billy backs her up. But Carlson doesn’t buy it. And when he finds out that the repairman was gay and that he was the lover of Billy’s coach, the detective unleashes his inner hostile homophobe, imagining that Billy and Coach Landers are in fact lovers and that the two men planned to have the third murdered so they could be together.

Meanwhile, Cheryl gets crazier and crazier, alternately sitting in her room and talking to a photograph of her dead husband and getting more and more possessive and sickeningly incestuously obsessed with her nephew, whose life is falling apart both at home and at school (one of his bullies is played by a pre-Weird Science Bill Paxton). When Cheryl walks in on Billy and Julia having sex, she goes fully, completely off the deep end. And none of this ends well, in case you haven’t guessed yet…

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Night Warning is a checklist of ugliness and yet its so over the top and so briskly paced and histrionic that it’s never anything but a greasy joy to watch. In many ways, it reminds me of the feeling I get watching Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 mind-bender Possession. Svenson matches Tyrell’s hideousness, painting the portrait of a man who is so hateful to gays that it’s very clear he is most likely gay himself. Watching him berate the decent coach, calling him “fag” and “butt boy” while humiliating Billy in front of his girlfriend and decrying homosexuality as revolting makes him one of the most unpleasant of screen presences. In fact, at its core, Night Warning might just be an indictment of the toxic hypocrisy of homophobia. Carlson is a pig who exploits the law to further his hate agenda and Cheryl, who screams at Billy that “homosexuality is disgusting and gays are diseased” reeks of the kind fear and loathing that fuels these kind of repressed sociopaths in real life.

But as juicy a thriller as Night Warning is, the main reason to watch this ultra-nasty (in fact it WAS a certified “video nasty” in England!), Oedipal opus is to revel in Tyrell’s show-stopping performance. The actress just goes for it, delivering a complex, physical and emotional tour-de-force that should have won her a myriad awards. And the wonder of the performance is that no matter how distorted and ugly her Aunt Cheryl is, Tyrell manages to make her somewhat tragic and sympathetic. Something went dreadfully wrong in this woman’s life and now, with her tortured psyche pushed past the point of no return, every living thing that comes into contact with her will suffer greatly. But perhaps no one will suffer as greatly as Cheryl herself, a human being who succumbed to the endless scratching at the door and finally let the Devil in…