By the early 1980s, the horror genre had exploited a wide spectrum of taboos, but had never really addressed gay issues and homophobia in a thoughtful or serious fashion.
1982 was a year in which Making Love, Personal Best and Victoria/Victoria all hit the big screen and made headlines. Director William Asher tackled the subject rather forthrightly in the overlooked slasher Night Warning.
Asher, who had been married to Elizabeth Montgomery for ten years and produced and directed episodes of TV's Bewitched, previously helmed the "beach blanket" movies of the 1960s.
More than just a PC lesson, Night Warning (AKA Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker) also serves as a frightening character study of a mentally unbalanced woman. Stephen Breimer, Boon Collins and Alan Jay Glueckman wrote the script.
Bill and Anna Lynch (Gary Baxley and Kay Kimler) embark on a trip from Flagstaff, Arizona to the Pacific coast, leaving their young son Billy Jr. in the care of his doting Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell).
While driving along a precarious mountainside, a horrible freak accident occurs when the brakes suddenly give out.
The husband is decapitated when the vehicle crashes into a logging truck and a log blasts through the windshield. The car goes over a cliff and the wife is killed as well.
Billy (Jimmy McNichol) is raised by his over-protective aunt and appears to have grown up into a healthy, normal teenager. Aunt Cheryl is another story altogether. When Billy tells her he'd like to have his girlfriend Julie over for his birthday, his aunt informs him that SHE will be his date.
Billy excels in basketball and his classmate Eddie (Bill Paxton) is jealous of the attention Coach Tom Landers (Steve Eastin) pays him. After a game, which Julie (Julia Duffy) photographs, Eddie tells Billy, "Next time...keep your queer hands off of me, okay?"
When Billy informs his aunt that he might qualify for an athletic scholarship to the University of Denver, Cheryl tells him to "forget it." She would prefer that he take a job she arranged for him in the coming year. During a heated argument, she smacks him.
The next morning, Cheryl gives Billy a card on the occasion of his seventeenth birthday. It's inscribed "good luck with the scholarship" which makes Billy very happy. Cheryl then asks him to have the TV repairman come by and take a look at their set.
That afternoon, Cheryl seduces Phil Brody (Caskey Swaim) after he's finished working. When he turns her down, Cheryl stabs him with a huge butcher knife. Billy arrives home and his aunt claims that Phil tried to rape her.
Cheryl's friend Margie (Marcia Lewis) pays a visit to the house with her husband Frank (Cooper Neal) and Cheryl falls into her arms.
The police, including Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson), arrive on the scene and are immediately skeptical about the attempted rape charge. There are no bruises on Cheryl and her dress wasn't torn. In addition, Margie and Frank found Billy holding the knife.
Det. Carlson questions Cheryl and when she tells him she's never been married and doesn't have a boyfriend, he wonders if she likes women. The surly officer also notices the unusual bond between aunt and nephew.
Billy is under suspicion and Carlson wants him to take a polygraph test. Shortly after the incident, Cheryl starts to clean out the attic so Billy can sleep there. She clearly has no intention of letting him go off to college.
While looking through the attic, Billy finds photos of a man named Craig Strang...whom Cheryl refers to as "some twerp your mother used to go out with."
Det. Carlson stops by the school gym and has a talk with Coach Landers. He informs him that a ring was found on the murder victim indicating that the two were lovers. Carlson wonders how Billy fits into the scenario and he asks Landers to resign.
Word soon spreads around and Eddie teases Billy about his close ties to their former coach. A fight breaks out between them.
Later, Det. Carlson baits Billy about Coach Landers and asks him, "Doesn't it bother you that he's a fag? Are you a fag?" It's his belief that the kid and Phil Brody were engaged in a lover's quarrel in which Brody ended up dead...and Cheryl took the rap for her nephew.
Coach Landers visits Det. Carlson at the station to let him know that Brody had once been married and therefore, Cheryl's rape story could be true. "I thought it might help you," he tells Carlson. To which the detective responds with scorn, "Help me? Or help your butt boy Billy?"
Carlson speaks with Julie and is still not convinced that she and Billy are an authentic couple. Secretly, Julie does wish that she and Billy would spend more intimate time together. That night, the two begin to make love in Billy's room but Aunt Cheryl bursts in and demands that the girl leave at once.
Sgt. Cook (Britt Leach), who has been casing the house, witnesses the scene and tries to tell Det. Carlson that he believes Billy is innocent. He also relays the story about the death of the young man's parents and that there had been rumors at the time about foul play. Carlson will hear none of it.
Meanwhile, Billy's aunt thwarts his chance at a scholarship when she puts a drug in his milk that causes him to perform badly during a basketball tryout. At home, she continues to drug him in order to keep him near her.
Billy finds out that Craig was actually Cheryl's lover but is unaware that his aunt keeps a shrine to the man...and his remains. Cheryl is secretive about her past and Billy asks Julie to come by and distract his aunt while he searches for more information.
Cheryl, who has now butchered her hair off...knocks Julie unconscious with a mallet. Billy uncovers his birth certificate and discovers that Cheryl is his real mother and Craig Strang was his father. He soon passes out from the drugs he has been given.
Julie awakens in the basement and sees Craig's mummified corpse, his severed head immersed in a vat of water.
Margie has begun to suspect something awful and Cheryl kills her with a machete when she sees her snooping around. She also murders Sgt. Cook, who has come to the house to search for Julie after receiving a frantic call from her mother reporting her missing.
Now setting her sights on Julie, Cheryl and the girl engage in a prolonged chase but the older woman gets the upper hand and knocks Julie out once again.
Mother against son, Cheryl tries to get rid of Billy and the two engage in a very violent struggle. Finally and terribly, Billy kills her with a fireplace poker.
When Det. Carlson arrives, he finds Coach Landers tending to the injured teen, which does nothing to convince him of Billy's innocence. Instead, his anti-gay prejudice is at its zenith and as he is about to shoot Billy, the coach knocks the gun out of his hand and Billy shoots the cop several times in self-defense.
An epilogue reveals that Billy was tried for the murder of Det. Carlson and was acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity.
It's a sad conclusion to an honest story, made all the more dramatic by the film's compelling performances and well-executed direction by William Asher. A gory slasher, a plea for tolerance, an unforgettable turn by Susan Tyrrell...there's much to recommend Night Warning. It's a definite must-see.
Asher would still direct (mostly in television) including reunion movies of both Green Acres and I Dream of Jeannie but unfortunately, he did not make another horror picture. It was a loss for fans of the genre, for he showed a clear grasp of this type of film - while at the same time tweaking conventions.
Tyrrell, who had been nominated for a supporting Oscar for 1972's Fat City and who is so gutsy and fearless in Night Warning, continued to work frequently. Julia Duffy found her biggest exposure in the hit TV series Newhart and Designing Women, while Jimmy McNichol (look-alike brother to Kristy) seems to prefer music to acting these days and still performs with a band.