Cinefamily’s Video Nasties #1: NIGHT WARNING

The famed LA theater is doing a month of midnights celebrating the UK's infamous 'video nasties.' They'll be sharing their thoughts about each screening, starting with the first in the marathon: 1982's NIGHT WARNING (aka BUTCHER, BAKER, NIGHTMARE MAKER).

A note from Devin:

The Cinefamily in Los Angeles is doing a midnight screening series of the infamous Video Nasties. When they asked to blog about the experience here, I jumped at the opportunity. So without further ado, let's turn this over to Hadrian Belove.

What’s a Video Nasty, you ask?

Well, back in 1982, a moral panic erupted in the U.K. under the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher and her cohorts in media censorship, who found it handy to blame all of society’s ills (and particularly its maladjusted children) on those nasty, nasty horror movies sitting on video shelves around the country. Using rigged data, trumped-up reports in some of the shiftier papers and an easily frightened public, a number of gory films — 72, to be exact, with almost all of them Italian or American — wound up as official societal scapegoats, and were either eventually banned or reissued in drastically cut versions.

A most baffling criteria for inclusion on the list: that there was no true criteria, other than, when viewed through today’s lens, that they all be as awesome as possible. Indeed, from today’s vantage point,  one of the pleasures of the list is what a perfect time capsule they are; looking at these titles brilliantly  captures what perusing the horror section of a mom-and-pop video shop in the mid-’80s was like.  The ridiculously gory sounding titles, the lurid promise-so-much covers, the fly-by-night quality of the distributors (with their garish, oversized boxes, and the willingness to pass off the most obscure and questionable titles, often renamed, from other countries and decades as new and “cutting edge”) -- all this adds up to a priceless freeze frame of one of the real golden ages of horror nerd-dom.

That’s why, at our theatre here in L.A., we decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the “Video Nasties” phenomena by watching 30 of these titles in 30 nights, all at midnight, all exclusively on 35mm.  We’re going through them in increasing order of “nastiness” -- starting with the mildest titles (“Why was this banned?”), and ending with the truly repulsive (“Why isn’t this banned NOW?”).  Please note: this was not done perfectly, partly because of faulty memories on the part of programmers, and largely because 35mm print availability required a little adjusting from our ideal order.

For those of you not in L.A., we thought we’d share the experience, and write our thoughts on each video nasty we see, throughout the month of October.

Starting with Video Nasty #1 NIGHT WARNING:

Night Warning is a ‘70s movies lost in the ‘80s, a hothouse melodrama masquerading as a horror flick, featuring one of those unhealthy mother-son relationships that populated the landscape of exploitation for decades after Psycho.  Director William Asher cut his teeth on I Love Lucy and Bewitched episodes, so Night Warning resembles more of a fast-paced piece of TV movie entertainment (with pro actors and cheerfully competent hack writing), far more than some exploitation roughie made by Eurotrash scumbags with no agenda other than offending the bourgeois and titillating the youngfolk. 

So why was it was really banned?  Well, it does open with one of the most notoriously awesome kills in film history (a Final Destination-esque car wreck that’ll take your head off)--the kind any self-respecting teenage boy would rewind and replay ad infinitum.  For a British censor taking cucumber sandwiches with his tea in a police station’s back room, that might have been enough to eject the tape right then and there.  Along with the much more violent-sounding U.K. title (Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker), and the general air of incestual longing and sexual dysfunction that haunts the proceedings, it could be enough. But outside that opening, and bit of severed hand action, basically there’s nothing in department that stands out above the usual hack-and-slash ‘80s fare.

Nastiness issues aside, Night Warning is a real crowd pleaser, and that’s in no small part due to the barn-burning performance by Susan “Su-Su” Tyrell.  Nominated in 1973 for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as a woozy-floozy Fat City, she’s probably best known by fans for her outrageous, campy character turns in cult films like Forbidden Zone and Angel. Pauline Kael once observed that you can tell how bad a movie is by how much the good moments stand out, and I think that principle particularly applies to great performances (though Kael was not a Tyrell fan, she did call Tyrrell’s style “an entire school of acting”.)   Here, Tyrell’s deliciously over-the-top psycho act is real shotgun-to-a-knifefight stuff, pitched way above the rest of the film, and you could feel the whole audience come to attention like a pack of dogs all hearing the same high-pitched whistle every time she came on screen.

She oozes incestous lust for her nephew (Jimmy McNichol) and flirts like a schoolgirl, pouting sullenly like a child one moment and exploding in sudden rage the next.  And, in one of those actor improv moments that cracks a movie in half so the good stuff can ooze out, can’t help but lick spilt milk off her nephew’s neck as he’s drifting into drugged unconscious. By the end of the movie, in full crazypants mode, she’s physically transformed.  She wanders around the film with a neck-jutting, eye-bulging old lady walk that resembles nothing so much as a murderous E.T. -- waddle, waddle, stab.  Waddle, waddle, stab.

And speaking of McNichol, our hero has what I sometimes think of as Munster Family Syndrome: where a character with clearly psychotic parental figures seems to be the model of caucasian, milk-drinking, Middle American normality -- even though his guardians are freakish ghouls.  “Normal”, except for one thing.  Everyone thinks he’s gay. I mean everyone: his friends, his coach, his girlfriend...hell, the police base their entire investigation on the idea.   But the gayest thing about the movie in general is probably the way the director lovingly gazes at every inch of his bare chest ‘n tush, in a series of nude scenes so unnecessary that it made me think he was trying to tempt his crazy aunt to the dark side (best circumstantial “gay director” evidence: William Asher also worked on The Paul Lynde Show).

But the real vehicle for Night Warning’s examination of homophobia comes in the form of Bo Svenson (a second-tier action star best known as Joe Don Baker’s replacement in the Walking Tall series). He plays a police detective who, in a mixture of gay panic and complete societal ignorance, ignores all available evidence in his obsessive need to pin the crime on a homosexual.  To Svenson’s credit, he seems to know just what kind of movie he’s in, and does his best to match Tyrell’s unhinged energy.

In fact, by today’s standards the only thing in the film potentially offensive enough to set off protests and moral panic is the free-wheeling use of the F-bomb. And I’m talking the real F-bomb -- the one that’s been the mainstay high school bully’s epithet for homosexuals for decades.  To be clear, Night Warning doesn’t come off as homophobic, and has some kind of dated liberalism mixed with ‘50s-style Freudian subtext that populated the plays of William Inge and Tennessee Williams -- but when mixed with various flesh cleavings and the overtly incestous motivations- - it comes off more sensationalistic than audience provoking. Philadelphia, it ain’t.  And thank god.

Nasty-meter: 3 out of 10.
Fun-meter: Off the hook.

Tonight's movie is Hell of the LIving Dead. Come to The Cinefamily to see it, or come back tomorrow for the write-up!