Sometimes a performance blurs the line between acting and pure psychosis; a hazy gray area that is so intense in its insanity that the viewer begins to question whether or not it’s morally acceptable to witness such a filmic distillation of madness. No longer a mere feat of acting, the “character” feels more like a captured breakdown; the director knows that their camera is rolling on something straddling the chasm between genius and lunacy and refuses to yell “cut!” Isabelle Adjani in Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession comes to mind – a turn so emotionally devastating that (legend has it) the actress attempted suicide following the production’s completion. Perhaps besting them all is Susan Tyrell in Night Warning; the Fat City player erupting in a frenzy of carnal repression and bug-eyed murder as the incestuously lusting aunt at the center of William Asher’s psychosexual nightmare.
Alfred Hitchcock probably had the greatest explanation for how to create cinematic tension with his famous “bomb” speech. To paraphrase, Hitchcock differentiates between “surprise” and “suspense” by defining the audience’s knowledge of impending doom. Should a bomb that was completely unbeknownst to the viewer explode in the middle of an innocuous conversation, it’s simply a surprise – a cheap, unearned shock. If the audience witnesses this same discussion, aware that the explosive is set to go off while the oblivious Chatty Kathys babble on, it creates an unbearable sensation. We hang on every word, knowing these people are going to die, desperately wanting to alert them to the fact that dynamite is strapped to their lunch table.
Like Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder before it, Night Warning takes this very simplistic yet effective storytelling principle to the next level and creates a bomb out of a human being. From the moment Aunt Cheryl (Tyrell) bids baby Billy’s parents adieu whilst hugging the boy tight to her breast, we know for a fact that something sinister is simmering in this seemingly bland stew. Moments later, Billy’s mother and father are completely obliterated once the brakes on their car go out, causing the vehicle to careen into the back of a construction flatbed. One of the poles being hauled smashes through the windshield and decapitates Billy’s father before the car, now attached to the back of the truck, is tossed over the side of a cliff and left to detonate. Not for a second do we doubt that Cheryl is behind this impressive feat of low budget pyrotechnics. The question is: why the hell would she want to kill the kid’s mom and dad?
Flash forward fourteen years and the answer is readily apparent: Cheryl is incestuously smitten with her nephew (now played by Jimmy McNichol), who has grown up to become quite the heartthrob high school basketball star. Via a combination of inappropriate strokes, longing gazes and Betty Boop intoning, Tyrell is all but wearing a neon sign that screams, “I wanna fuck this baby boy.” It’s unnerving and icky, quickly escalating as Aunt Cheryl discovers that Billy wants the same things most archetypical jocks do: to play ball, go to college and jump into bed with his pretty, photographer girlfriend (Julia Duffy). The dynamite detonates at the end of the first act when Cheryl, rejected and beyond consolation, stabs a handyman to death after he rebuffs her advances. The scene is graphic and gut-wrenching, as Asher slows the shutter speed on his camera down to the point that we can actually see the butcher’s knife puncture the poor victim’s body. Had Peckinpah ever made an out and out slasher picture, this is probably what it would look like.
Where most movies would be content to create a rather routine mystery with Cheryl’s act of mindless violence as the jumping off point, Asher (along with screenwriters Steve Briemer, Alan Jay Glueckman and Boon Collins) instead opts to use the murder as a means to explore societal malady: namely intense homophobia. In a stroke of genius, Asher cast Buford T. Pusser himself, Bo Svenson, as the lawman tasked with investigating this heinous crime. Only Svenson’s Detective Joe Carlson isn’t buying Cheryl’s plea of self-defense against a would-be rapist for a second. All it takes is a tiny bit of digging to discover that the man she massacred was gay and secretly married to Billy’s basketball coach (Steve Eastin). In a leap of logic that can only be explained through absolute, unabashed hatred, Carlson then romantically links Billy with his newly widowed mentor. He’s uncovered a homo conspiracy that’s threatening to destroy the moral sanctimony of his peaceful town, and Carlson’s not going to quit until he outs the men as the deviant sex criminals he believes them to be.
If there’s a performance that comes close to matching Tyrell in terms of sheer concentration of crazy, it’s Svenson’s. The Swedish lug takes his usual Southern authority figure stereotype and inverts it, highlighting the ugly flipside of good ol’ boy law and order. Where Pusser Province is governed by righteousness, the iron fist of intolerance reigns o’er Carlson Country. Svenson wields the word “fag” like the verbal billy club it is, creating an oral armament that deafeningly punctuates silence better than the massive revolver he carriers ever could. Carlson is a towering tyrant; a walking avatar for bigotry, and the lifetime exploitation character actor relishes every evil onscreen moment. The actor’s got ice-cold hate running through his veins, and Night Warning pulses whenever Svenson enters a scene.
There’s a distinctly intimate feel to Night Warning that’s apparent from the get go. Asher was a longtime television producer/writer/director most known for Bewitched and Beach Blanket Bingo '60s camp pictures that paired pop stars like Frankie Avalon with Disney starlets like Annette Funicello. The filmmaker peddled infinitesimal pop art, not widescreen epics. So while Night Warning is most certainly shot in 16:9, there’s a boxy claustrophobia to his frame that at first feels inept, but later reveals itself to be purposefully intrusive. Asher wants to trap you in this cramped, California abode with a maniac and the blossoming man she covets, often letting you think that there’s no chance of escape. In essence, we become one with Billy, absolutely terrified as our once loving aunt descends into the depths of psychosis, threatening to butcher everyone and everything we hold sacred. It’s an odd pairing of filmmaker and material that, on paper, probably shouldn’t work at all, but ends up playing to the longtime I Love Lucy co-conspirator’s visual comfort zone.
Yet for all of Svenson’s quippy odium and Asher’s workmanlike approach, Night Warning still belongs to Tyrell. Her insanity is almost elemental in how overblown it becomes, the actress never once going for anything resembling naturalism. This is the work of a madcap goddess who once graced the screen with the likes of Steve McQueen – channeling her inner demonic Bette Davis. Histrionics and hysterics combine into a perfect maelstrom of malevolence, hurled at both the audience and every other performer who is forced to share the frame with her. At times, you can almost sense the other actors’ awe, as this is simply an artist unleashed, working on a primal wavelength fit to smolder on Hell’s drive-in screens. In the end, Billy finds himself in the eye of a psychotic hurricane; two diseased minds meeting in the middle to create a stormfront of batshit. How Night Warning isn’t considered a classic in all horror circles remains a mystery, as it’s one of the greatest acting showcases the genre has ever produced.
Night Warning is currently hard to find, but is sometimes available via a pretty solid edition on the Code Red website, whenever Bill Olsen feels like having a few for sale.