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Is ‘Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker’ Too Problematic for 2022?

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The underrated 80s slasher Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981) may seem out of touch in 2022 at first glance. It features a homophobic cop, problematic portrayals of women’s mental illness, and incest. Yet, as I watched this film, I was taken aback by its brutal honesty and surprisingly progressive take. The poorly timed, slightly ridiculous jump scares don’t even take away from what’s really frightening about this horror film—The deeply unsettling fact that each of us could lose any semblance of control we think we have over our life at any moment.

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker’s (BBNM) protagonist is Billy (Jimmy McNichol), a kindhearted seventeen-year-old kid who’s growing up—he has a new girlfriend (Julia Duffy) and he’s a budding basketball star. His aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) adopted him when he was a toddler after his parents died in a suspicious car accident.

It doesn’t take long to notice that Cheryl has a strange obsession with Billy. The first interaction we see between the two of them is while Billy is asleep, and Cheryl wakes him up by stroking his bare back and leaning in close to purr and mew in his ear. Clearly, there are some boundary issues going on from the get-go.

Susan Tyrrell’s performance is truly exquisite, as she does a fantastic job portraying the realities of emotional and sexual abuse. Frankly, her performance carries the entire movie. Cheryl is relatively kind to Billy at the beginning, but once he announces his chance of getting a full-ride basketball scholarship to a university far from home, she begins a devious plot to make him stay. And by a devious plot, I mean extreme manipulation, the force-feeding of drugged milk, and—of course—murder.

Cheryl’s character falls into sexist tropes such as the fact that she was driven to insanity because her ex-boyfriend left her. At the same time, Tyrrell’s portrayal of Cheryl’s descent into madness coupled with her exponential ramp-up of psychological abuse in order to make Billy stay is direct, honest, and real.

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What shocked me the most about BBNM is its progressive take on homosexuality. The story is a blunt and accurate depiction of American society’s general attitude towards gay people in the ‘80s. Detective Joe Carlson (Bo Svenson) is investigating a murder connected to Billy and his aunt when he discovers that the male murder victim had a boyfriend. He then proceeds to be extremely homophobic: he outs the high school basketball coach and tells him to quit or else, he calls many people—including children—a f*g, and he asks Billy’s girlfriend how often they have sex because he believes Billy killed a man over a gay lovers’ quarrel.

You’re probably thinking, “well, that movie sounds god-awful and extremely problematic.” The thing is, BBNM makes it clear that Detective Carlson is no hero. In some ways, he is the ultimate villain of the story. His character reminds viewers that people who are supposed to help us when we’re in trouble may actually be sinister. The movie is firmly on the side of Billy, the hero of the story, who is very close to the gay basketball coach, even after the coach is outed. Homophobia is depicted as a terrifying threat, which I believe is a fantastic message to carry into 2022.

Ultimately, BBNM is concerned with the concept of agency, and that is why this movie is a fantastic fixture in the Horror genre. Aunt Cheryl tries to strip Billy of his agency when he decides he wants to move away and start his adult life without her. The abuse and manipulation she uses on Billy are designed to strip him of his power and make him feel like he has no choice but to obey.

When the police appeared in the story, I sat up on my couch and nodded at the T.V. screen. “Ah, ok,” I said to myself, “now someone will help Billy get out of this horrible situation!” Oh, boy was I wrong. Instead of depicting the police as a source of hope, the film uses the primary detective to further add to the viewer’s dread and contribute to the dwindling hope that accelerates as the story progresses.

I don’t want to spoil it, but the ending is what sold me on BBNM. I’ll say this: it’s full of surprising twists and I truly had no clue who would be the victor until the very end. In my opinion, the ending is empowering and presents agency in a new light. It encourages us to embrace our individual power while we simultaneously support those we love. It may not appear so at first, but this movie is still fantastic in 2022 because of its raw portrayal of society’s ills, its deeply unsettling—yet ultimately hopeful—themes, and (of course) Susan Tyrrell’s outstanding performance.

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You can stream ‘Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker’ on Shudder.

 

Hey! I’m Maya, a snarky, queer freelance writer, horror enthusiast, and history nerd. My hope is that my writing both entertains my readers and provides educational commentary on human behavior & society. In my spare time, I love to eat food, hang out with my girlfriend, and needle felt little monster sculptures.

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It Came From Shudder August Edition

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Tell ‘em it’s my birthday when I binge-watch like that! Yeah, I’m appropriating Selena Gomez lyrics because it’s my birthday and I wanna celebrate some stuff I like on Shudder. The August roster is packed, and a few recent watches also made my shortlist. Shall we gaze into the void together?

Vicious Fun (2020)

 Aside from its declarative title, which it lives up to, what truly caught my eye is that the main character is a horror critic who must navigate his escape from a group of serial killers attending a “self-help” meeting. Talk about art imitating life! Just kidding … everyone at Horror Press is an upstanding citizen. Absolutely no one is a serial killer …  I think (I hope no one at HP actually reads this).

But I digress. The movie’s a blast and features some great actors who have a marvelously meta time dissecting slasher villain archetypes. Oh, and it’s set in the ’80s! How fun.

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 One Cut of the Dead (2019)

 I’d heard good things, so I skimmed some reviews beforehand, as one does. It seemed the consensus was, “the less you know, the better,” and I couldn’t agree more. What I can tell you is we watch as a sadistic director makes a low-budget zombie flick and continues to film after his cast and crew experience an attack by the actual undead. I was initially underwhelmed but stick with it. You’ll be in for a surprise that ends up being a love letter to the art of filmmaking.

 The Convent (2000)

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 The type of movie you put on at 1 am with some Taco Bell after getting home from a night out. It’s full-throttle grungy Y2K mayhem: A group of Greek life douchebags finds themselves the unwitting hosts for a flock of demonic nuns after they decide to make a late-night visit to a condemned convent with a dark past. The makeup and special effects are Day-Glo Buffy the Vampire Slayer perfection. The cast includes a young Kelly Mantle of Drag Race fame and horror vet Adrienne Barbeau, former wife and frequent collaborator of John Carpenter. It’s loud and messy, and it would probably be canceled if made today. Sometimes that’s just what you need.


 Watcher (2022)

 A Shudder original from Chloe Okuno, the director who made Raatma a mascot of the horror community with her V/H/S/94 segment “Storm Drain.” If that doesn’t pique your interest (Hail Raatma!), how’s this? It’s a Hitchcockian thriller starring horror darling Maika Monroe, who plays an American ex-pat in Bucharest convinced she’s become prey to a serial killer fond of beheading. It had a brief stint in theaters earlier this summer – which I missed out on – and I can’t wait to hit play when it makes its Shudder premiere on August 26th.

 The Innocents (2021)

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 Oscar-nominated filmmaker Eskil Vogt wrote and directed this Norwegian supernatural thriller that examines purity and morality when a group of children discover and abuse dark powers hidden within. The trailer is instantly compelling, and the whole thing gives me X-Men meets Goodnight Mommy vibes. I’ll certainly be checking in when it arrives on Shudder, August 18th.

 Special Edition: The George A. Romero and Stephen King Collection

 August is starting with a shriek! On the 1st, the original Creepshow (1982), directed by Romero and written by King, makes its triumphant return to Shudder accompanied by a collection of the duo’s greatest hits. From the OG versions of Carrie, The Crazies, Firestarter, and Salem’s Lot to unconventional gems like Monkey Shines and Misery, this collection will fill out your watchlist nicely. It’s been ages since I’ve seen some of these, and it’s important to know your horror history!

That about sums up my recommendations for the month. I hope my particular blend of oddities has enticed you. And if not, don’t worry about it. At least you don’t work with a bunch of possible serial killers.

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I Know What You Watched Last Summer: Your Guide to Seasonal Sleaze

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Enter an internet search of summer horror movies, and the usual suspects pop up. But what if you don’t want to watch Friday the 13th or Jaws for the umpteenth time? What if you crave something trashy, campy, strange, or downright awful? Something that makes you choke on your beer after cackling at the cringe and creates those lasting so-bad-it’s-good memories with loved ones on a humid July night. The ridiculous Sleepaway Camp inspired this list, and while its problematic chaos qualifies, it’s had a resurgence in recent years. I’m here to point you toward less discussed summertime guilty pleasures, whether you’ve never seen them or haven’t had a rewatch in some time. Grab a flashlight and meet me around the fire at Camp Horror Press as we weave a tale of underappreciated gems, and maybe we’ll rip them to shreds along the way.

Cheerleader Camp (1988):

 If David Lynch and John Waters teamed up to direct a ludicrous old-school slasher, the self-aware Cheerleader Camp would be their concoction. Originally titled Bloody Pom Poms, it stars Betsey Russel (Jill Tuck in the Saw franchise) as troubled “it girl” Alison as she attends a cheerleading camp where anything goes, and every transgression is near immediately forgotten. Lynchian dream sequences featuring razor-sharp pom-poms and voyeuristic sex provide insight into Alison’s troubled mind. Yet, outside of this nightmare realm, it’s all Porky’sand classically trashy slasher depravity. There is no sense of time, so – much like the film’s young actors who can’t seem to help but tumble through the woods like ragdolls – it’s best to roll with it.

Antics include: Employees hiding a dead body to avoid a camp shutdown, wild bedroom role-play that’s recorded and screened for all to see, and a topless queen bee suntanning showdown, for good measure. Surprisingly, the acting is a degree above half-baked, perhaps because of the film’s presumably knowing nature. The sophisticated script allows for amazing line deliveries like, “Chickens! Where?!” and “I hope you DIE!” which remain oddly charming while wrapped up in the film’s bizarre plane of existence. The reveal of the killer’s identity – loosely based on a true story – is similarly satisfying. If you’re in the mood to submerge yourself in the mystical waters of prime late 80’s slasher filth, it’s time for a weekend at Cheerleader Camp.

Killer Quote: “The queen will epitomize the highest ideals of cheerleading, which are nothing less than the highest ideals of mankind.” – Miss Tipton (Vickie Benson)

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 I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998):

 Okay, this sequel to its hit predecessor from 1997 is genuinely bad. The original, which piggybacked off the success of Scream, had a few things going for it: It, too, was written by horror scribe Kevin Williamson, the cast is full of bonafide late 90’s dreamboats, and it includes what I consider to be one of the slasher genre’s best chase scenes, starring scream queen Sarah Michelle Gellar. Unfortunately, Williamson did not write this sequel, and poor SMG did not survive her legendary scuffle with the hooked killer. Scream 2 had modeled the precedent less than a year prior by satirizing cliché horror sequels while simultaneously being a great one, and I Still Know took absolutely zero notes. What remains is a hackneyed follow-up that thrusts Jennifer Love Hewitt’s irksome final girl, Julie James, into the muck once more – this time at a tropical resort in the Bahamas that resembles a lakeside retreat in upstate New York.

Hot garbage doesn’t stink so bad when it’s on celluloid, however, and if watched with the mindset of roasting this movie to hell – perhaps a drinking game – there’s fun within. Hewitt’s suspiciously forced acting chops invoke more cringe than trauma two decades before Halloween Kills ingrained “Evil Dies Tonight!” into our brains, and the return of her beau Freddie Prinze Jr. is butchered by writing him into an asinine savior subplot that literally throws him out a hospital window (and much of the action). Hewitt, arms outstretched, also blesses us with a recreation of her iconic, “What are you waiting for?!” scene from the OG, and a hilarious attempt at promotion for her now-defunct singing career inserts itself during the corniest of-the-era needle drop. Don’t fret, JLove, Ghost Whisperer comes soon enough.

The cast rounds out with a rasta-appropriating Jack Black, 90s icon Brandy as the rare black final girl, and Mekhi Phifer as her incredulously rude boyfriend. A few decent kills liven up the joint with some much-needed gore, followed by a suspenseful epilogue that acts as a lovely nightcap – that is, until it abruptly ends with a gotcha moment so uninspired your eyes may get lost in the back of your head. Keep up the (responsible) drinking game, and you’ll be litty as a kitty in no time!

Killer Quote: “All I know is that this is the worst vacation of my life. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I’m fucking horny, and I ain’t seen one goddamn psycho killer.” – Tyrell (Mekhi Phifer) moments before being slain.

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 Tourist Trap (1979):

 What if the killer from House of Wax had telekinetic abilities and was super annoying? This wacky freakshow from the always entertaining Full Moon Features follows a group of twenty-somethings who suffer a doomed roadside run-in with the Carrie White of dollmakers, and it certainly checks off the “wrong turn road trip” box. Made at a time when not everything needed an explanation, the kinetically charged Tourist Trap somehow succeeds at being both positively silly and uncomfortably disturbing. Its achievements in audio are key: A shifty score oscillates between high tension and something akin to a Spotify playlist for clowns, and its sound design highlights the orgasmic talents of an army of moaning mannequins; if you have thin walls, beware.

Molly, the bonnet-wearing Little Karen on the Prairie heroine, is precisely as irritating as she sounds, and, as mentioned, the film’s villain is no different – he never shuts the fuck up! Of course, this is all part of the fun. There are some genuine scares to be had, mainly due to its infusion of supernatural blood into the standard slasher formula. Tourist Trap: Come for the chills…stay for the sultry mannequins!

Killer Quote: “He always wanted to be like me. You see, I’m his big brother. He always wanted everything I ever had. Including my face.” -Mr. Slauson (Chuck Connors)

Deep Blue Sea (1999):

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 “Deepest, bluest, my hat is like a shark’s fin.”

“Bleeding to death with no arms and short sleeves.”

“Struggling to flow with hemorrhages in your throat,

 Getting the lap dance while I smash through your boat.”

Yes, those are lyrics from LL Cool J’s time capsule of a marketing tool meant to coincide with the release of this late ’90s sharkbuster. Lady Gaga who? (jk ILYSM). A rap track about how Cool J is as badass as a genetically modified shark fits the bill, though, because this movie is just as absurd. Equal parts The Poseidon Adventure and Jaws, the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Thomas Jane fight for their lives to prevent uber-intelligent sharks – engineered as research for an Alzheimer’s cure – from escaping captivity to the open sea. It’s full of gnarly kills, close calls drenched in sweat and salt water, and a shocking early death that rips a page from the Drew Barrymore gag in Scream – see, I Still Know, someone took notes.

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While not very…deep, the movie isn’t half bad and was quite successful upon release. However, 20+ years and two piss-poor straight-to-video sequels later, I don’t see Deep Blue Sea getting nearly as much time in the spotlight as its summer horror peers. It’s an all-around good time and may as well be Jaws when compared to the deluge of incoherent shark movies that release every year. As Sam Jackson once said in that other creature feature, “Hold on to your butts.”

Killer Quote: Honestly, just watch the video for “Deepest Bluest (Shark’s Fin)” with subtitles on. LL Cool J cemented himself as the poet laureate of 1999.

That concludes our time around the fire tonight. Hopefully, my shady reads of these discounted gems have inspired you to give them a whirl and make some steamy summer memories yourself. And don’t stop there. Continue down the rabbit hole and discover even more amethysts in the dirt. A few may even supply that, “You’ve never heard of this movie?” clout you can use at the next barbeque. Until next time.

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