Fourteen years ago, the parents of Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol) left him in the care of his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) as they went off on a trip, but as they were driving along the road out in the hills, heading for the highway, Billy's father was horrrified to discover the brakes were no longer working on the car. He weaved in among the traffic, desperately trying to stop, but it was no use and he crashed into the back of a truck which sent a pipe ramming through the windscreen, knocked his head off then the vehicle flew off a cliff, landing in a shallow river below and exploding. As you can imagine, Billy was now an orphan...
But Aunt Cheryl is a little too attached to young Billy now he is on the cusp of his seventeenth brithday, and that's an understatement in this, the odd one out in the canon of director William Asher, the man who had directed countless hours of fluffy television and started off the Beach Party series at A.I.P. back in the sixties. What it was that drew him to a lurid horror movie at this stage in his comfortable career remains lost to the mists of time, but its fans were happy he did, adapting an obscure novel in a rather uninspired style which curiously rendered it all the more bizarre when it was presented in such unadorned and matter of fact fashion.
However, there was nothing matter of fact about Susan Tyrrell's performance; she had signed on because she so relished the chance to play, shall we say, the more eccentric type of character and in this instance she seized her opportunities to create one of her wildest interpretations. We can tell early on that Aunt Cheryl is a few sandwiches short of a picnic, not because Tyrrell starts at screaming pitch, but simply because of the demeanour the star brought to the part. Soon she has stabbed the TV repairman to death and claimed he was trying to rape her (he wasn't), but what has prompted this outburst of violence? It's the news that Billy may win a scholarship to Denver University thanks to his basketball skills, that's what.
Cheryl cannot bear the thought of being alone and there's only one man in her life, who is Billy. Her incestuous attachment to him - which the kid doesn't latch onto at all - is the impetus for the mayhem that follows, but she's not the only crazy in the movie, just get a look at the investigating Detective Carlson, played by Bo Svenson who essays it just as laugh out loud loathsome as Tyrrell's creation, only with a different tack. Carlson has a prejudice, you see, he cannot stand homosexuals which means he brings them up as often as possible in conversation just to denigrate them, to the extent that he sees the sinister machinations of a supposed gay agenda in every crime he investigates: the fact Billy's coach is openly homosexual and there's nothing wrong with that sends him nuts.
Carlson and Cheryl would be perfect for each other, being on the same level of insanity if of different stripes, and it's the cop's incompetence which allows her to continue her crimes to the stage that most of the cast are in peril. Also known as Night Warning, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker was the title of the book, and how it became known in the United Kingdom where it was classed as a so-called "video nasty", probably because it was so explicit in its twisted Southern Gothic's implications, though it didn't get particularly gory until the final fifteen minutes. Indeed, for the most part it unfolds as a variation on Psycho except the mother character is far more visible in her evil, you think if Billy survives he has decades of therapy to look forward to. Also showing up were Julia Duffy (best known from TV's Newhart) as the girlfriend Cheryl develops a huge grudge against and in a small role as a school bully, Bill Paxton already marking out his individual technique, but it was Susan you'd remember, a fantastic grotesque who was really too great for the film to bear. Music by Bruce Langhorne.