Saturday, January 21, 2012

Review: NIGHT WARNING (1983)

Don't you just love a good surprise? Especially when it comes to movies? Like when you decide to watch a movie, thinking its going to be something familiar, and then it turns out that said movie is completely different from what you were expecting. That's kind of what happened when I just decided to watch NIGHT WARNING on YouTube.

Let's get one thing straight - Night Warning is not a straight-up slasher movie like THE PROWLER or PROM NIGHT. Nope, not at all. Whereas those movies mainly focused on the gruesome set pieces and killer's motive, Night Warning takes a different approach and allows its characters and the social problems of the time drive the film from start to finish. The result is a unique and surprisingly captivating slasher movie that, ultimately, does not feel as dated as a lot of its kin.

Night Warning tells the story of Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol), a senior in high school and star of the basketball team. Ever since his parents died in a freak accident years ago, Billy has been left in the care of his wacky, eccentric Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell). And as a result, Aunt Cheryl has grown a deep, almost incestuous bond with Billy that has grown from simple guardianship caring to full-blown obsession. When Billy says he's been offered a scholarship to go to the University of Denver, Aunt Cheryl realizes something... she's losing Billy, and she's got to find a way to make him stay, at any cost.

Once the murders begin, Billy becomes the prime suspect in the eyes of Detective Carlson (Bo Svenson). Carlson is a homophobic, narrow-minded, hate-filled cop who doesn't really care as much about punishing the guilty as he does about punishing the gays. This becomes a particular problem when he connects Billy's basketball coach (Steve Eastin) to one of Aunt Cheryl's victims, and consequently comes to the conclusion that Billy, the coach, and the victim were all lovers. Not even Billy's girlfriend Julia (Julia Duffy) can seem to convince him otherwise.

The movies does a magnificent job of building itself - Night Warning takes it slow but never gives itself enough time to get boring. The script and direction is more focused on the characters and story rather than making it a body-count flick, which is why Night Warning succeeds in standing out. In many ways, it is similar to SWEET SIXTEEN, the slasher film starring Dana Kimmell and Bo Hopkins released the same year.

Don't be fooled by the film's seemingly subdued horror; there is still enough blood to satisfying most hardcore gore hounds. The opening sequence of the film, which shows the "accidental" death of Billy's parents, definitely served as a gory inspiration to the opening highway pile-up of FINAL DESTINATION 2, released twenty years later. On top of that, horror fans will get their share of stabbings, guttings, decapitations, and explosions.

Before finally sitting down to see Night Warning, I heard a lot of complaints about the film's pacing, but I just don't understand this at all. Whereas some horror fans don't want to think about the characters at all during the runtime (they'd prefer stuff like DON'T GO IN THE WOODS... ALONE! and HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE), they miss out on the whole catharsis of letting the story reveal the actions. Night Warning is a tightly wound thriller with great pay-off.

The acting is also much better than the average slasher movie. Susan Tyrrell steals the show as crazy Aunt Cheryl, and despite an at-times over-the-top performance, Tyrrell helps to transcend into the madness of the character. Tyrrell takes us on a journey into madness, and in the end pulls off a performance that rivals the best of the crazy mammas - she's more convincing than Betsy Palmer's Mrs. Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH and she's just as good as Joan Crawford at her craziest in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?.

MAKER), originally won the "Best Horror
Film of 1982" Award by the Academy of
Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.
Bo Svenson, too, is awesome as the hateful racist homophobe detective who ultimately serves as the film's second antagonist. The kids of the story, Jimmy McNichol (brother of Kristy) and Julia Duffy are pretty standard, but they do their jobs well. McNichol is basically shirtless throughout the movie (driving in that homosexual tone) and Duffy is the underplayed sweet girlfriend. The whole cast does well with the roles they're given.

Would I say Night Warning is one of the best slasher movies of the early 80s? Yes, and no. It stands out for its creativity and story, but it lacks the certain mythology that helped turn films like HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, and THE BURNING into classics. A large reason for that is director William Asher's lack of interest in captivating visuals and a truly scary, heart-pulsing musical score. Asher is better known for directing the camping muscle beach movies of the 1960s, such as MUSCLE BEACH PARTY and BEACH BLANKET BINGO, and it shows that he lacks some experience with suspense.

Yes, Night Warning is leagues better than most of the flicks to come out in the Golden Age of Slasher Films, and if you call yourself a slasher film aficionado, than you have to get your hands on it.


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