This one has been in my pile a few Christmases now. I had asked for it some time ago, and with young impressionable kids, and just flat out being too embarrassed to watch it with my wife, I struggled to find time alone to watch it. If I was alone, I normally chose to nap or watch “Catfish – The TV Show,” aka the greatest reality TV program in the history of man. But with the kids back at school, I finally had the time.
I always loved the title. It confused me as to what the film was about, for sure, but it just seemed so poetic. We all should recognize parts of the famous poem that the film’s title references. If not, here it is:
Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,
And all of them out to sea.
The meaning of the poem is meant to call out respectable men (based on their professions) and their debauchery as it pertains to ogling women. So how does this pertain to the film? I am aware it has to do with incest. But I thought the boy was the victim? Let’s find out.
Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker, aka Night Warning, aka Mother’s Dead, aka The Evil Protégé, is very unique in its plot structure. First and foremost, it is an Oedipus tale framed as a slasher film. Secondly, the film features a final “guy,” and his girlfriend is the “helpful boyfriend,” an inversion to the regular slasher tropes. And finally, it is one of the earlier films to portray a homosexual character as a positive figure.
Cinematographer/director Jan de Bont (Twister, Speed), worked on the film with director Michael Miller (Silent Rage, Jackson County Jail) for about a week, before being replaced by director William Asher, a 60’s teen surf movie and TV veteran, with cinematography handled by Robbie Greenberg (Swamp Thing). Susan Tyrell (Angel, Avenging Angel, Document of the Dead), Bill Paxton, teen idol Jimmy McNichol, and Bo Svenson (Buford Pusser in the Walking Tall sequels) all feature in the film.
All in all, the acting performances are a bit uneven. Being an exploitation film, one would expect crazy overacting, and everyone definitely delivers on that point. Bill Paxton plays Eddie the bully, in his typical smiley faced manic over-the-top way that only he can pull off. Susan Tyrell is a tour de force, acting incredibly frenzied, hysterical, sexy, creepy, and diabolical all at the same time. Bo Svenson is guilty of overacting too, but not in a good way. He is the bigoted bully detective, who is incredibly accusatory the night of the rape/murder, throwing out all kinds of wild theories with a smirk on his face, something I am pretty sure was frowned upon by any normal police department. He even accuses Billy of being *gasp* gay! We get it. He’s an asshole. Even by 1981 standards!
There are just so many different subplots. This poor fresh-faced Billy is put through the wringer with so many things happening to his teenage self. He’s trying to bang girls, but his aunt won’t let him. She’s making sexual advances to him. The cops think he is gay. His aunt is killing people. He wants to go to college, but he fails his tryout because he’s drugged by his aunt. He finds out a secret about his parents that would shatter any young kids’ world. Then he commits murder himself! It’s just insane.
So, umm, yeah, to recap, it’s a bit insane. Exploitation film, capital E. There are enough good quality kills to keep slasher fans happy, but I don’t know if I would categorize this as horror. It plays a bit like an after school special about incest. Don’t let this happen to you, kids! But it IS competently made. There ARE good stars in it. There WAS money spent to make this film. But was it money well spent? It gets a solid ‘meh’ from me.