July 17, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Night Warning dominates the Cinemuerte festival.
By Johnny Ray Huston
IF YOU'RE OF a certain age, you know the look and feel of a suburban-set '70s-era TV movie. The cheerful twittering of birds competes with the whistling keyboard "string" arrangements on the soundtrack. McNichol-esque teens with bowl-shaped caramel haircuts and skin tones ride mopeds and play with dartboards or Nerf basketballs in their bedrooms. Neighbors are nosey but in a caring way. School lunches aren't just eaten; they're eaten outdoors in idyllic picnicky settings. Sports scholarships are important plot points.
William Asher didn't just make TV-inspired movies; he made movies into TV shows. During the '60s Asher directed Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini; during the '70s he oversaw episodes of Alice and The Bad News Bears. In the 1981 theatrical feature Night Warning, Asher delivers the expected generic television visuals: a banal, benign world of wholesome, whimsical Americana, inhabited by future sitcom stars such as Julia Duffy (Newhart, Designing Women) and Marcia Lewis (Goodtime Girls). Night Warning even features a McNichol Jimmy in a starring role.
Night Warning looks and feels like a TV movie. So when a pair of characters discover that the car they're in has faulty brakes, a viewer expects a near-fatal brush with disaster. He or she doesn't expect a graphic, protracted crash scene a scene in which a man is decapitated by a log(!) and the decapitation is depicted from two different angles. A scene that goes on to show a woman screaming as the car that contains her and her dead husband is dragged along a curvy road and dangled over a cliff to eventually fall, smashing into rocks and landing overturned. A scene that then pauses for a few seconds of deadly silence before ending with a loud, fiery explosion.
That's Night Warning: a TV-movie-of-the-week invaded by nasty violence. Not to mention some personalities a bit too eccentric for prime time. Take Detective Carlson (Bo Svensson), a small-town policeman so obsessed with persecuting "fags" that he even complains to his dog about them. Or Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell), who can't resist caressing the bare shoulders of her nephew Billy (McNichol) when she wakes him up for breakfast.
Asher also directed some episodes of I Love Lucy, and it's tempting to view Night Warning as a homicidal sequel to that show, with the wigged-out Tyrrell having a Ball in the Lucy role, using a meat tenderizer on live human flesh. Night Warning presents the seamy underside of suburbia a full five years before Blue Velvet, and a sex scene suggests Asher might be familiar with the work of Joseph Cates, father of Phoebe and creator of the similarly homo-hysterical Who Killed Teddy Bear? Though queer sexuality figures in some other '80s slasher movies (Nightmare on Elm Street II; the inimitable Sleepaway Camp), Asher's invokes it first, and with the least amount of phobia.
Night Warning is one of six films featured in the first S.F. installment of the four-year-old Cinemuerte International Horror Film Festival. Vancouver-based, Cinemuerte has been truncated somewhat in order to travel. The S.F. version presents some underwhelming recent movies (the werewolf-war machismo of Dog Soldiers; Stuart Gordon's Dagon) and stranger if not more successful curios from the past. The dazzling visuals of Mario Bava's Five Dolls for an August Moon can't overcome a dreary giallo plot. Walerian Borowczyk's The Beast is horrible rather than horrific. You've been warned: Night Warning is the festival's highlight. 'Cinemuerte International Horror Film Festival' plays Thurs/18-Sat/20, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, S.F. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.