Every Thursday throughout 2014, we’ll be looking at a film from 1989 that wouldn’t otherwise get a grand 25th Anniversary Celebration. These films may be overlooked, obscure, or downright invisible, and while only a few are undiscovered would-be classics, together they form a look at the psychotronic cinema landscape of a quarter-century ago.
A majority of the films I’ve featured as part of our 25th Anniversary Project are tough to find these days, as few have been issued on DVD and most remain stuck on the VHS tapes of collectors selling their wares for inflated prices on eBay. (Also torrent sites, but shhhhhh.) This week’s entry, however, you can watch this weekend – at least if you have access to Turner Classic Movies and are willing to stay up until the wee hours of the night. (You could also set your DVR, I suppose. Or your VCR, even, if you’ve bothered to make it stop reading 12:00 since you hooked it up when you moved two years ago.)
SONNY BOY airs at 2:00 am EST on TCM as part of TCM Underground, though they may just be airing it to irritate commenter JW, who claims it “is NOT what I want from TCM,” and suggests that “there are umpteen cable channels that offer this sort of material – let them have it.” I would love to know what cable service JW has, because it sounds incredible.
Indeed, as JW suggests, SONNY BOY does have “sordid characters and disgusting deeds.” It’s also one of the most unique films of the late ‘80s, an exploitation film with a flourish of dark comedy that plays like a particularly rough melodrama, and I’m genuinely shocked that the cult following for it is, to date, still tragically minimal. The directorial debut of Robert Martin Carroll, SONNY BOY was described in print as a cross between RAISING ARIZONA and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and I wish I remembered where so I could properly credit them, as it’s about an apt description as you can get.
“A sound explodes in my head. I want my mother’s arms to make me safe,” the title character in SONNY BOY narrates as an infant as his parents are killed by local hoodlum Weasel (Brad Dourif) in their New Mexico hotel room in 1970. Weasel doesn’t realize that his victims have left their child in their car, so he returns with the stolen vehicle unaware of his surprise acquisition. The portly Slue (the fantastic Paul L. Smith), already irritated with the quality of the black and white television he returns with and the fact that he owns the hotel it was pilfered from, suggests feeding the kid to the hogs.
Sonny Boy’s life is spared, however, by the graces of Slue’s companion Pearl, played by David Carradine. I wrote about Carradine’s Pearl extensively as part of our list of the 50 Most Fascinating Gender-Bending Characters in Psychotronic Film here, but the short version is that it’s an amazing, sincere, and heartfelt performance, one that should come as a pleasant surprise to anyone familiar with the vast number of movies of the time featuring Carradine sleepwalking through a role.
The couple decides to raise the child as their own, though it’s mostly Pearl’s decision – as the only character in SONNY BOY who has any power at all over Slue, she picks her battles carefully enough to spare the child from death. She can’t, however, spare him from Slue’s unconventional methods of fatherhood, keeping him confined to a silo, dragging him from a car to toughen him up and cutting off his tongue for his 10th birthday as a “gift of silence.”
Meanwhile, Slue’s control of the town grows with the help of Weasel and the similarly slimy Charlie, played by Sydney Lassick. The closest thing to anyone opposing him is a disgraced, alcoholic doctor (Conrad Janis), and when a local mayor starts causing issues, Slue sends his now teenaged “son” (nopw played by Michael Boston) to take him down. “I have tasted the blood of a man,” Sonny imparts via narration, “I have pleased my father.”
There’s certainly more twists to be had, but I don’t want to spoil some of the fascinating moments that SONNY BOY has, if only to tempt you into watching it. Suffice to say, bad things happen to people.
The screenplay by Graeme Whifler (who worked on projects by The Residents, so he knows weird when he sees it) would have created a notably offbeat film no matter who was in the director’s chair, but under normal circumstances, it would have either been played as an over-the-top, Troma-esque comedy or an overly dark, grimy horror story. Carroll, however, goes a different route and pitches the film as a character study, with just a hint of dark humor. The actors are all fully committed to the roles, and as absurd or twisted the film becomes, SONNY BOY is so immersed in the world it creates that it never feels forced or unbelievable. Best of all is Boston, who elicits a beautiful pathos as the feral title character, despite the fact that he spends the film mute, clad only in filth and ragged pants.
A fair share of the credit can be attributed to the music in the film by Carlo Maria Cordio, who provides a pleasant twang that hints of “dueling banjos” without ever becoming too referential. The cinematography by Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli (STARCRASH) works equally well, and the fact that his vivid shots of the New Mexico desert aren’t on DVD is a genuine tragedy. A great opening song sung by Carradine, a moody piece called “Maybe It Ain’t,” sets the melancholy tone. (Star Carradine sings the film later in character as well.)
SONNY BOY isn’t an easy film to watch, and it’s not hard to see why some viewers have hated it. If you’re not invested or at least curious about the world it creates where a young woman’s reaction to finding a half-naked mute man caged in an ice cream truck is to giggle, you’ll bow out pretty quickly. Even if you’re not involved with the plot, the performances are certainly something to stick around for, with Dourif’s frantic Weasel changing hairstyles from a goatee to having dreads to a green Mohawk, Smith’s sociopathic Slue in essentially a more serious version of his CRIMEWAVE character and the always-welcome Lassick chewing the scenery with the best of them. In any case, SONNY BOY is a movie that anyone with more investigative cinematic tastes should sample, as it’s not one you’ll likely forget any time soon.
Previously on the 25th Anniversary Project:
Rebecca De Mornay and Paul McGann in DEALERS
Richard A. Haines’ pulpy sci-fi flick ALIEN SPACE AVENGER
Paul Bartel’s all-star sex farce SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS
Robert Forster takes on a crossbow-wielding prostitute hunter in THE BANKER
Paul Benedict peers through things in THE CHAIR
Lynn Redgrave tries on some amazing outfits at horror hostess MIDNIGHT
Shannon Tweed plays the Most Dangerous Game in LETHAL WOMAN
A lady cop takes her revenge in David DeCoteau’s AMERICAN RAMPAGE
A cyberpunk-influenced piece of lo-fi sci-fi in Chris Shaw’s SPLIT
Linda Blair teaches you HOW TO GET REVENGE
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