Sonny Boy (1989)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: January 26th, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Sonny Boy seems like the sort of movie whose reputation should precede it since it offers a litany of bizarre performances and even more bizarre directing choices. Listing them off would send any right-minded trash-cinema lunatic scurrying to track it down, but its specific strain of madness can be summarized by the participation of Ovidio D. Assonitis, whose place in the gonzo exploitation canon was secured by the likes of Beyond the Door and The Visitor. For whatever reason, this wild late-80s dispatch hasn’t achieved the same sort of notoriety, though it’s not for lack of trying: Sonny Boy is a barbaric howl that’s constantly demanding your attention. Each scene feels more desperately deranged than the last, as if the movie were somehow aware it might drop fucking dead if it didn’t manage to top itself at every turn.
Per usual, Assonitis draws inexplicable weirdness like moths to a flame. Sonny Boy is so incredible that Brad Dourif doesn’t even come close to qualifying as its most outrageous weirdo—this despite an introduction that has him blowing away an unsuspecting couple and unwittingly swiping their baby from a fleabag motel. Blissfully unaware of his precious cargo, he dutifully reports to Slue (Paul Smith), a sort of junkyard robber baron who’s somehow taken control of the small town of Harmony, New Mexico. Since he’s more accustomed to running a seedy underworld, he naturally has no fucking clue what to do with this baby, so his first inclination is to sell it off; his wife, Pearl (David Carradine—yes), however, wants to raise it as her own. In a compromise that can only be reached in the annals of scumbag cinema, the two agree to keep the baby—but only if Slue can raise it to be a feral, blunt instrument in crime once Sonny Boy grows up.
Hearing this probably stirs up some specific expectations—if you only read the synopsis, you’d arrive at the conclusion that Sonny Boy is, to put it delicately, fucked up. You would not be wrong in arriving there, but actually watching it is mandatory in order to appreciate its idiosyncrasies. Unlike many Assonitis productions, Sonny Boy isn’t marred by an extraterrestrial’s sense of editing and pacing that leaves you utterly (but delightfully) confounded. It does, however, suffer from a similar tonal whiplash that sends you pinballing from one emotional space to the next. A premise like this doesn’t exactly lend itself to longing tracking shots of a desert landscape overlaid with pensive harmonica bars, and you sure as hell don’t expect to hear Carradine wistfully crooning over the opening credits.
Don’t tell director Robert Martin Carroll this, though, as he looks an already bizarre story square in the eyes and decides to run counter to every expected impulse, or at least zigs and zags around them. For all its torture, murder, arson, theft, and blasphemy, Sonny Boy is a trash melodrama at its core, all wild-eyed and big-hearted in its affection for this band of freaks and weirdoes. Even Smith’s Slue—who is without a doubt a complete, manipulative sociopath—is somehow endearing in his simple-mindedness (one of the schemes he plans for Sonny Boy is a sacrilegious hoot, even). The camaraderie he shares with his lackeys forms a bizarre sense of extended family: Dourif hangs around like a weird uncle, while Sydney Lassick is a scenery-chewing goon whose heightened line deliveries push the film to the edge of camp.
Keeping it from hurtling over the edge is, surprisingly enough, Carradine himself. Despite dealing with a gender-bent role in the much-less sensitive 1980s, neither Carradine nor Carroll see Pearl as an opportunity for to exploit manic broadness or transphobia. Rather, she forms a genuinely empathetic center alongside her damaged son, both of whom feel like trailers being thrashed around in the tornadic chaos surrounding them. Both Carradine’s soft-spoken turn and the grown-up Sonny Boy’s (Michael Boston) soft, innocent features contrast sharply with this maelstrom, further highlighting just how screwy this film is.
To paint a clearer picture of just how relentlessly screwy (if not scatterbrained) Sonny Boy is, consider the wide range of movies it echoes during its 105-minute runtime: what begins as a collision between Raising Arizona and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre graduates into an extended riff on Whale’s Frankenstein movies once a bewildered Sonny Boy begins to wander around the surrounding countryside, where he encounters both leery locals and an unexpected companion. Of course, before Carroll can settle into this, he’s suddenly barreling towards a climax that feels like it was plucked straight out of Mad Max—or one of the Italian Mad Max rip-offs, at least. See, in this version of Frankenstein, the torch-bearing villagers arrive in the form of a dirt bike gang that wields Molotov cocktails and ushers in a spectacular, fiery resolution.
Obviously, none of this alleviates the film’s jarring tonal shifts, not that Carroll shows any particular interest in doing so. If Sonny Boy is car crash cinema, then its director is invested in tracking the entirety of the carnage, from the collision course to the mangled wreckage, all with an unflinching eye constantly in search of an indelible moment. Sometimes, that moment is a slow-mo shot of Carradine bursting through a window, shotgun in tow; sometimes, it’s a character casually insisting that he needs some monkey’s blood. I hate to keep harping on this since it amounts to a cop-out, but trust me: you’ve gotta see this shit for yourself.
Thanks to Scream Factory, that’s no longer as difficult as it once was. You would think a film like Sonny Boy would have seen its infamy grow during the past decade thanks to the cult home video market, but, for whatever reason, it only came to DVD last November, just ahead of this high definition upgrade. Those who decided to wait it out a couple of extra months chose wisely, as the Blu-ray not only features an improved presentation over MGM’s manufactured-on-demand release, but also a handful of extra features, including separate commentary tracks with Carroll and writer Graeme Whifler. The film’s trailer and an electronic copy of the screenplay serve as further supplements.
Considering its premise, it feels apt to call Sonny Boy a bastard love child, one that was affectionately reared on influences ranging from the arthouse to the grindhouse. To parallel the film itself, it’s almost as if Terrence Malick had a baby only to have John Waters abduct it and turn it into a deranged yet sweet weirdo. Sometimes, it howls in agony; sometimes, it wails a mournful, melancholy tune. "Maybe there's gold at the end of this rainbow," Carradine soulfully utters during the opening credits before supposing "or maybe it ain't," the unexpectedly poignant musings from a film where someone has their tongue cut out as a birthday present. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: