VHS: Sonny Boy (1989)

December 13, 2014 | By


SonnyBoy_VHS_sFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Good

Extras: n/a

Label: Media Home Entertainment / Astral Video (Canada)

Region: NTSC

Released:  1991

Genre:  Drama / Black Comedy / Cinema Bizarre

Synopsis: A youth raised as an attack dog escapes from his criminally despotic and abusive parents, only to be hunted like an animal by the scared townspeople.

Special Features:  n/a




There are certain films in the annals of home video which continue to maintain an aura of supreme weirdness, and among American productions, this oddity stands out for being criticized as tasteless, depraved, cruel, and patently wrong, but it’s also one of those films where the legend may have exaggerated the actual work.

May have… because those who first saw the film – likely on video, or pay TV – remember being baffled by its strange tale of a small town thug named Slue (corpulent Paul Smith) and his transvestite wife Pearl (breastfeeding / in drag David Carradine, who also composed and sings the title song) who take in a stolen baby, remove its tongue, and raise him like an attack dog to keep strangers and uncooperative locals in line.

When not locked up in an old grain silo, the child, known only as Sonny (newcomer Michael Griffin, aka Michael Boston), is sent into the house of his intended victim where he goes for the jugular. One day, as Slue and Pearl wander away from the silo in a heated argument, Sonny senses a rare opportunity and escapes through an open door, eventually meeting a few townsfolk, including gun-toting Sandy (Savina Gersak), kindhearted / local drunk Doc Bender (Conrad Janis) who mends Sonny’s wounds, and ditsy blonde Rose (Alexandra Powers) who sees only a cute boy instead of a Frankenstein monster. The hunt for the town creature eventually brings an armed posse to Slue’s ranch where bullets, a decommissioned canon, and fire determine who survives and brings peace to the formerly cowardly township of Harmony.

Griffin’s strong physical performance depicts the genuine torment of a young man terrified of an abusive father and the psychological trauma from literally living like a junkyard dog, kept chained and hungry to ensure the next killing will be complete and wholly vicious. Slue and Pearl’s treatment Sonny, including his wretched living conditions, aren’t far off from present day news reports of children rescued or found murdered by monstrous parents, making Sonny Boy a perpetual hot potato for its supporters.

Robert Martin Carroll’s film and Graeme Whifler’s original script (reportedly meaner, and inspired by a real-life couple) may have been designed as a black fable set in a mythic desert town or a drama about people confronting stark moral conflicts, but it’s also guaranteed to offend certain viewers alone with its stark, bleak imagery.

Carroll’s film isn’t a cinema turd nor work of bankrupt morality, but its main flaws lie in the frequent wavering between black comedy and earnest drama. Early into the film, an errant deputy attempting to do his job upon arriving at Slue’s junkyard of stolen goods is blown to bits by Slue’s canon like a cartoon character. While the explosive details are shown, Carroll never shows Sonny actually killing Slue’s victims – just the aftermath featuring a blood-smeared Sonny, which infers Carroll may have felt seeing Sonny ‘at work’ would’ve made the character wholly unsympathetic, or pushed the film into a reality that would’ve turned audiences against the film en mass. By jumping to the aftermath, Sonny’s horrific life remains mythic, and the real horror comes from the internal trauma Griffin expresses though his eyes: there’s remorse, and a self-awareness that what he’s doing is completely reprehensible in spite of never experiencing a life free of abuse.

Sonny’s teenage rearing, which includes being tied to a pole and exposed to fire to ‘make his skin leather-strong,’ is underscored with his own narration that’s so simplistic and minimal that it’s hard to figure out if Carroll wanted the scene to be surreal and absurd, or whether it reflects a conflict between Whifler’s grim writing and Carroll’s effort to extract the human drama through an internal monologue. Whatever its original design, the montage emerges as darkly comedic.

Carlo Maria Cordio’s score is mostly acoustic guitar, harmonica, and light synths, with violent scenes scored with melody instead of disharmony; sometimes it manages to capture Sonny’s inner torment and extract some audience compassion, but more often than not it elevates his suffering into a weird realm of the absurd where it’s not quite bathos, but not dramatic underscore either. This gray zone is also sustained by Slue’s delusional ambitions – moving his theft operations from a small town to suburban Los Angeles – and his means of transportation: an ice cream truck wherein Sonny is kept chained and released when it’s killing time.

And then there’s pretty Rose. She may be a compassionate heroine, but she’s also kind of dumb, hopping out from her home to the parked ice cream truck one fateful night, and never questioning the logic of finding a bloodied youth locked inside instead of a Fudgsicle. Rose takes one look at Sonny, and quickly takes a fancy to the weird, silent boy, finding him kind of neat.

Her nemesis is redneck Sandy, played by Gersak, the girlfriend of producer Ovidio Assonitis. Although Gersak’s performance is surreal and entertaining (for some reason she’s been outfitted with rotten teeth reminiscent of Wild at Heart’s Bobby Peru), she’s no southern farm girl, especially with a heavy central European accent that’s consistently jarring each time she has a yelling spree.

Among the supporting cast, Brad Dourif (unsurprisingly) devours his scenes as Slue’s henchman Weasel (his name is even stitched on his jacket); Sydney Lassick is effectively slimy as Slue’s selfish, opportunistic associate; and it’s jarring to see a disheveled Conrad Janis (the genial dad in Mork & Mindy) playing Doc Bender, a drunk and disgraced surgeon who likes to stitch ‘monkey parts’ to people, eventually using his skills and some ‘spares’ to enable Sonny to regain the voice taken from him as an infant.

Sonny Boy was reportedly filmed in 1987, and this mixed U.S.-Italian production took a few years to acquire distribution. When a chance at theatrical exhibition finally came, Carroll’s movie was cut down, which might explain some abrupt screen captions, and jarring scene transitions, mostly in the second half: Rose’s sudden rendezvous with Sonny in a rocky outcropping implies prior secret meetings which we’re never shown; and an abrupt cut from the last shot to an already scrolling End Credits implies some transitional material was hacked out. (There’s a report the U.K. video version runs about 6 mins. longer, and contains mostly scene extensions.)

Not unlike Meier Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Carroll’s film was treated like cancer at the box office, and it earned its reputation as a work of bizarre cinema largely from screenings in ancillary streams than its hobbled theatrical run, but Sonny Boy is very much an orphan film, released on tape and laserdisc (via Image) in godawful centre-locked, full-frame transfers that lop off all side information. Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli’s 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography is completely ruined, but the film’s surround sound mix is surprisingly dynamic.

There are bootleg DVDs and used tapes floating around, and TCM periodically airs the same full-frame transfer, but whether it’s due to rights issues or a film no one wants to touch, Carroll’s movie has vanished, and his career certainly wasn’t helped by authoring a film that’s been branded repugnant.

In a short post at The Unknown Movies, Carroll detailed some of the challenges in making his film, adding

“Sonny Boy essentially stopped my career. While a few people loved it such as Dennis Dermody of Paper Magazine in NY who voted it the Best Film of the Decade in a Village Voice critics poll, many were just disgusted. My agent actually let me go because a famous producer she worked with said she hated it so much that she wouldn’t work with her again if she represented me. Wow, that hurt.”

Sonny Boy is an interesting oddity – it’s not a failure, but certainly not a wholly successful dark myth – and yet to certain connoisseurs of weird cinema, the film does work. What’s needed is a proper Blu-ray edition that gives the film justice in the director’s preferred cut, and an opportunity for Carroll himself to articulate his intentions, and the challenges in trying to find a middle ground between comedy, drama, and his messages on human cruelty.

Whereas Whifler subsequently wrote Dr. Giggles (1992) and Neighborhood Watch (2005) and soon moved into directing, Carroll’s credits span just three films: Pale Horse Pale Rider (1980), Sonny Boy (1989), and Baby Luv (2009). Co-star Griffin changed his last name to Boston, and appeared in small roles, including the drama Little Boy Blue (1997), which he also scripted.

The career of co-producer Assonitis, though, wasn’t hampered by Sonny Boy, as the veteran exploitation filmmaker (best known for directing Beyond the Door, Tentacles, and Piranha 2: The Spawning) continued making genre productions, producing sequels to his American Ninja and Beyond the Door, plus a Sabrina the teenage witch TV movie before apparently retiring after 2003.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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