(US/Italy - 1990)
Directed by Robert Martin Carroll. Written by Graeme Whifler and Peter Desberg, Ph.D. Cast: David Carradine, Paul L. Smith, Brad Dourif, Conrad Janis, Sydney Lassick, Savina Gersak, Alexandra Powers, Michael Griffin, Steve Carlisle, Steve Ingrassia, Robert Broyles, Jeff Bergquist. (R, 97 mins)
There's genuine heart and a feeling of twisted love deep within the sick horrors contained in SONNY BOY, a one-of-a-kind exploitation film whose cult status seems to be gaining momentum with each passing year and each subsequent late-night "TCM Underground" airing on Turner Classic Movies. Alternately grim, horrifying, and hilarious, SONNY BOY is indebted to the '70s drive-in horrors of Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven and along with those films, probably influenced the hillbilly horror of Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003) and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS (2005). SONNY BOY just came out at the wrong time--a decade earlier or later and it probably would've gotten more attention from fans. Filmed in 1987 but--for a variety of reasons--unreleased until 1990, the film had an extremely troubled production that seems to be the norm with Egyptian-born, Italy-based producer Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, TENTACLES, THE VISITOR). In the late '80s, Assonitis had a co-production deal with Trans-World Entertainment that produced films like David Keith's THE CURSE (1987), Alfonso Brescia's fake-ATOR entry IRON WARRIOR (1987), Ruggero Deodato's LONE RUNNER (1988), and Federico Prosperi's THE BITE (1989), rechristened CURSE II: THE BITE though it's completely unrelated to THE CURSE but is likely the only film that will ever contain both radioactive snakes and Jamie Farr getting laid. SONNY BOY was part of that same deal, but proved a much bigger headache than the others, most of which got small releases on their way to video stores, except for THE CURSE, which actually made some money thanks to a post-STAND BY ME Wil Wheaton, who has blogged about what a terrible experience he had making it (from wilwheaton.net):
"Well, at the time, your Uncle Willie was just a young'un, and some really evil producers from a scary foreign country came to him and said, 'We have this movie for you to be in, and we want to give you lots of money to be in it.' And Uncle Willie didn't have the best advisors at the time, and nobody told him that this big pile of shit would be around forever. Consider it the very expensive lesson. At least I didn't get a tattoo."
DR. GIGGLES (1992) and direct segments of the 2000-2002 Dean Cain-hosted revival of RIPLEY'S BELIEVE IT OR NOT. Whifler was hoping to direct SONNY BOY but was ousted from the project right after selling the script to Assonitis. The producer instead went with Robert Martin Carroll, whose only prior credit was a 1980 short film (there was a rumor that "Robert Martin Carroll" was a pseudonym for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and Assonitis' LONE RUNNER director Deodato, but Carroll is indeed a real person; his only other credit is the 2005 indie BABIES FOR SALE, which was shot five years earlier as BABY LUV). Much of Whifler's script was altered by Assonitis and Carroll (Sonny Boy was originally written as a disfigured monstrosity instead of an animalistic teenage boy), and someone going by "Peter Desberg, Ph.D" is credited with "additional dialogue" (Carroll has said that Whifler's original script was even more extreme and bizarre than what was filmed). Whifler remained bitter about SONNY BOY and for a long time, there was no love lost between him and Carroll, though in recent years as the film's cult has slowly grown, they've made peace with one another and, in a classic "enemy of my enemy is my friend" development, seem to have come together and found some common ground in their mutual loathing of Assonitis. Assonitis has long had a reputation as a meddling producer who hires rookie directors just to fire them--most infamously, he gave James Cameron his first directing gig on 1982's PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING and butted heads with the future King of the World throughout the production, kicking him out of the editing room and eventually firing him altogether, infuriating the young Cameron enough that he was finally inspired to devote all of his energies to finishing his script for THE TERMINATOR (cue the PRICE IS RIGHT losing horn for Assonitis). Carroll got a taste of the Cameron experience during SONNY BOY's post-production in Rome as Assonitis--I hope you're sitting down for this--locked him out of the editing room and fired him.
Bluto), 1983's chainsaw classic PIECES (as the stink-eyed, red herring handyman Willard), and 1984's DUNE (as The Beast Rabban). SONNY BOY gave Smith a rare starring role and he runs with it, glowering, glaring, and sweating through the entire film with a masterful slow burn. Smith retired from acting in the late 1990s and left Hollywood to recommit to his Jewish faith, changing his name to Adam Eden and relocating with his wife to Israel where he spent his last years. The folks at Grindhouse Releasing tracked him down and visited him at his home in Ra'anana for a candid and gregarious career-spanning interview on their PIECES DVD in 2008.
Dourif acts twitchy and sketchy, and Lassick does his patented Cheswick whining (this is probably not the ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST reunion either envisioned in 1975), but there's an oddly natural and lived-in feeling to their performances that makes the film that much more unsettling. No one is outraged by anything that goes on. No one seems to notice that Pearl is hideous and has chest hair. And even the townspeople are bunch of hatemongering yahoos. The straight performances of the cast--even Carradine is restrained, despite his garb--heighten the outrage factor when something completely batshit happens, whether Sonny Boy bites off Weasel's thumb or an irate Slue fires a cannon and blows up a snooping deputy sheriff who's not on board with how things operate in Harmony. Even Janis' quack doctor is portrayed as a noble guy who was just trying to do the right thing with what he had available, even if it invites endless derision from the residents (after he tells Weasel to get his severed thumb looked at, Weasel scoffs "What? And let you put a monkey dick on it?"). The film has a surprising conflict and depth to it in terms of its depiction of abuse and Sonny Boy's continued love of Slue despite everything he's put him through. Though it never justifies Slue's despicable actions, the film makes it clear that in his own way, he loves Sonny Boy. Yes, it's an often nightmarish freakshow, but it touches upon some difficult and complex topics and what's most surprising is that it retained these elements even with all the behind-the-scenes battles and Assonitis pulling rank and commandeering the editing process.
UPDATE (1/30/2016): On January 26, 2016, Shout! Factory released SONNY BOY on Blu-ray in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in its uncut 103-minute version, with all the missing scenes reinstated, and two commentary tracks, one with Carroll and the other with Whifler.