Monday, March 17, 2014

Cult Classics Revisited: SONNY BOY (1990)

(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."

Equal parts Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Sam Peckinpah, and John Waters, with bonus Christ and Frankenstein metaphors, SONNY BOY opens in Harmony, New Mexico in 1970, with Weasel (Brad Dourif) killing a couple outside a cheap motel and making off with their car and a black & white TV from the motel room.  Weasel delivers the goods to his boss Slue (Paul L. Smith), a hulking, intimidating brute who lords over the town from his desert junkyard base which also includes a bargain-basement recreation of the Louvre.  Slue isn't happy with Weasel's take, especially since he had to kill the couple and that he took the TV (Slue: "What the fuck am I supposed to watch on black & white?  DRAGNET?"  Weasel: "OK, I'll take it back to the motel!"  Slue: "I own the fucking motel!")  Slue really loses his shit when he finds a baby in the backseat, which Weasel somehow missed.  Wanting no evidence of his crimes, Slue makes a quick decision to feed the baby to some wild hogs, but that plan is thwarted by his lover Pearl, played by David Carradine in drag.  Pearl wants to keep the baby and raise him as her own, and Slue agrees under duress.  Years pass--at age 6, Sonny Boy is given "the gift of silence" by Slue, who removes the boy's tongue.  Sonny Boy is kept locked in a shed and fed live chickens.  By 17 (now played by Michael Griffin), he's a feral beast despite the unconditional love of Pearl, and he's only brought out to off Slue's enemies or clean up the messes left by the incompetence of Slue's flunkies Weasel and Charlie P. (Sydney Lassick).  Eventually, Sonny Boy manages to escape and finds caring souls in Rose (Alexandra Powers, who went on to DEAD POETS SOCIETY) and disgraced, drunken local doc Bender (Conrad Janis of MORK & MINDY), who lost his medical license in a scandal involving transplanted monkey organs.  But the folks of Harmony, egged on by white-trash barfly Sandy (Assonitis' then-girlfriend Savina Gersak, a regular in his late '80 productions, here sporting teeth that look like she just re-enacted a pivotal moment in SALO) are turning on Slue and all but break out the torches and pitchforks in pursuit of Sonny Boy, leading to an explosive, Peckinpah/WILD BUNCH-style showdown at Slue's desert fortress.

SONNY BOY was written by music-video director Graeme Whifler, who went on to script 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. 

SONNY BOY had to undergo a few cuts in the US to secure an R rating and the choppiness shows, especially in a scene where Sonny Boy is confronted by an angry mob and somehow escapes.  The escape is never shown in the US cut, but in the version released overseas, which runs about seven minutes longer, he's shown clawing and biting his way through the crowd, with blood and flesh dripping from his mouth.  In the US cut, someone runs into the bar and simply tells the sheriff that Sonny Boy escaped.  Another pivotal moment cut from the US release is a shot of milk dripping from a mechanism on Pearl's breast as Slue walks in on her feeding an infant Sonny Boy. Carradine as Pearl is a bit of inspired and jaw-dropping stunt casting that, for some reason, the filmmakers never really exploit, at least not in the truncated American cut.  Despite being granted a grand entrance and with top and above-the-title billing, Carradine is a supporting actor in SONNY BOY and absent for long stretches (presumably, they only had him for a limited time), though he was involved enough to sing the theme song "Maybe It Ain't."  The central characters in SONNY BOY are Sonny Boy and Slue, and the film gives the great character actor Paul L. Smith perhaps the showiest role of his career.  Dourif has said in interviews and at conventions that Smith and Carroll didn't get along at all, so perhaps some of that frustration helped fuel his performance.  The Massachusetts-born Smith (1936-2012) was a former bouncer and bodyguard with a degree in Philosophy who got his start as the Bud Spencer fill-in in a series of low-grade Italian buddy movies with Terence Hill wannabe "Michael Coby" (actually Italian actor Antonio Cantafora) in the mid '70s.  He's best known for his burly, leering, sneering presence in films like 1978's MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (as the brutal head prison guard Hamidou), 1980's POPEYE (as 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.

Griffin, who soon started going by Michael Boston, but has done nothing of note in the years since SONNY BOY, turns in a very credible and often haunting performance as the tortured Sonny Boy, and what's most interesting about the characters in SONNY BOY is how the actors don't ham it up and go over the top.  Sure, Smith glares and yells, 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.

SONNY BOY languished on the shelf for a couple of years before Trans-World's financial issues--no doubt brought on by their expansion from home video into mostly unsuccessful theatrical exhibition--resulted in it being handed off to Triumph Releasing, a small Sony subsidiary.  Triumph obviously didn't have much faith in the box office potential and only released it to a handful of theaters and it vanished after a week.  It was released on VHS by Media Home Entertainment, and that's the blurry source of the print that TCM runs--they even forgot to remove the pre-film FBI and Interpol warnings.  SONNY BOY was shot by Assonitis' usual cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli in 2.35 widescreen, which is extremely compromised on the cropped 1.33 VHS print.   The film has never been released on R1 DVD or on Blu-ray and is largely a forgotten obscurity, though it has had a few scattered midnight movie showings in recent years.  For the most part, SONNY BOY's cult is a quiet one.  It's growing thanks to the TCM exposure, but this is a film that demands a proper restoration to both its uncensored European version and to its proper aspect ratio. Somebody needs to make this happen, preferably with a commentary track that gets Assonitis, Carroll, and Whifler in the same room together.  It manages to find an ideal balance, walking the line between gloriously unrepentant, offensive trash and surprisingly heartfelt drama with real, albeit twisted, emotion.  Often sloppy and haphazardly-assembled, especially in the last half hour, SONNY BOY is nevertheless the kind of film that will have you laughing and cringing in equal measures, one where even the most jaded cult-movie cineastes who think they've seen it all will have to admire its audacity and forgive its flaws. There's never been anything else quite like it.

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. 


  1. Awesome film! There's recently been a widescreen version floating around (2.35:1 and uncut) sourced from one of MGM HD channels overseas. It looks great. Unfortunately, MGM has no plans to release it on disc anytime soon last I've heard.

  2. Coming to Blu-Ray this month with separate commentaries from Carroll and Whifler!

  3. Mine should be coming from Amazon tomorrow! Can't wait! This film is a masterpiece.