The 1990s, it seems, were
filled with independent films marketed, most often misleadingly, as “bizarre”,
“shocking”, “subversive” and other similarly enticing adjectives. For a
nineties indie that really is all those things go directly to SONNY BOY,
a completely unique art-sleaze masterpiece that should be remembered as
the cult film of the decade.
SONNY BOY (1990) was produced by the longtime sleazemeister Ovidio G.
Ossonitis (whose other credits include THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER, BEYOND THE DOOR
and PIRANHA 2), but is unlike any other film he, or anybody else for that
matter, has ever made. The director was first timer Robert Martin Carroll (who
subsequently helmed the ’00 thriller BABIES FOR SALE), working from a script by
Graeme Whifler (director of several made-for-TV films and scripter of 1992’s DR.
GIGGLES). The cast is composed largely of seasoned veterans like Paul Smith (of
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS and POPEYE), Brad Dourif (a longtime supporting actor best
known to genre fans as the voice of Chucky), Conrad Janis (LAVERNE & SHIRLEY,
MORK AND MINDY and nearly every other Garry Marshall produced TV sitcom you can
think of), the late Sydney Lassick (from SERPICO, CARRIE, THE UNSEEN and
countless other films) & David Carradine, playing a woman(!).
The film’s release? All but nonexistent. It played VERY briefly on the
arthouse circuit back in October of 1990 and then made it onto laserdisc, and
can still be seen occasionally at scattered midnight movie screenings (most
recently at LA’s Nuart theater in May of ’06). Unfortunately SONNY BOY’S most
accessible home video format is the 1991 full screen Media Home Entertainment
VHS, which presents the film in an incorrect aspect ratio and is missing several
minutes of screen time present in the laserdisc version. I sincerely hope a DVD
is on the horizon, because if ever a film really needed a digital
upgrade, SONNY BOY is it!
Weasel, a desert-dwelling miscreant, steals a car from a motel parking lot,
unaware that the vehicle contains a baby. When Weasel arrives back at his base
of operations, a junk yard owned by the hulking, psychotic Slue, the baby is
discovered and adopted by Slue’s transvestite “wife” Pearl. Slue runs the
godforsaken desert community of Harmony through thievery and intimidation. When
a nosy cop shows up to investigate the junk yard, Slue blows the unfortunate
blue coat up with a cannon he happens to have handy.
Over the next few years Slue, Pearl and Weasel raise the baby, cutting off
his tongue at age five and then putting him through a wealth of abuse: “Sonny
Boy” is dragged behind a moving car, burned, locked inside an aluminum shed and
starved. In this way Slue creates an apparently emotionless killer he uses to
do his dirty work, offing anyone who threatens his reign. One day, however,
Sonny Boy escapes his confines and severely injures a motorcyclist and his
girlfriend. This enrages Harmony’s redneck citizenry, who come after Sonny Boy
in masse, converging on Slue’s premises in an all-out battle to the death...for
which Slue, with his arsenal of weaponry, is more than ready!
Tonally SONNY BOY falls somewhere between PARIS, TEXAS and PINK FLAMINGOS,
with artfully composed widescreen visuals (completely obliterated by the panned
and scanned VHS) in service of a profoundly demented narrative that mixes
sentimentality and grotesquerie in a manner that remains unprecedented.
Particularly unforgettable are the mute title character’s strangely soulful
voice-overs, which somehow fit right in with the proceedings--and dig the sight
of David Carradine playing a woman (unconvincingly), which none of the other
characters ever comment on. Then there’s Michael Griffin as Sonny Boy,
delivering a performance of real depth and gravity that somehow never feels
incongruous or out of place amidst the oft-campy insanity of the surrounding
film. Credit must go to director Robert Martin Campbell, who clearly has talent
to burn, and a vision as unique in its own way as that of
David Lynch or
Of course the film is crude as hell, with much mismatched film stock, tacky
subtitles used to denote time passing (example: “Sonny Boy--Age 5”) and an
insanely low budget. The latter factor is particularly apparent in the
mayhem-packed climax, which features so much smoke (to obscure the filmmakers’
obvious lack of resources) that it’s often plain incoherent. Yet the
proceedings are funky enough, in style and attitude, that the crudities actually
enhance the film--indeed, I believe that without them SONNY BOY would be
considerably less memorable than it is.
Trans World Entertainment
Director: Robert Martin
Producer: Ovidio G. Assonatis
Screenplay: Graeme Whifler
Cinematography: Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli
Editing: Claudio Cutry
Cast: Paul L. Smith, David Carradine, Brad Dourif, Conrad Janis, Sydney Lassick,
Savina Gersak, Alexandra Powers, Steve Carlisle, Michael Griffin