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Sonny Boy
(1990)
 

Director: Robert Martin Carroll              
Cast:
Paul Smith, David Carradine, Brad Dourif


Sonny Boy is one of the most demented, sick minded, and just plain bizarre movies I have ever seen. I loved every minute of it, from the warbling of David Carradine during the opening credits, to the final freeze-frame. That's not to say it is without it's problems - the movie has a number of faults to it, and if I was to be pressed to ask just what director Robert Martin Carrol was trying to say in this movie - if anything - I would throw my hands up in the air. Maybe the movie is a mess, but if it is, everything is messed up in a way so that it comes together brilliantly. At the very least, I consider the movie a flawed masterpiece.

It doesn't take long for the movie to show off its true colors. In the small town of Harmony, New Mexico in 1970, a freakish, snivelling little hustler named Weasel (Dourif) attempts to hot-wire the car of a young couple who have just pulled into the town's motel for the night. Confronted by the couple, Weasel blasts them with his handgun and drives off with their car and luggage. In the morning, he reaches the desert junkyard Due to Smith's cold, only Dorif is able to tell something died in there long ago home of Slue (Smith, who was Bluto in Popeye), the crime lord of the area who has the small town and its residents under his thumb. "My my," the first thing he mutters when Weasel pulls up. "Don't you look pretty. My dogs didn't even bark at you. 'Cause they know you're a weasily piece of s**t!" He's especially pissed that Weasel stole a TV from the motel room, not just because he owns the motel, but because it's a B&W set. "What the f**k am I supposed to watch in black and white? Dragnet?"

Slue is quite a guy, and Smith gives a performance both intense and hilarious. Not only does he keep spitting out "S**t!" or "F**k!" or "Son of a b***h!" throughout the movie, he's the kind of guy who will blast a sheriff's deputy into bloody pieces with a Howitzer cannon when he doesn't get his way. So he's especially pissed when he finds in the back seat there is a baby. His first instinct is to throw the baby to the many pigs running around the property, but his wife Pearl stops him. Pearl is played by  - get ready for this - Carradine. Yes, Carradine plays the movie completely in drag, complete with a wig, lipstick, and a dress. (Incidentally, it's never made clear if he is actually supposed to be playing a woman, or a transvestite.) While our jaws are still slack, Pearl makes an open-legged stand (shot with the camera near the ground, pointing upward), refusing to let a pissed off The last thing a victim of crib death sees Slue kill the baby. Since he later can't convince his wife to play catch with the baby, he grudgedly accepts the role as a father. But he decides to raise Sonny Boy in his own special way. For Sonny Boy's 6th birthday party, he cuts out the kid's tongue. When Sonny Boy is 12, he chains him to his car and drags him across the desert. At 14, Sonny Boy is tied to a stake, with a big ring of fire placed around him at his feet. By the time Sonny Boy is 17, he's kept locked up in a silo, with live chickens thrown down a hole so he has enough to eat. Later in the movie, Slue slaps around Sonny Boy for his seemingly selfish behaviour, saying, "I raised you like I was raised!"

Of course this is all sick. And the movie continues to find ways to continue in its tasteless attitude after Slue gets the idea to use Sonny Boy to get back at his enemies - namely, by transporting Sonny Boy in the back of an ice cream truck to their houses, then letting him loose like a dog. In one scene, Sonny Boy (who was let loose in a church) sees a wall hanging of a crucified Christ on a cross. Of course, the equally whipped and scarred Sonny Boy can't help but see something of himself there, and starts to pull Christ off his cross before he's interrupted by the priest. After he knocks off the priest, we then see Sonny Boy hugging Jesus in the back of the truck. It's tasteless, but strangely enough the whole scene has a sad edge to it, making it touching at the same time. Credit actor Michael Griffin for pulling the scene A B movie isn't a B movie without the tangy presence of Sydney Lassick!off, and doing a brilliant job as Sonny Boy. In an extremely difficult role, he has to play a mute character that must convey his feelings through his silence, and he actually makes the half human Sonny Boy a figure of pity. We do hear his narration occasionally, and even when he's saddled with familiar lines like, "Too many voices fill my head! I don't know what's right anymore!", he makes it work, making the movie disturbing, as well as sick, touching, and funny.

Besides Griffin and Smith, the actors are a sight to see. Sydney Lassick plays another of Slue's henchmen, and his slightly effeminate self is always welcome. Conrad Janis has a small but noteworthy role as a sympathetic ex-doctor who was disciplined for sewing monkey parts into his patients. Savina Gersak plays an especially nasty member of the community who has possibly the worst dental work on earth. The other real find in the movie is Alexandra Powers as Rose, a young woman who stumbles across Sonny Boy in the ice cream truck one night. Seeing him, she does not cry out or go for help, but instead immediately starts telling him a long monologue about her hopes and dreams. Her action makes no sense, yet Powers delivery of the monologue makes you forget about the scene being illogical.

She also has another great monologue The laughs never stop in "Sonny Boy"! when she meets up with Sonny Boy later, though there is a real big gap between her first appearance and her sudden re-entrance. I strongly suspect the movie suffered some cuts in-between. There are a few other scenes in the movie where, even for a movie this bizarre, things don't make sense or are not fully shown. The ending seems to be the biggest indication, because the final shot is an abrupt freeze-frame, with a few plot details that haven't been fully resolved yet.

Such details I brush aside in order to proclaim the utter genius and audacity that went into making Sonny Boy. Though I have said a lot about what happens here, believe me, there is a lot more that I haven't said, plus some of the things I have said you simply cannot picture correctly without having seen it with your own eyes. I've now seen this movie three times, and I'm still at time finding it hard to believe what I'm seeing with my own eyes.


UPDATE: Alan P. Marshall sent me this information:

"Decibel-shattering applause for being the only review in the 'external reviews' section on the Internet Movie Database for Sonny Boy.  Apart from you, the IMDb, and the misguided Leonard Maltin, I've had trouble finding anyone who has seen this one-of-a-kind film.

"Also, I thought you might like to cogitate on the following :-

"Living in England, I have the U.K. video release of this film.  Comparing the running times given on the IMDb and Maltin's video guide to the running time of the U.K. version, I would say that the American release is missing about 6 or 7 minutes of footage.  Having not seen the American print I can't deduce what is missing without reciting the entire film as I have seen it... :-(

"Sonny Boy came out direct to video in the U.K. two years before it was released in America.  However, when it did come out in the U.S. three years after it was made, it apparently got at least a brief theatrical release before going to video.

"Graeme Whifler, who wrote the film, is better known as a rock/pop video director, in which capacity he has made videos for such offbeat (to say the very least!) bands as The Residents and Sparks.

"Although I can't say for certain (yet), I'm sure the name of the director of Sonny Boy, 'Robert Martin Carroll', is a pseudonym, probably for an Italian director.  I'd say Ruggero Deodato, of Cannibal Holocaust fame - he's well sick enough ;-)

"Many thanks for your review."


UPDATE 2: Paul Freitag of Video A Go Go sent me some more interesting clues about this movie:

"Found your review of Sonny Boy while preparing to write my own (I'm in the process of a total site redesign, so I haven't updated it in ages) and was intrigued by the addendum of the theory that "Robert Martin Carroll" was a pseudonym. (After all, how can someone direct such a fascinating pic and disappear off the pace of the earth?)

"Anyway, when I re-watched the movie something struck me--it's similarity (in terms of placement, not quality) to Curse II: The Bite, a forgettable crap killer snake non-sequel with Jill Schoelen and Jamie Farr, as Savina Gersak and Sydney Lassick are in both films.

"Lo and behold, Claudio M. Cutry was the editor and Carlo Mario Cardio composed the score for both. Both films were also shot in New Mexico. Trans World released both, but the video arm went under before releasing Sonny Boy, hence Curse II's IMDB date of 1988, vs. Sonny Boy's 1990 listing. In addition, the closing credits use exactly the same typeface.

"Curse II is credited to "Fred Goodwin," actually Italian director Frederico Prosperi, who has no other production credits (other than as producer of The Wild Beasts) and may have shot both films at once.

"Just noticed... both films also have the same D.P. (Roberto d'Ettorre Piazzoli) and share one producer (Ovidio G. Assonitis)...

"I realize this sort of thing is not uncommon in quickie productions like 
these (hell, Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski exchange casts and crew every two days or so), but the Sonny Boy mystery is a bit of a baffler. It's just a theory, but who the hell knows? Maybe we can ask Sydney Lassick."


UPDATE 3: The truth is finally revealed! I received the following e-mail:

"I don't know if I'm contacting the right person, but this is in regards to the review of the movie Sonny Boy.

"I am Robert Martin Carroll. No, it is not a pseudonym. The reason that similar names pop up is that the producer was Ovidio Assonitos. Savina was his girlfriend. Claudio was an editor he worked with a lot. he definitely didn't direct it. Actually he told me one day as he puffed on his  cigar in the cramped attic in Rome where we edited it, that he wanted to direct but he had one problem... actors. He didn't like them. I definitely love actors. I supervised his work under intense conditions as I was not on speaking terms with the producer at the time. The UK version must be my version as mine was the longer version. I've never seen it on a big screen, as they cut out those 7 minutes without my knowledge and it does make a difference. These were scenes with Alexandra Powers and there were plot points eliminated. They also changed my ending.

"To prove I am a real person, I have just finished another film, Baby Luv
, that has made the festival circuit winning numerous rewards, check out the web site BabyLuvTheMovie.com. My picture is there.

"I agree pretty much with the review you printed. I just saw it again for the first time in a few years and even I was shocked at times. When it first came out it upset the theater owners so much that  it was pulled by most of them. As far as it's meaning, to me  it's about 3 things. First: someone doesn't deserve your love just because they say they love you and they're your parents. 2nd: If there is good in you, it will eventually come out. That was the whole Jesus thing. That also why after the fire, Sonny Boy actually rises from the ashes to starts a new life. Finally, I'm also saying that once you're messed up, unlike in most movies there is no real happy ending. you will  always be a bit off. It is a complex film with lots to explore.

"I knew it was troubling while I made it. I kept asking them what audience they were going for. When they told me not to worry, I didn't. I just went for it. I always like to make complex characters that keep the audience guessing as to what they will do. Baby Luv has some of that also. Actually the original script of Sonny Boy, by Graham Whiffler was even more disturbing as Sonny Boy was deformed  by his torture in the original. I felt it was more of a tragedy is he was beautiful, but being isolated, he felt he was ugly because he wanted to look like his parents and they (to us) are hideous.

"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.

"I'm now trying to put together a movie on Andy Warhol that I guarantee will be visually exciting and thought provoking.

"I hope this clears up a few things."


UPDATE 4: "Marc" sent me this interesting bit of information:

"I did get a hold of the oft-spoken little-seen UK tape, and did a basic comparison.  Accounting for the speedup from converting PAL to NTSC, I can't say how many minutes are cut, but these scenes were present that are absent from the US tape:

  • After the first reel change (introduction of Sydney Lassick as Charlie P.), there is a moment when Pearl "breast-feeds" baby Sonny, only to have Slue violently interrupt them.  On my laserdisc at least, there is still a shot of Pearl cowering in the corner with her "breast" leaking milk.
     
  • During the 6th birthday scene, in the current version, Sonny's voiceover description of his tongue-cutting is layered over Pearl's singing of the theme song.  In the UK version, this scene goes much longer.  Slue, Pearl, and Weasel all put on animal masks, then Slue violently turns over the dinner table to make some room.  He then pulls young Sonny from a wooden box, and lays him out on the table.  Slue opens his jacket and unwraps a knife,  From Sonny's POV, we see Slue bringing the knife forward (though the tongue or any blood is never seen), and when done, Weasel comments that Sonny is not even crying or showing pain.
     
  • After the murder of the mayor, the US version goes to a dinner scene.  In the UK version, there is a bridge scene where the townspeople discuss the murder in daylight, and Weasel and Charlie hint that no one should do anything rash or else there will be "dire consequences."
     
  • After the murder of the prospector and Weasel's bar scene bragging about the loss of his thumb, the US version cuts to the doctor and the sheriff taking the prospector's body away.  In the UK version, the bar scene goes on to have Weasel and Charlie show off Sonny Boy to the stunned bar patrons (and the depressed, revulsed doctor), and Charlie taunts Sonny with a bottle of whiskey.  Sonny has a monologue.
     
  • When the townspeople ambush Sonny in the garage, he makes a dive into the crowd to escape.  In the US version, there is a quick cut to the bar as the Sheriff is called to help out.  In the UK version, there is more footage of the escape -- it's not terribly explicit, but shots of Sonny's bloody mouth and the horrified townspeople's reactions make it clear he is biting and fighting his way out of the throng.

"Otherwise, everything seems to be the same.  Contrary to Mr. Carroll's email, there seem to be no more scenes with Alexandra Powers in the UK than the US, so perhaps those were cut before the European release as well.  It would make sense that these missing scenes were cut from the US version both to obtain an R rating, and/or to enable TWE and Triumph to cram the movie onto one less reel for the token theatrical release. It looks and sounds pretty ragged, but it does have the advantage of being longer and more explicit, and the pan-scanning is less severe, there is strangely more picture information on all four sides than the US tape."

Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)
Check for availability on Amazon (Blu-Ray)
Check for availability of David Carradine's autobiography on Amazon

See also: Baker County, U.S.A., Demented Death Farm Massacre, Preacherman

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