The 1990s 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 check out 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 and CARRIE) and 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). Its long belayed Blu-ray release was in early 2016.
One night 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 in the 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 Guy Maddin.
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 Campbell
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