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Sonny Boy

Sonny Boy(1990)

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teaser Sonny Boy (1990)

The eternal debate over nature versus nurture gets one of its most extreme tests in the case of Sonny Boy, an independent 1988 production so bizarre and shocking that it was immediately yanked from the few theaters bold or oblivious enough to play it for unsuspecting patrons. Quietly shuffled off to an under-the-radar video release and a handful of cable airings, the film began to amass a cult following among viewers and critics lucky enough to appreciate its wholly unique blend of domestic drama, crime-thriller plot mechanics, and David Lynch-style grotesqueries.

In the desolate New Mexico town of Harmony, lawlessness rules the land. One of its most ruthless practitioners is Slue (Paul L. Smith), a sociopathic thief, bully and aspiring painter who lives on a ranch with his companion, Pearl (David Carradine), who is either a transgender or cross-dresser (a distinction the film never quite clarifies). One day a botched kidnapping results in murder, and the victims' car back at their hideout has an unexpected surprise: a little baby named Sonny Boy. Pearl refuses to let her husband feed the tot to the pigs, and so Slue allows her to raise the boy after cutting out his tongue at the age of six. Sonny Boy is raised until the age of seventeen in a rusty water tower, where he's fed only live chickens to develop a killer instinct for crime sprees once he hits maturity. Occasionally Slue lets him out, only to drag him by rope behind a car or tie him up and burn him at the stake in the middle of the desert. Sonny Boy's day of reckoning finally comes when Slue decides to unleash him on the mayor, who gets a deadly bite in the jugular for his trouble.

Determined only to please his father (as conveyed through voiceovers, since he can't actually speak), Sonny Boy is distraught and confused by his situation, which is complicated by an assortment of odd characters including a drunken, washed-up surgeon, Doc Bender (Mork & Mindy's Conrad Janis). As Slue and Sonny Boy embark on a series of crime sprees and terrorize the townspeople, the animalistic young boy develops an emotional attachment to Sandy, a pretty town girl who takes a liking to him. Meanwhile Slue continues to stockpile his gang's stolen electronics and refrigerators in a giant glass pyramid next to his house. The town finally turns against them all in a violent final showdown which will ultimately determine whether Sonny will succumb to his brutal breeding or develop into a better human being.

Impossible to classify, Sonny Boy has yet to receive its full due as either a midnight movie or a cult home video title due to its extreme rarity over the years. Ideally it should be seen on the big screen as its often poetic, very wide Sergio Leone-style compositions of the desert lose much of their allure on the TV screen. However, in any form it's an attention grabber from the start. The script ranges from eloquent to profane to stilted, sometimes within the same scene, and the once-in-a-lifetime collaboration of astonishing character actors creates a chemistry that renders even the most mundane dialogue scenes with a surreal, off-kilter atmosphere.

Though many viewers have been confounded by initial viewings of the film, director Robert Martin Carroll explained in an online review response that he had three major themes he took from the original screenplay: "First: someone doesn't deserve your love just because they say they love you and they're your parents. Second: If there is good in you, it will eventually come out. That was the whole Jesus thing. That's also why after the fire, Sonny Boy actually rises from the ashes to start 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."

Buoyed by a surprisingly eloquent music score by the normally workmanlike Carlo Maria Cordio, Sonny Boy packs in enough exploitable elements to make it seem like a grindhouse natural including gunfights, frequent and often hilarious expletives, and gratuitous T&A, but its deeply eccentric characters, melancholy tone and dreamy, disjointed narration instead swerve it firmly into art house territory. Certainly not for all tastes but a delirious and rewarding experience for those attuned to its very peculiar frequency, Sonny Boy remains a misshapen but sparkling gem awaiting rediscovery.

Director: Robert Martin Carroll
Producer: Ovidio G. Assonitis
Screenplay: Graeme Whifler
Cinematography: Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli
Music: Carlo Maria Cordio
Cast: David Carradine (Pearl), Paul L. Smith (Slue), Brad Dourif (Weasel), Conrad Janis (Doc Bender), Sydney Lassick (Charlie P.), Michael Boston (Sonny Boy), Savina Gersak (Sandy), Alexandra Powers (Rose).C-98m.

by Nathaniel Thompson

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Sonny Boy (1990)

Sonny Boy originated in the mind of writer Graeme Whifler, a music video director residing at the time in San Francisco. He lived across the street from a biker house whose residents inspired the motley crew of criminals in the film, and they also told him a true story about a kidnapped child raised by a car thief in Indiana who tortured the youth and trained him to be a killer.

Though the character of Pearl was always intended by its creator as a cross-dressing man, the script makes no mention of his gender confusion. In his original script, Whifler even had the character sporting prosthetic black mammaries, which were slightly adapted for the finished film and almost completely censored out of most prints.

The screenplay of Sonny Boy was picked up by Ovidio G. Assonitis, an Italian producer and occasional director best known for his shameless cash-ins on U.S. box office hits like Beyond the Door (1974) (an Exorcist [1973] imitation), The Visitor (1979) (a delirious mish-mash of films like The Fury [1978] and Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1979]), and Tentacles (1977) (Jaws [1975] with a octopus). At the time Assonitis was busy cranking out numerous films for Trans World Entertainment, who were simultaneously mounting a sequel to his successful H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, The Curse (1987). However, when Whifler approached the producer about directing Sonny Boy himself, the producer balked. "You've got to let me direct this movie," Whifler argued. "If I don't, it's like Blake Edwards directing Blue Velvet [1986]." Assonitis responded, "If Blake Edwards had directed that, it would have made some money."

Instead Assonitis decided to use a director with even less experience, Robert Martin Carroll. The director viewed the project as "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." The script underwent some cosmetic changes including the appearance of Sonny Boy himself, who was a disfigured monster on the written page but in the film became a wide-eyed, normal-looking young man. "I felt it was more of a tragedy if he was beautiful, but being isolated," Carroll explains. "He felt he was ugly because he wanted to look like his parents and they (to us) are hideous."

Sonny Boy was shot entirely in Columbus and Deming, New Mexico. For the climactic conflagration sequence which leads to Sonny's "rebirth," last-minute difficulties arose with the main house location, which was set to be demolished by fire but was saved at the last minute with considerable ensuing script difficulties -- when the owner changed his mind. "They couldn't burn down the house," Dourif explains. "The pyramid is what they burned down and it just didn't make any sense. They needed to burn down the house, because if they burned it you could see him surviving. But no-one could see him surviving that fire. It was just absolutely ridiculous."

Dourif also remembers the affable Carradine as one of the highlights of the shooting experience, terming him "hysterically funny. That was one of the funniest things I've ever seen him do. He was too much and he really did it just right. The thing was, he had false teeth and when he would take them out it was just really funny. And, you know, he's a wonderful musician and he's just fun to be around." Carradine himself referred to the film as a cross between Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and used his wigs and costumes to convey the passage of time - a Joan Crawford wig for the sixties to a granny bun in the eighties. As Carradine himself notes, "I made the ugliest woman imaginable, except for the old broad, to whom I lent a certain venerable, statuesque beauty."

Paul Smith chose the pivotal role of Slue after seeing the list of actors signed to the project despite having no fondness for the script, simply terming it "really weird." Smith and Carradine were offered the roles of either Slue or Pearl, with Smith obviously opting for the former. According to Dourif, Smith and Carroll did not get along, resulting in significant tension on the set.

Just as Assonitis had cut off the screenwriter from the filming process, the same happened to Carroll after shooting when he was removed from the editing room and his final cut was trimmed down before its limited release. "[After] About a year and a half, I finally got into a screening," recalls Whifler. "I kept whispering 'I'm going to kill this f**king director.' But it was actually the producer's fault; about five or six years later, out of the blue, I got a letter from the director, and he basically said, 'Graeme, I'm really sorry, it wasn't my fault; they told me if I ever tried to call you, I'd be fired.'" A similar process had already occurred in 1981 when Assonitis sidelined director James Cameron on his first film, Piranha II: The Spawning, and completed the film without the director's input in the editing room.

The initial critical response to Sonny Boy was extremely harsh, and audiences proved no more receptive, with theater owners pulling it off screens after only a few days. "Sonny Boy essentially stopped my career," Carroll laments. "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."

Home video editions of Sonny Boy have been very few and far between over the years, and even a fleeting laserdisc release failed to recapture the film's original 2.35:1 scope presentation. A slightly longer version appeared on VHS in the United Kingdom with a handful of additional and extended scenes, most notably Sonny's bloody, teeth-chomping escape from the angry townspeople. However, additional scenes shot by Carroll involving the character of Rose have yet to surface in any release prints.

by Nathaniel Thompson

Psychotronic Magazine, Brad Dourif Interview with Dennis Daniel
The Unknown Movies (
Fangoria, "Graeme Whifler's Warped World" by Michael Gingold
Endless Highway, David Carradine (Journey Editions)
"Paul Smith: The Reddest Herring," video interview for Pieces (Grindhouse DVD)
Internet Movie Database

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Sonny Boy (1990)

David Carradine also wrote and performed the closing credits song for Sonny Boy, "Maybe It Ain't."

Carradine lost his upper teeth shortly before filming Sonny Boy while shooting a Mexican film, Open Fire (1988), and had to wear false teeth. During filming he would hang out at a local motel bar with truck drivers and federal agents, often while still wearing his nail polish. According to his autobiography, he also joined the American Legion in New Mexico and helped with a charity shoe drive for the Federal Order of Police, "mostly in various stages of drag."

Actors Sydney Lassick and Russian-born Savina Gersak also appeared together in Curse II: The Bite, another Ovidio G. Assonitis-produced film from the same year. That film also shares the same shooting locations and music composer. Gersak primarily worked on films with Assonitis, whom she was dating at the time, and retired from the screen in 1990.

Paul L. Smith is most famous for his role as Bluto in Robert Altman's critically-slammed cult favorite Popeye (1980) and as a brutal jailer in Midnight Express (1978). He got his start as an actor at the University of Florida at the urging of Faye Dunaway and was discovered by one of Otto Preminger's talent scouts for a role in Exodus (1960). After serving in the Israeli army, he appeared in such diverse films as David Lynch's Dune (1984), the made-for-TV classic 21 Hours at Munich (1976), The Protector (1985) with Jackie Chan, Sam Raimi's Crimewave (1985), and Euro-cult favorites like Pieces (1982) and Gor (1988).

Playing the role of kidnapper Weasel, actor Brad Dourif had already mastered the art of colorful supporting characters including his acclaimed breakthrough role in Milos Forman's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and an underrated but masterful turn in John Huston's Wise Blood (1979). "I thought it was the first real heavy-metal fable," recalls Dourif in a Psychotronic Magazine interview. "It was just wild... I didn't really quite understand it but I was drawn to it." Still in demand, Dourif went on to cult film immortality as the voice of killer Chucky in the popular Child's Play (1988), along with memorable supporting turns in such diverse films as Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Dario Argento's Trauma (1993), Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning (1988), and a genuinely searing turn in William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III (1989).

Michael Griffin, who plays the adult Sonny Boy, had never made a feature film before and was mainly known for appearing in commercials for Chevy and AT&T. He later changed his screen name to Michael Boston and wrote the screenplay for the 1997 film Little Boy Blue, starring Ryan Phillippe.

The film's screenwriter, Graeme Whifler, directed many music videos for such bands as Oingo Boingo and The Residents. He later pursued a career as a feature director, most recently with the 2005 horror film Neighborhood Watch, which was retitled Deadly End for its DVD release.

Whifler also wrote the original screenplay for the late-entry slasher film Dr. Giggles (1992), which was considerably changed by director Manny Coto and given a much higher body count.

In 2000, Robert Martin Carroll released his second (and last to date) feature, Baby Luv, which was subsequently issued on DVD under the title Babies for Sale.

by Nathaniel Thompson

Psychotronic Magazine, Brad Dourif Interview with Dennis Daniel
The Unknown Movies (
Fangoria, "Graeme Whifler's Warped World" by Michael Gingold
Endless Highway, David Carradine (Journey Editions)
"Paul Smith: The Reddest Herring," video interview for Pieces (Grindhouse DVD)
Internet Movie Database

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Sonny Boy (1990)

"Repulsive, socially unredeemable waste of celluloid... Filmed for no apparent reason except to offend and appall."
Leonard Maltin, Movie and Video Guide

"An oddly compelling study of family pathology with blackly comic undertones, in the tradition of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes [1977] and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [1974]...Carradine and Smith make an unexpectedly engaging couple, and the supporting work is all strong. Sonny Boy is a heady, offbeat mix of myth, social drama, and psychological thriller that is added testimony to the creative vitality to be found in the B-movie fringe."
TV Guide

"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... 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."
The Unknown Movies

"A completely unique art-sleaze masterpiece that should be remembered as the cult film of the decade...falls somewhere between Paris, Texas [1984] and Pink Flamingos [1972]."
The Cutting Edge

"A demented lo-fi tumble into dark surrealism... Perhaps best described as a dark fairy tale, Sonny Boy's skewed approach to its frequently unpleasant subject matter keeps viewers off-balance. Filtering action through Sonny's childish, warped perspective and bits of abstract narration, the most vicious of acts are lent a dreamlike, idyllic quality very much at odds with reality... the sort of considered, artful filmmaking people should have the chance to experience without trekking to the ends of the earth, or at least the grotty corners of swap meets."

"All of the actors are excellent. Not just a sick exploitation movie, Sonny Boy has many inspired, funny, and surprising moments. Even the simple desert set is great and could have been inspired by old Krazy Kat comics."
Psychotronic Magazine

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Sonny Boy (1990)

SONNY BOY: Father cut loose my tongue. A present for my birthday. The gift of silence. Pearl put my voice in the freezer for safe keeping and then ate a sweet cake.

WEASEL: I'll tell you everything you wanna know about the monster. I knew him when he was a little baby, okay? I watched him grow up and become a man.

SONNY BOY: These bars are stronger than bone, colder than death. Now I have tasted the blood of a man. I have pleased by father.

CHARLIE P: We're simply going to borrow the creature. It wants some air, don't you?

WEASEL: That boy's got some set of choppers!

WEASEL: Let's just call him "it," okay? It grabbed my thumb, man, took it off clean as a goddamn whistle.
DOC BENDER: You oughta let me have a look at it.
WEASEL: What, and let you put a monkey's dick on it?

WEASEL: Tell you one thing, he ain't no goddamn vegetarian.

PEARL: Mama's gonna take care of you. I won't let them hurt you.

SLUE: This f**kin' suburbia gives me the creeps.

DOC BENDER: I'm still a drunk. And he's still crazy.
ROSE: Everybody's crazy. His just shows more.

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