SONNY BOY (1988) Blu-ray
Director: Robert Martin Carroll
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

Intriguingly weird and off-beat to start...but fades away by final fade-out. Shout!’s Scream Factory line and MGM have released SONNY BOY, the notorious 1988 fairy tale horror from Trans World Entertainment, starring David Carradine, Paul L. Smith, Brad Dourif, Conrad Janis, Sydney Lassick, Savina Gersak, Alexandra Powers, and Michael Griffin. A critical and commercial disaster when eventually released late in 1990, SONNY BOY has gained an impressive cult rep for a movie seen by so few people. Scream Factory gives the fans and the newly-curious a sparkling 1080p HD widescreen transfer of the original uncut version, along with some strong extras, including two separate commentary tracks with director Robert Martin Carroll and screenwriter Graeme Whifler.

The small town of Harmony, in the American Southwest. Petty thief Weasel (Brad Dourif, DUNE, CHILD'S PLAY) spots a young couple entering a seedy motel and jacks them, killing them both and stealing their car. Hoping to sell the vehicle to the local crime boss, Slue (Paul L. Smith, POPEYE, MIDNIGHT EXPRESS), who lives outside of town in the desert, Weasel didn’t realize that the young couple’s baby was in the car’s backseat. An enraged Slue intends to feed the incriminating baby to his hogs, but his wife Pearl (David Carradine, TV's KUNG FU, DEATH RACE 2000) wants to raise the child as her own, a demand Slue grudgingly first. Eventually tiring of Pearl’s high-handed maternal instincts, Slue forcibly takes the baby away from her, to raise as his own — and in the same horrific manner in which he was raised. “Sonny Boy” is then put into a small box, where he lives in darkness. At the age of six, Slue cuts out his tongue, and as he grows, Slue teaches him the “games of strength and love,” which is Sonny Boy’s (Michael Griffin) pathetic way of describing daily tortures like whippings, starvation, trial by fire, and being chained to a car and dragged through the dirt. Slue intends for Sonny Boy to be his enforcer, an animalistic, cannibalistic killer fine-tuned to absolute amoral savagery. But Sonny Boy, on some deep, unintelligible (to himself) level, knows what he does is wrong, and there are others in Harmony — specifically pretty Rose (Alexandra Powers, LAST MAN STANDING, RISING SUN) and disgraced Doc Bender (Conrad Janis, TV's MORK AND MINDY, AIRPORT 1975) — who wish to help him evolve.

According to the director and screenwriter commentaries on this disc, as well as other sources, SONNY BOY’s production was a particularly fractious one. Graeme Whifler, a sometime director of TV documentaries and music videos, was contracted to write a low-budget shocker based on a vicious Indiana car thief who kidnapped a child and tortured it into a feral assassin (sometime before, Whifler had heard this allegedly “true” story from a fellow housepainter). Despite hiccups with his monthly salary payments, Whifler delivered the script, where it was picked up by Trans World Entertainment, makers and distributors of such titles as REDNECK ZOMBIES and KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE. Producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, of BEYOND THE DOOR and TENTACLES infamy, refused Whifler’s pitch to direct his own script, and that ended any and all future contact Whifler had with SONNY BOY until seeing a final cut a few years later. Assonitis, who also had dreams of being a director, and who had a reputation for clashing with his hires (he yanked an unsuspecting James Cameron off PIRANHA PART TWO: THE SPAWNING) sought to helm SONNY BOY himself, but Trans World reportedly nixed this idea, with the studio bringing in Robert Martin Carroll, a neophyte whose only previous experience was directing a short subject.

Needless to say after such a start, relations between the thwarted veteran producer and the unsure novice were troubled from the beginning (they reportedly had an on-set fist fight at one point), complicated by Assonitis refusing to let Carroll contact Whifler for re-writes, and by Assonitis insisting on directing scenes for SONNY BOY that Carroll felt were unnecessary (Assonitis even tried to get Carroll fired when the director refused to have Sonny Boy castrated in the story). On the set, star Paul L. Smith made it known he didn’t like the story (he only signed up on the basis of Carradine’s, Dourif’s and Janis’ participation) and that he didn’t trust Carroll, causing further tension during the production (Carroll states Carradine’s then well-known alcoholism was not a debilitating factor). The shooting schedule was a short 28 days on a tight 2.8 million dollar budget — a significant portion of which, Carroll mysteriously claims, wasn’t spent on the movie. Assonitis and Carroll edited the movie together in Italy — a neat trick since neither were talking to each other — with Assonitis ultimately taking the movie away from Carroll. A U.S. release date was frequently put off, due to the studio’s nervousness over the subject matter, which eventually led Trans World to further cut the movie, removing scenes such as Carradine’s fake breasts leaking milk, and a shot of Griffin’s naked rear end. When SONNY BOY did finally premiere in October, 1990, it was savaged by the few critics who saw it, with theater owners yanking it off screens after only a few days. Carroll states the infamous critical and commercial reception of the movie ruined his fledgling director career; he only helmed one more minor title, years later. SONNY BOY saw a couple of low-key video releases over the years, but for all intents and purposes, SONNY BOY disappeared from general view.

SONNY BOY’s substantial, lopsided cult status has, one would guess, grown over the years precisely because its name has been bandied about as some sort of infamous perverted nightmare by a lot of writers and fans who haven’t actually seen it (this reviewer remembers wistfully reading about its “scandalous” content in the trades back when it was yanked from theaters in 1990). VHS copies with the edited “R”-rated version had been hard to find over the years, tormenting fans with what might have been left out, while elements like ass-kicking Carradine in drag and a boxed-up kid getting his tongue sliced off promised deviant thrills along the line of Lynch and Kubrick. Unfortunately, seen now in its uncut state decades later, SONNY BOY itself is nowhere near as notorious as its reputation has long-suggested; certainly Lynch’s BLUE VELVET, released before Whifler wrote his script, was far more weird and disturbing and scary than SONNY BOY’s decidedly chaste twisto fairy tale. Director Carroll, whose wife, Dalene Young (LITTLE DARLINGS, CRISS CROSS), did the re-writes, makes a point of stressing on the commentary track that he purposefully dialed-back Whifler’s profanity-and-sex-laden script, to achieve a more gentle fable-like quality to this Frankenstein retread. We get one or two exploiter-worthy moments, such as a deputy sheriff blown up with a Howitzer (they still cut away from the effect too fast), or a brief shot of a nude biker chick, but invariably Carroll keeps the violence largely off camera (we don’t see the assault on Sonny Boy’s parents, or his tongue cut out, nor most of his attacks). If anything, the single most disturbing image in SONNY BOY isn’t scripted at all; it’s the sight of that poor baby performer, screaming in real terror as Carradine and Smith fight over it far too roughly as it’s shaken to and fro (where the hell was that kid’s mother?).

If you want to make an exploiter that tones down the violence and sex, that’s fine — but you better bring something else that excuses not providing the conventions demanded of the genre. And at first, you think SONNY BOY might deliver on that difficult promise. The story itself is a natural; it should write itself considering the core of Carroll’s premise — the “Other,” hunted and despised by society, trying to find some semblance of its own humanity amid all the hatred — has been done so many other times before. Carroll is initially successful creating a strange, otherworldly, almost dreamlike feel to the movie — enhanced immeasurably by those spectacular blown-out desert vistas from Italian cinematographer Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli, and the sad, mournful spaghetti Western score by Carlo Maria Cordio — as we try to get our bearings as to who (or what, in Carradine’s case) these people are, and by what set of idiosyncratic rules they operate. The frequent montages and vignettes, and Sonny Boy’s intermittent man-child, oddly-pitched narration, increases the storybook feel of the plot (“Father cut loose my tongue. A present for my birthday. The gift of silence.”), while the unexpected humor and even whimsy of the piece takes you by surprise. When we first see Smith emerge from his trailer, where a cartoon scoop has been taken out of the doorframe to accommodate his girth, Carroll kicks in some hogs squealing on the soundtrack. As grotesques Smith and his henchmen cruise to Harmony’s church, where Smith intends to unleash Griffin on a priest, Smith grimaces at the uber-normal sight of mothers playing with their children on the sidewalk and spits out, “This f*cking suburbia gives me the creeps!” Carradine’s performance — at least at first — best sums up this curiously successful mixture of gentle humor and strange gravity. Improbably draped and be-wigged like Joan Crawford in William Castle’s STRAIT-JACKET, Carradine picks up that baby and is remarkably believable as a protective, wholly maternal figure. He gets the movie’s funniest lines, whether talking about “the shame of unwed mother[hood]” or crying, without a trace of irony, “Why did he run away? We gave him so much!” when contemplating tortured Sonny Boy running away from his home: a dark grain silo with a food chute. Even in little throwaways he’s strangely hilarious and touching (Carradine, in a spotter’s crow’s nest, sweetly stating, “Cop car!” as he voilas his hands and gums his toothless mouth, is a moment worth the whole movie).

It’s too bad SONNY BOY doesn’t just end right before Sonny’s first “mission.” Had it somehow, it might have been a notable little curio, a short subject worthy of elevated status. However, Carroll and company grind on, and the movie increasingly falters. Not every exploitation movie needs to be graphic and easily grasped for a so-called “undemanding” audience (a patronizing attitude from a lot of critics when it comes to these kinds of movies). Ambiguity as a goal is fine, too — provided it’s controlled by an overall aesthetic. Unfortunately, SONNY BOY isn’t hallucinatory or “out there” enough to justify its head-trip fuzziness attitude. Carroll states he wanted the movie to be a cross between A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and THE ELEPHANT MAN, but nothing about SONNY BOY comes close to those two classics — not the shocks, and not the “art.” Its disjointedness seems intentional — but for the wrong reasons — and its ideas aren’t really developed beyond musings. Worse, it can’t sustain itself with the shaky direction and scripting. In the commentary track, Carroll talks about creating a town of misfits in Harmony, and drawing Sonny Boy to be this innocent monster who doesn’t know he shouldn’t love the “family” that has adopted him...but we feel very little of that on the screen. Fatally, Carroll and his screenwriter wife Young deviate from Whifler’s conception of Sonny Boy as a hideous monster, making Sonny instead a beautiful boy who thinks he’s ugly on the inside. That’s the kind of idea that sounds good when you’re writing a term paper, but it doesn’t work in this situation, and for such an obvious reason: the minute we see what Sonny Boy looks like, his conflict instantly becomes clichéd. He’s beautiful, his soul is beautiful, and everyone else is ugly. He’s not a monster anymore; we don’t have to search to see what’s good in him — a switch on Frankenstein that’s intellectual, but hardly satisfying in any kind of original way (and it’s not nit-picking when you find yourself asking how is Sonny Boy so absolutely filthy...and yet perfectly clean-shaven).

If Sonny Boy’s “family” is critical to his tortured make-up, how come we get very little of Pearl and Slue interacting with each other? Why are they instantly antagonistic over the arrival of this baby? Why do they stay together? For that matter: how or why did they come together in the first place? How does Pearl react to knowing that Slue is turning her baby into a monster? None of this is touched on, let alone explored. Gaps in the storyline get bigger and bigger (excuse me, but why is the priest killed again? And what’s with the obvious physical differences between the two real-life towns used to depict Harmony?), while performances fall apart (after the first half, Carradine is either growling out his lines like a man, or dithering and poo-pooing like a bad Blanche Dubois). The entire Rose love story subplot is arbitrary and unnecessary and Janis’ disgraced monkey-parts surgeon is ridiculous and clunky, while characters we actually want to know more about, like Dourif’s and Lassick’s, are largely dropped. By the final, poorly staged barn assault and town manhunt for Sonny Boy (Carroll can’t choreograph an action scene to save his life), followed by the frankly boring shoot out at the ‘ol pyramid (don’t ask), SONNY BOY is completely off the tracks, with any good feelings about the movie’s initial odd/curious tone and quirky promises, long gone.

The AVC encoded 1080p HD 2.35:1 widescreen transfer for SONNY BOY looked ridiculously clean, considering what this reviewer expected for a supposedly chopped-up obscurity. The image is for the most part crystal clear, with fine detail quite strong, depth acceptable, and grain tight. Blacks are deep and steady, while colors are correctly and quite subtly at times valued. Print damage is occasional (blue scratches, mostly), which speaks to the general good quality of the original materials used for this non-restored transfer. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track is equally low-key impressive, with zero hiss or pops, a strong re-recording level with solid base, and some noticeable-if-minor separation effects. English subtitles are available. Bonus features include reversible sleeve artwork, an original trailer, and Whifler’s first draft script, accessible through BD-ROM. Two commentary tracks bump up the extras heft. First up is director Robert Martin Carroll, along with (very briefly) his wife, Dalene Young, who’s the uncredited final screenwriter on SONNY BOY. Carroll jumps right in and details how the movie was brought to him by Trans World, and his acceptance of the project, even though he doubted its commercial appeal. He details the movie’s troubled production, including producer Assonitis’ warning that if Carroll tried to contact original scripter Graeme Whifler, Carroll would be fired. He details which scenes were shot by Assonitis (the pretty cool crucifixion/ring of fire scene, and the dumb biker knifing attack), while he repeatedly defends his artistic decision to complete invert Whifler’s intentions. Carroll sounds sincere (and a bit too artsy fartsy, frankly, for this project)...but this movie was doomed from the start.

Next up is scripter Graeme Whifler’s commentary, moderated by blogger Matthew Chernov. Chernov’s got a potentially explosive interviewee here, so his tentative, nervous-sounding questions don’t fully exploit what Whifler might have unleashed had he a moderator that stood up to him (it also doesn’t sound good for the moderator to curry favor with the interviewee by helping him slag off the movie). As for Whifler, he’s not shy pissing and moaning about how his first-ever script was ruined; he calls Young’s work “pedestrian and stupid,” before basically attacking everything else in the movie, including David Carradine’s hauntingly written and sung, Maybe It Ain’t theme. His argument may indeed have merit (read his script and you decide), but it’s hardly illuminating to hear the oldest Hollywood story in the book: “they” ruined my script. Some of his stories are funny (losing SONNY BOY’s director’s gig by trying to be flip, cracking a joke about Blake Edwards that money-minded Assonitis didn’t appreciate), and some are wheezes from a faux-Hollywood tough guy (the whole “I’m gonna buy a .357 Smith & Wesson and blow your head off if you screw me on this contract” jazz). Whifler’s a blowhard, but an intermittently entertaining one, and he gets points for not mincing his words — something you almost never hear on these too-cautious, too-polite DVD commentary tracks today.
(Paul Mavis)