Sunday 4 January 2009

Sonny Boy (1989)

Director: Robert Martin Carroll
Stars: David Carradine, Paul L Smith, Brad Dourif and Michael Griffin

Here's another movie I remember from years gone by, from its screening on BBC's Moviedrome, courtesy of the always fascinating Alex Cox. However it's also another film that I haven't seen since, so have happily raved about it to people without ever having the opportunity to show it to them. Finally it crops up on TCM Underground, which is a fair place for it, being a rather strange cult film. It doesn't hurt to have three cult figures in the main roles: David Carradine, Paul L Smith and Brad Dourif, along with a newcomer in the title role, Michael Boston, going under the name of Michael Griffin. It certainly doesn't hurt to have it so quirky that Carradine plays Smith's 'wife'.

It's 1970 and we're in Harmony, a small New Mexico town on the Californian and Mexican borders, and Dourif's character is aptly named Weasel. He's a small time thug who kills a man checking into a hotel and steals his car, so as to pass it over to Slue to dispose of. Slue is the local kingpin, who effectively runs the town and the cops who work it, though he's hardly your regular sort of kingpin. He's played by Paul L Smith, so is a huge bulk of a man who has no restraint and no pity, and has no hesitation to take out anyone who opposes him, not least a newbie cop who comes around asking questions and who ends up on the wrong end of a cannon.

Slue lives in a farmhouse out in the desert with his 'wife' Pearl where he raises hogs, paints surreal art and, well, blows things up with his cannon, when not busy running all the local crime. Pearl, in the most bizarre casting of the film, is played by David Carradine, who obviously had a major input into the film given that beyond his highly unconventional role he also sings the theme tune. What's most amazing is that there's absolutely no mention given to why a male actor, let alone a famous male actor, is playing a woman, or even if Pearl is supposed to be a woman or a transvestite. It is simply not deemed worthy of mention because the questions are the answers.

And with Weasel's delivery of a stolen car, the family becomes three. Completely unbeknownst to Weasel, there's a little baby in the back of the car. Pearl demands to keep him but loses the fight for dominance soon enough and Slue gets to do what he wants with the boy. That means cutting out his tongue out on his sixth birthday and keeping him chained up inside a water tower, where he feeds him live chickens and effectively trains him to be his human attack dog. Eventually Sonny Boy escapes and turns the whole town upside down in more ways than one.

All told this is a pretty amazing piece of cinema. It certainly isn't like anything you've seen before, even if it doesn't quite stand up to my memory of it. There are certainly flaws and consistency errors that I doubt I noticed first time around, but it remains a highly powerful film, aided rather than hindered by some powerful overacting and a rather melodramatic soundtrack. This all makes it a brutally honest film, with characters so extrapolated that it's impossible to avoid what they mean.

There are many films that cover the same basic ground but not one of them is remotely this honest. Look at something like Road House as a good Hollywood equivalent. This is the same story, but it has raw violence instead of kung fu action scenes, a couple of bikers screwing in a dump of a hideout instead of Patrick Swayze's butt, beat up cars instead of monster trucks and of course David Carradine in drag instead of blonde bimbos. There are no cocaine parties and there's no Jeff Healey Band. Instead there's Paul L Smith as a huge, callous and tough as nails bad guy and Carradine as his wife. Both are excellent, as are Dourif as the sleazy Weasel and Sydney Lassick as another collaborator without any real allegiance.

In a very unique way, the film speaks to evil and what it can achieve when people look the other way. The key line here belongs to a drunken town doctor who comments on the town's complaints after Sonny Boy gets loose. He says, 'You're the monsters. You let it happen. Now you'll have to pay the price.' It also speaks to the power of humanity, suggesting that even under the worst circumstances a child could be brought up under, they're still a human being with an innate and underlying sense of humanity. Michael Griffin is superb in his debut, looking precisely right as a dangerous but pitiful abused boy.

What's most important is that it speaks: you watch Road House (and many other more traditionally classic films with the same concept) for the ride, you watch this because it's way out there but you leave with the message. Possibly the best comparison in style is Lars von Trier's Dogville, which achieves the same end by avoiding the standard approach: it exposes small town evil by deliberately removing almost everything from the set and relying on the story and the acting to get its story across. Sonny Boy does it through a refusal to pander to any traditional Hollywood concepts and by extrapolating everything until you can't ignore it.

This also falls into a happily decreasing category of film: those that have a small but dedicated audience who are vocal about not being able to watch them because they're not commercially available. You can tell these by reading the comments section at IMDb and noting the preponderance of 'how can I see this film?' posts. There are probably a bunch of these out there, but in order to find them you have to know about them and the problem is that by definition not many people know about them.

I've not posted anything at IMDb about it myself, but I'm one of these people, having raved about it to many over the years, and it seems that it's getting harder and harder to find. It would certainly seem that the only print available to TCM was a VHS tape because it was shown in a pretty poor transfer without the proper aspect ratio, missing a lot of film on either side of the screen and confusing a few scenes when the person talking has been cut out of the frame. Normally I wouldn't want to watch something in this sort of format but there's not really much of a choice, is there?

Until someone can arrange for a decent official release, which may of course never happen, the film lives on by word of mouth and illegal filesharing, whether that be via peer to peer or selling DVD-Rs on eBay. Sixty years ago this would quickly become a lost film, which is scary to think about, given that the current push on copyright would help that rather than hinder it. It's also scary to think about what films were made back then that are lost and forgotten now. Nowadays it's the sort of film that will reappear after an article sparks awareness and the copyright owners find out that they don't have a copy, so appeal to the public with a copyright infringement waiver if only they'll make their illegal copy available to restore. Here's to hoping that won't be needed here.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

loved the post!!I like this movie very much..they show it on MGM every now and then..I wonder what happened to the lead actor after the movie..haven't seen him much after that in hollywood movies (not that I have watched every english movie). But I wonder why it went unnoticed.. and movies like slumdog millionaire won oscar