Tag Archives: David Carradine

CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

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DIRECTED BY: Robert Martin Carroll

FEATURING: Paul L. Smith, Brad Dourif, Michael Boston,

PLOT: A small-town band of desert criminals steals a car with a baby in the backseat; the evil patriarch orders him to be raised as one of them.

Still from Sonny Boy (1989)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It misses by a hair. Make no mistake, Sonny Boy is a unique, and weird, cult classic horror/comedy/genre-defying oddball. It is beautifully shot, marvelously acted, and defiantly marches to the beat of its own drummer. But its story is straightforward and linear, and it stays grounded mostly in reality. As hillbilly exploitation, it lies on a spectrum between Deliverance and Gummo. But at least 50% of its weirdness comes from David-Carradine-In-Drag, and we’ve seen much worse in any film.

COMMENTS: The opening prepares you in no way for what you’re about to see. David Carradine sings a folksy country number (written by him—we later see him perform it on the piano) that sounds like a homage to John Denver. This plays over helicopter shots of placid New Mexico heartland. Soon we’ll be seeing David in the cast, and are we in for a surprise. A minute after the credits, the infant child of two parents shot over a car-jacking gone wrong narrates, with a clown doll leering at us as the thief speeds away in their 1958 Lincoln Continental Mark III, and we find ourselves in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas territory. Welcome to Sonny Boy, enjoy your ride.

The carjacked baby ends up the adoptee of “Slue,” (Paul L. Smith,  who played “Bluto” in ‘s Popeye), the small town crime baron of Harmony, New Mexico, and his wife, David-Carradine-In-Drag (“Pearl”). Carradine dominates every scene he’s in–because that’s the Kill Bill guy in a dress, acting downright maternal. He gets more hilarious as the film wears on, turning gray and grandmotherly as Sonny’s life story unfolds. Slue’s flunkie apologizes—“I didn’t know nuthin’ ’bout no baby”—but Sonny’s fate is sealed when David-Carradine-In-Drag cradles him to his breast (?) and declares “This is MY baby!” Slue is a destructive man who blows up cars with a canon for fun, and his paternal instincts turn out to be equally warped. Slue and his merry band of henchmen live a post-apocalyptic existence, with TV sets stacked like Legos and junk cars dotting the landscape like grazing buffalo, amongst herds of roaming hogs.

We’re given glimpses of Sonny’s childhood in installments, including a birthday party with, yes, the infamous tongue-cutting scene. The festive balloons and animal masks lend the scene the eeriness of a cult ritual, which is about the right mindset for fans of this movie at this point. Sonny is raised as a psychopath-in-training, alternately dragged behind cars and staked out in a ring of fire. Eventually he is Continue reading CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)

READER RECOMMENDATION: KILL BILL (VOLS. 1 & 2) (2003-2004)

Reader recommendation by Caleb Moss

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox

PLOT: A woman known only as “the Bride” awakens from a coma and sets off to wreak revenge on Bill and the team of assassins that betrayed her.

Still from Kill Bill
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: By the sole merit of being Quentin Tarantino’s most self-indulgent, ambitious and proudly artificial film. Not only is this Tarantino at the height of his formalistic film-making capabilities, this kinetic and entertaining work of ultraviolent pornography may perhaps be the most aesthetically alienating and divisive in his filmography, even to the adamant Tarantino fanbase. It’s therefore worth considering for the List not only as representative of Quentin Tarantino, but as being the seminal representative of the postmodern exploitation genre at its tautest and most entertaining.

COMMENTS: Have you ever been curious what kind of film  would direct if he was perpetually stuck with the brain of a hyper-intelligent, hyperactive 14-year old and had an obsessive penchant for wanton violence, manga, and endlessly deconstructing pop-culture ephemera? This is your movie.

Adhering to the already well-established standard on this website in which the quality of the film discussed can merit inclusion on the List when the degree of weirdness is more or less questionable, I will waste no further time on exalting the blood-drenched beauty of this film, and instead shall provide three reasons why this is Tarantino’s weirdest film:

1. Aesthetic Design: If you’re the film-obsessive type, then every frame of this movie will feel as if you’re being treated to a Nouvelle Vague-themed candy store whose wares are arranged in an array of colorful nods to exploitation and B-movie cinema (see the crimson skies inspired by the Certified Weird film Goke in Volume 1!) The film alternates so frequently between different cinematic modes and filters ranging from anime (a segment animated by  of Funky Forest fame!) to black and white to the striking image of the faces of Uma Thurman’s enemies superimposed over hers in a garish red hue.

2. Unreal and Hyperstylized Violence: Tarantino, a renowned purveyor of aestheticized violence, slices and dices himself a place within the annals of such maestros of perverse, arty carnage among the likes of Sam Peckinpah, , and Sergio Leone. Blood spurts out like ribbons from expertly cut limbs. Our revenge-bent protagonist literally survives a gunshot to her temple simply through the revitalizing force of pure hatred. Uma Thurman dismembers over eighty-eight Yakuza grunts—and then some—effortlessly. A custom-made katana can literally tear down both man and deity alike.

3. Non-Linear Chronology: As in Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bill series structures itself after postmodern narrative, preferring to splice up its epic story as if the entire film was being projected as the murderous fever-dream of an over-caffeinated geek.

Unlike Pulp Fiction, however, the Kill Bill series manages to achieve what its widely-loved predecessor only aims at: rendering pure, unadulterated pulp into a cinematic showcase for gloriously nihilistic Pop-Art. Motifs of blood, sharpened steel, and fantastical dismemberment recur frequently until it all blurs together, a savage yet strangely mesmerizing poetry.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A strange, fun and densely textured work that gets better as it goes along… Few filmmakers have ever had the freedom and resources to make such a piece exactly as they wished, and Tarantino takes it so far that it becomes a highly idiosyncratic and deeply personal excursion into a world of movie-inspired unreality.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (Vol. 1, contemporaneous)

 

CAPSULE: DEATH RACE 2000 (1975)

DIRECTED BY: Paul Bartel

FEATURING: , Simone Griffeth, Sylvester Stallone,

PLOT: In the year 2000, five racers competing in the annual Transcontinental Road Race must reckon with terrorists, government cover-ups, and each other in their rush to New Los Angeles.

Still from Death Race 2000 (1975)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has some moments of intense weirdness, they’re too few and far between; most of the film is just clever futuristic sci-fi whose bizarreness is restrained by its light sense of humor.

COMMENTS: Although, on the surface, Death Race 2000 may look like another dumb ’70s B-movie, trust me: it’s not.  It is pretty schlocky, and occasionally raunchy, but it’s also imbued with the satirical humor and the eye for low-budget artistry that has been a hallmark of Roger Corman productions since the days of The Little Shop of Horror.  Director Paul Bartel (he of the cult classic Eating Raoul) foregrounds the film’s funny streak, so that it plays more like a series of double entendres and anti-authoritarian jokes set against a futuristic backdrop than any kind of straightforward action movie.

The film’s pleasantly dark sense of humor is clear from its absurd central conflict: a band of anti-Death Race terrorists called the Army of the Resistance is sabotaging the racers, but the propaganda-spewing media-industrial complex blames it on the French.  Amidst coverage of the ongoing race (where hitting pedestrians scores points), the film occasionally cuts to the overzealous newscaster Junior Bruce, who’s basically a mouthpiece for Mr. President’s totalitarian government, and to Grace Pander, a proto-Oprah talk show host who describes every racer as “a dear friend of mine.”  Every twist and turn of the race is mythologized by these TV personalities, especially when it regards the film’s hero, Frankenstein (David Carradine).

In Death Race‘s vision of America, Frankenstein is the object of unending hero worship; he’s literally “bigger than Jesus.”  This is the source of extensive satire, as when Junior Bruce enthuses about Frankenstein’s “half a face and half a chest and all the guts in the world,” but it also leads to a surprisingly poignant scene when a girl named Laurie, a member of the St. Louis Frankenstein fan club, sacrifices her life to give him some extra points.  Tucked inside this cheap little dystopian sci-fi-comedy, we’ve got an eerily dead-on allegory about the nature of fandom and celebrity.  Similar treats await the patient viewer, especially in the film’s ideologically over-the-top finale.

Death Race 2000 is what happens when very smart, talented people set out to make a ridiculous movie.  It’s got a hammy Sylvester Stallone as Frankenstein’s arch-nemesis, Machine Gun Joe, but it also has expansive vistas shot by Badlands cinematographer Tak Fujimoto.  It has plenty of bad puns and topless women, but it also comments on the role of violence American society.  Complete with hand-illustrated backdrops and opening credits, this is 1970s cult cinema at its trashy, funny best.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The action setpieces work well, the blood smears look great in high definition, and most of the jokes land. It’s not like the news suddenly stopped caring about sexy, sexy violence in the 35 years since this first hit theaters. What really makes Race such a classic, though, is that Bartel manages to mix ruthless satire, absurdism, and sincerity without ever softening or compromising any of them.”–Zack Handlen, The A.V. Club

This is a condensed version of a longer review entitled “Satire, Americana and the Death Race.” The complete text can be found at Pussy Goes Grrr.