DIRECTED BY: Robert Martin Carroll
FEATURING: Paul L. Smith, Brad Dourif, Michael Boston, David Carradine
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.
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 John Waters 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 Robert Altman‘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 confined to a silo and fed live chickens. It turns out that Slue plans to use Sonny Boy as a weapon, turning him loose from an ice cream truck like a wild animal on his victims.
Lest you think that we’re invited to sink to the bestial levels of the characters, we’re shown constant reminders of Sonny’s agony and humanity. He’s the sympathetic antihero of the film, and actor Michael Boston pulls no punches in making us feel Sonny’s pain when he discovers his own face for the first time in a mirror. Later he’s dispatched to raid a church, and is filled with awe at the figure of Christ, whose whipped body resembles his own battle scars. He finds a dead animal and picks it up and cuddles it, so desperate for affection that it transcends his understanding of life and death.
As Slue and his gang make designs to raid Bel-Air art and sell it right back to the dumb-schmuck Californians, Sonny has further encounters with the world outside the silo that has been his universe, and the inevitable eventually transpires. He escapes, his feral wits pitted against the uncomprehending outside world, which turns out not too well for either party. A classic lynch mob shows up calling for Sonny’s hide, a very obvious homage to Frankenstein’s monster. Harmony is a rough town even for the most well-adjusted people, let alone a feral beast-man. Seemingly every citizen packs a shotgun. If you love cowboy-and-biker shootouts on the high desert, has this movie got the ending for you!
The main question left hanging in this film is what’s up with Kung Fu mama? One imagines that Carradine wrote a song and wanted to debut as a film scorer so badly that he panhandled production lots until a producer said “Well, we only have one role left to cast…” and Carradine said “Fine, I’ll take it!” The role isn’t played up for campy comedy, and while we are not allowed to forget for one second that he’s a he, Carradine does act the daylights out of the role. We’re also given no indication whether we should take Carradine for a woman, or whether Slue simply prefers a gender-bender for a wife.
It’s hard to find a movie with a blacker outlook on life. Sonny Boy tells a story about the most primal parts of man’s ugly nature, a hymn to misanthropy. This is a movie where characters get their thumbs bitten off and are less troubled than they are impressed at the feat. Only at the resolution are we allowed glimpses of the better sides of human nature; up until then it’s a carnival of repulsiveness. At one point when David Carradine-In-Drag is confronted by the thumb and Slue’s accusation that this is evidence that Sonny has been outside, his only reaction is that you can’t expect a young man to stay cooped up all the time. Once you’re over the shocks and gross-outs, this movie just wants you to laugh at its audacity, and you have to give it that right.
Sonny Boy is its own kind of masterpiece. Even if this write-up is the closest it ever gets to the List of 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made, weird movie fans will love this kook for the hideously beautiful freak it is.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an oddly compelling study of family pathology with blackly comic undertones… helping to humanize this very bizarre tale is the strong work of the ensemble cast.”–TV Guide
(This movie was suggested for review by Jacob Armstrong, who argued “There are several flaws that prevent it from being ‘good’ in a mainstream sense, but the strong weirdness factor certainly suggests it for the 366 list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: SONNY BOY (1989)”
I saw this soon after it came out (on VHS) and didn’t like it too terribly much, although it is hard to forget because of Carradine’s novelty performance and the general unpleasantness. The recommendation is a mild one, for curiosity’s sake, but I think Bad Boy Bubby is a better, more humane treatment of a similar theme and character.