Sonny Boy (1989)

Maybe It Ain’t.

Theatrical poster for 1989's Sonny Boy

Kidnapped as a newborn and raised like an animal by a pair of white trash crime lords, Sonny Boy has had to suffer humiliation, torture, and abuse of every kind. Now a young man, his adopted father Slue uses Sonny Boy as an attack dog to sick on anyone he feels has wronged him. But all it takes is a single glance in the mirror and a smile from a kind-hearted woman for Sonny Boy to develop his first sense of self-awareness. Maybe there’s more to him than murder after all.

This odd little blend of FRANKENSTEIN and Jet Li’s UNLEASHED isn’t always a great film, but it is always greatly entertaining, and that goes a long way on a late night—which is precisely when a film of this caliber should be enjoyed. There are so many oddball and off-kilter elements found within that a cult film fan shouldn’t have any trouble getting lost in the dusty little world that the movie takes place in. Many of the characters are despicable people, but that is not all that they are. And this, amazingly, makes SONNY BOY a surprisingly humane film, despite all of the inhumanity unfolding on screen. Violence, art, poetry, beauty, and literary allusions abound—and that’s to say nothing of the amazing cast that includes Brad Dourif, Paul L. Smith, and David Carradine. In drag.

When Sonny Boy first arrives on scene, Slue wants to feed the baby to his hogs, but his common law wife Pearl intervenes and threatens to leave him if he harms the child. Making the best of a bad (or at the very least unplanned) situation, Slue sets about raising Sonny Boy in the manner that he sees fit. By age six, Slue has given Sonny the “gift of silence” by cutting out his tongue—which Pearl dutifully wraps up like leftovers and places in the freezer. By age 12, Sonny is forced to participate in feats of strength and endurance to toughen him up. And by age 18, he’s living in a tin shed hotbox like a junkyard dog, subsisting on live chickens. It is, Slue insists, the same way that he was raised (though one can’t help but notice Slue maintains possession of his tongue).

Slue and Baby Sonny from 1989's Sonny Boy

Sonny Boy is raised to be Slue’s secret weapon when someone in town crosses him. When we first see him untethered, he ravages his adopted father’s political enemy, but he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror along the way and develops his first sense of self-awareness. From here, it’s a battle of nature versus nurture (and Slue’s extended family versus the increasingly-outraged townsfolk) as Sonny Boy discovers what it’s like to walk like a man after being a monster for so long.

Mama Pearl is played by the legendary David Carradine—just one of 14 film roles he could be seen in that year. He’s dressed as a woman the entire time, and the fact that it’s a man beneath the dress is never once mentioned or alluded to in the dialogue. Whether the character of Pearl is meant to be transgender or merely an extremely unattractive woman is anybody’s guess, but both seem equally as likely within the context of the film. Pearl has obviously always wanted to be a mother and has genuine affection for Sonny, but is completely unfit to raise a child. She prevents Slue from murdering Sonny upon his arrival, but does little to prevent his violent upbringing. Carradine manages a soulful and compassionate performance here—easily his best from around this timeframe—and even sings the fantastic theme song twice, once over the opening credits and again a short time later in character as Pearl.

David Carradine as Pearl from 1989's Sonny Boy

Paul L. Smith fills the role of Slue, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Bluto in the live action POPEYE (1980) and Willard in the cheap slasher PIECES (1982). He does a good job of portraying a white trash crime lord, not a mafia don who drives a Mercedes Benz and operates out of a fancy restaurant, but an exploitation equivalent who drives a modified ice cream truck and works out of the city dump. He surrounds himself with colorful folk, including the animated thug Weasel (character actor Brad Dourif, who had voiced Chucky for the first time the previous year) and the high-pitched Charlie P (Sydney Lassick), and a plethora of stolen goods housed in a mysterious glass pyramid. He’s got the sheriff (Steve Carlisle) in his pocket, but the deputy (Steve Ingrassia) and the mayor (Robert Broyles) are both loose threads that have to be dealt with. What Sonny Boy can’t handle, Slue’s military surplus cannon will. There’s more to this character than the violence and brutality that is on display, though it’s only hinted at and never truly explored. Slue is also an aspiring artist, creating astounding surrealist paintings when he’s got a little downtime, and seeing a bit more of this aspect of the character would have been greatly appreciated.

Sonny Boy himself is played by Michael Boston (billed here as Michael Griffin), and he leads us through the narrative with a simple and somehow wistful voice-over. Boston does an admirable job of playing the lead silently, having to reveal the subtly evolving shades of his character through pantomime and expression alone. The character is something of a simpleton, but he’s a complex simpleton, or at least that’s the direction in which he is headed. In one of the most poignant scenes, Sonny Boy looks in wonder at the crucified figure of Christ on display in a church. This wonder isn’t a spiritual one—it’s highly unlikely that he even knows who this statue represents. Rather it’s an emotional one, as Sonny Boy can empathize with someone treated in such a ruthless manner. In the next scene, we see Sonny cuddled up with Christ as he tries to both offer and receive comfort.

The only people to offer any real compassion to Sonny Boy come from outside of his bizarre family unit—Doc Bender (Conrad Janis of MORK & MINDY), a disgraced doctor with a tendency to utilize unauthorized monkey parts in his organ transplants; and Sonny’s would-be love interest Rose (Alexandra Powers, who would go on to play Tonya Harding in the 1994 TV movie TONYA & NANCY: THE INSIDE STORY). If not for their intervention, Sonny Boy would have no hope but to be damned.

Michael Griffin as the title character from 1989's Sonny Boy

Screenwriter Graeme Whifler has a history with unusual subject matter, so it’s no surprise that this bizarre crime fable spewed from his subconscious. As a writer, he has only penned the oft-maligned DR. GIGGLES (1992, with director Manny Coto) and the seldom-seen NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH (2005, which he also directed). But as director, he has contributed to speculative documentaries like SECRETS AND MYSTERIES (1983), RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT (2000-2002), and the ANCIENT PROPHECIES series of films (1994, 1995). The weirdest of the weird, though, is his involvement with arthouse/freakshow musical collective The Residents, for whom he has directed short films.

Directing duties on SONNY BOY went to Robert Martin Carroll, whose only other work appears to be the short film PALE HORSE PALE RIDER (1980) and the feature length BABY LUV (2000). The whole ordeal was produced by Ovidio G. Assonitis, whose name should be familiar to lovers of cult cinema, as he brought us BEYOND THE DOOR (1974), TENTACLES (1977), THE VISITOR (1979), and PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981). Assonitis even pulled a little weight to get his then-girlfriend Savina Gersak into the film in the part of Sandy, a meth-toothed redneck with an anger on for Sonny.

SONNY BOY was completed in 1987, but sat on the shelves for a few years before receiving any theatrical showings. What few it did receive were not met with very favorable results. Leonard Maltin called it a “repulsive, socially unredeemable waste of celluloid,” and people stayed away in droves. Lack of ticket sales, and complaints from those who actually did pay to see it, resulted in many theaters pulling the film after only a few showings. One can only wonder how they would have reacted to the UK version of the film, cut by the director, which runs slightly more than five minutes longer—including actual footage of Sonny’s tongue being removed and a more graphic depiction of Sonny Boy’s attack on the priest. Robert Martin Carroll says the film basically killed his career, even after hitting VHS in 1991 for its one and only legitimate home video release (until the 2016 Shout Factory edition), and the occasional late night showing on cable channels like TCM.

SONNY BOY is a cult movie without enough of a cult, a nearly forgotten little slice of weirdness that is ripe for rediscovery and damn near demanding an audience.

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