Sonny Boy [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Shout! Factory
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (7th February 2016).
The Film

There have been hundreds of directors throughout the course of cinema who only helmed one feature film, but it is a disappointment when someone who shows some genuine promise has a career snuffed out before it has a chance to bloom. Now, I’m not exactly saying director Robert Martin Carroll was a wellspring of untapped talent, but if his only real picture – “Sonny Boy” (1989) – is any indication then at the very least he could have produced interesting movies. This notorious, rarely seen cult classic has long been the subject of rumor and speculation, with few having seen what it is truly all about. The movie never got much of a chance at life upon release, being pulled from theaters after a couple of days due to the controversial subject matter. While it probably won’t live up to whatever insanity first-time viewers have in their heads, this is still a strange, shocking, difficult picture, full of scoundrels and insufferably bad behavior all around.

A couple is held up at gunpoint by small-time criminal Weasel (Brad Dourif, who changes hairstyles more frequently the cast changes clothing), who shoots them both before driving off in their car so it can be sold to local thug overlord Slue (Paul L. Smith). When Weasel arrives at Slue’s, though, he discovers a baby hidden away in the backseat. Slue would just as soon feed the kid to his hogs than keep it, but his transvestite girlfriend, Pearl (a surprisingly subdued David Carradine) insists on keeping the child as her own. Any relief the audience might feel for the infant’s life being spared will quickly turn to horror as the film shows the progression of the life “Sonny Boy” lives.

At a young age his “father”, Slue, having clearly mutilated the child at a young age, gives him a “present” for his sixth birthday: cutting out his tongue. Sonny (Michael Boston) is constantly abused, both verbally and physically, as well as being kept in a locked cage with little light and less visitation from his unintended family. Pearl is the only person in his life who shows any compassion, limited and dysfunctional as it may be. Slue has been grooming Sonny to be a one-man wrecking crew, capable of theft and murder without hesitation. He knows no better. When the town’s mayor threatens to mess with Slue’s operations, Sonny Boy is sent to pay a visit – the end result of which is the mayor ripped apart, lying in a pool of blood. The townsfolk live in fear of Slue, especially now that he has his trained “creature” to eliminate any opposition. When Sonny Boy escapes, however, he finds that even though he means well the fear he’s instilled in others is enough to provoke an all-out war between the town and his “parents” – with him caught in the middle.

This is a hard film to describe in addition to sometimes being a hard film to watch. Strong arguments are presented in the classic case of nature vs. nurture. Sonny, presumably born into a normal family, is taken away at a young age and brutalized so that all he knows is violence and pain. These extremes are just part and parcel of what he sees as a normal life. Sonny narrates passages of the film, providing a commentary for his own thoughts as these two wayward poisons raise him. Isolated and kept from any sense of normalcy, this is what Sonny accepts as life. His actions are often brutal, primal even, and can be seen as overly hostile, but how is he to know what is wrong? During a bout of play fighting, Sonny bites off Weasel’s thumb without a second thought, grinning as though it’s all part of the fun. Yet try as Slue might to beat every ounce of goodness and virtue out of Sonny, the picture posits that good and bad are inherent to the person; ascribed at birth. These traits can be suppressed and ignored, but eventually they will come to the surface when given an opportunity.

Rather than present Sonny as a disfigured monster (which was the original intention), the movie shows him as a rather handsome young man. His body is a ravaged map of scars and abuse, yet his face holds a boyish charm filled with equal parts wonder and confusion. He understands what is expected of him but he still searches for his true place in this world. It could be easy to dismiss this picture as exploitative and glib; it isn’t. “Sonny Boy” is surprisingly deep, tackling the horrid subject of child abuse and hypothesizing what could happen if a child were raised as a monster - a tool for evil and nothing more. It’s “Frankenstein” without the grave robbing.

What holds this material together is a killer B-movie roster of characters, led by Smith as the patriarch of this criminal family. You’d be hard pressed to find a sleazier, sadistic piece of sh*t than Slue. I had expected a campier performance out of Carradine, playing a delusional transvestite and all, but instead the actor delivers a warm, nurturing performance. Pearl tells Sonny she loves him, yet this is also the same woman who has no qualms about keeping a stolen infant as her own. Dourif always rules and he’s great here as Slue’s little lackey who likes to pretend he’s tougher and more sly than he is. It’s also great seeing Sydney Lassick pop up as another one of Slue’s cohorts who is just as deranged as the rest. Finally, Boston does well enough embodying the fractured Sonny, displaying a sense of sadness beneath his bloodied, scarred exterior. He’s fresh-faced and normal – at least in terms of looks – making the actions that he carries out seem even more shocking.

If you can’t tell, I dug this movie quite a bit. The subject matter at the heart of “Sonny Boy” is unquestionably horror, and what makes the picture seem more unsettling is that it was based on a story relayed to writer Graeme Whifler. Obviously aspects of the tale have been exaggerated for the sake of making a motion picture, but the types of people presented here aren’t too far off from reality. The atypical story, solid casting and moments of sheer barbarism all aid in making “Sonny Boy” a curiosity worth watching.

Video

After bypassing DVD (and VHS, unless you live in the U.K.), “Sonny Boy” makes its hi-def debut, featuring a 2.35:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded picture. For the most part this is a solid, stable image, featuring above average definition and great clarity in close-ups. Colors are well reproduced, if not a tad faded at times. The film has a gritty, dusty aesthetic that comes across nicely thanks to a clean print with few deficiencies.

Audio

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track is sparse and simple, yet still effective for what it needs to do. David Carradine shows off his folk music chops by proving the film’s main theme, setting a somber mood that permeates the entire film. The main score is reminiscent of “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) – fitting given the lives being led here. Dialogue levels could have been brought up a tad, though everything still comes through cleanly. The few moments of action display an average sense of directionality. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired.

Extras

The extras here consist of two audio commentary tracks, a theatrical trailer and a BD-ROM feature.

The first audio commentary features director Robert Martin Carroll, along with his wife Dalene Young who had a small role in the film. Carroll is never at a loss for words, delivering a very informative track that outlines all of the struggles this film endured.

Next up is another warts-and-all audio commentary, this one featuring writer Graeme Whifler, moderated by Matthew Chernoff. Whifler, who started his career directing music videos, has strong recollections of writing the film and its production, despite not having seen it in nearly two decades.

A theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 2 minutes and 27 seconds.

Here’s something you don’t see much anymore: a BD-ROM bonus feature. Insert the disc into your Blu-ray drive to read Whifler’s original script.

Packaging

The single disc comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keep case. The cover art is reversible.

Overall

Weird and wild, “Sonny Boy” is one of those films that is difficult to categorize or properly sum up; it just has to be seen to be understood. It’s great to see Scream Factory giving new life to little-seen pictures, bringing interesting tales to their ever-growing legion of fans.

The Film: B Video: B- Audio: B- Extras: C Overall: B-

 


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