Seventeen years ago, a couple pulled up at a motel in the desert and argued about staying there, with the wife eventually agreeing under duress since she found the place down at heel and unpleasant. Though not half as unpleasant as Weasel (Brad Dourif), the man who danced up to their car once they had gone inside their room, and tried to start it – he was quickly discovered by the husband, but then Weasel pulled a gun on him and to secure his goods and vehicle, he shot both he and his partner dead. This is what he would do to make his living, for the boss of the town was Slue (Paul L. Smith), a terrible criminal who held the locality in a vice-like grip, collecting the spoils from those unlucky enough to visit or stay. But this time Weasel hadn’t noticed something…
Sonny Boy was one of the most obscure cult movies of the nineteen-eighties, not that many actually got to see it after it was released as it escaped into a few cinemas for a few days then was effectively gone from the face of the planet, the occasional television broadcast or one-off showing at a revival aside. Nevertheless, something this determinedly odd was always going to find its following, even if it was going to take decades, and it became spoken of in disbelief as the film where David Carradine spent every single one of his scenes in drag, something that took on further significance on the unfortunate occasion of his demise when he masturbated himself to death in a self-asphyxiation stunt and had the world look at him in a different way.
Not that you could look at Sonny Boy and be able to psychoanalyse Carradine, but it was one of his strangest performances, as no mention is ever made of his character Pearl actually being a man in a dress, only when he and his husband Slue have an unexpected addition to their relationship, he did try and suckle the baby with a makeshift pair of milk-expressing plastic breasts. Pearl felt very protective of the infant, and it’s only he who saves him, though the message here might have been it was better to let him die at the hands of Slue considering the life he suffers from then on, and even after the conclusion it is implied he will never recover. The baby is named Sonny Boy (there is no mention of Al Jolson otherwise), and brought up to be a killer.
Not that when we catch up with him in the present, a couple of detours to show him toughened up by Slue by having his tongue cut out as a sixth birthday present or dragged around behind a speeding car at age twelve, he is some hideous monster, as director Robert Martin Carroll deliberately cast the sort of actor who wouldn’t have been out of place as a pretty boy in a teen soap opera, Michael Boston (under the name Griffin). He is still made up covered in dirt and scarring, and he doesn’t speak thanks to his impromptu operation, but we are supposed to feel sorry for him in spite of his guardian setting him on the objects of his wrath, including killing and partially eating a priest in his own chapel. But Sonny Boy is definitely the victim here, as if you would not blame a gun for murdering someone, you’d blame the owner of the finger on the trigger.
Given the lack of support to the title character was all male, the film seemed to be observing that men make terrible fathers, as the only people who are nice to Sonny Boy are Pearl, who nevertheless ensures the kid stays around and doesn’t get help, and oddball Rose (Alexandra Powers), a girl of his age he bumps into a couple of times and strikes up an extremely awkward relationship with. But not before biting off Weasel’s thumb in a moment of levity, well Weasel thinks it’s both impressive and funny, though while there were horror movie elements throughout it was building to a lengthy climax straight out of Mad Max 2, leaving a real mishmash that contained a weird integrity in its sympathy for its much-abused “hero” whose trials and tribulations are what set him apart from the no good folks surrounding him. As if this wasn’t peculiar enough, screenwriter Graeme Whifler (erstwhile avant garde rock video director) claimed the whole shebang was based on a true story, albeit loosely. With something this self-contained, even self-possessed, it was difficult for most to find a way into a film like Sonny Boy, it made no concessions to normality, but naturally that sets some aficionados running in its direction, not to be disappointed. Music by Carlo Maria Cordio (Carradine singing the theme tune).