Let’s face it, some movies are just plain weird. Some are shockingly weird, like The Baby or Pink Flamingos. Some are surreally weird, like Eraserhead or any one of a number of films from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Either way, there is an entire unofficial subgenre of cinema that takes strangeness to a whole new level. Sonny Boy falls squarely into this category.
Sonny Boy begins with a thief named Weasel (Brad Dourif from Child’s Play and Body Parts) stealing a cherry convertible. He delivers the hot car to his boss, Slue (Paul L. Smith from Midnight Express and Dune), who discovers that a baby is still in the seat. Initially, Slue wants to get rid of the little boy, but his transvestite partner, Pearl (David Carradine from Q and Trick or Treats), convinces him to keep the child. Slue locks the kid inside a little metal box, mistreats the child to toughen him up, and, on the boy’s sixth birthday, cuts out his tongue to keep him from talking. By the time Sonny Boy (Michael Griffin, aka Michael Boston from Little Boy Blue) is seventeen, he has become Slue’s own crazy mute assassin. Slue unleashes Sonny Boy on his crew’s enemies, but Slue soon finds out that Sonny Boy is harder to control than he originally thought.
Directed by Robert Martin Carroll (Baby Luv) from a script by Graeme Whifler (Dr. Giggles), Sonny Boy was actually shot in 1987, but it took a good two years, until 1989, for producers to find a distributor on account of the inherent craziness of the picture. On the surface, it’s a brutal grindhouse western crime movie – it would be hard to believe that Rob Zombie did not find at least some of his inspiration for The Devil’s Rejects in it. But it’s also got a little bit of black comedy tinged with just a touch of LGBT cinema. David Carradine himself reportedly said that Sonny Boy was a cross between Bonnie and Clyde, Bringing Up Baby, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s as accurate of a description as one is bound to find of the movie.
Carradine’s character is the weirdest one in the film. Actually, it’s the weirdest character that Carradine has ever played in his entire career. Pearl is a cross-dressing mother-figure to Sonny Boy, treating him as if he was her own son, even going so far as to breast feed him (with the help of a milk vest device, of course). If Carradine’s filmic comparisons are accurate, Pearl is either Sonny Boy’s Bonnie Parker or its Dr. Frank-N-Furter, or, more likely, a combination of the two.
Carradine’s Pearl may be the most memorable character in Sonny Boy, but the title character is the one who holds the audience’s heart. Even though he can’t talk, his thoughts narrate the film, giving the viewer an unflinching peek into the dark recesses of his lonely and disturbed mind. Sonny is a sympathetic figure, forced to grow up in solitude, tortured and trained by his “parents” in a way which is designed to turn him into a ruthless killer. Like any good tragic character, he has a period of redemption, but for most of the movie, Sonny Boy is pure cold-blooded murderer, so the audience’s empathy makes him more of an anti-hero than a true protagonist.
Sonny Boy was shot on location in and around the New Mexico desert by cinematographer Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli (Tentacles, Starcrash). The movie has the desolately beautiful look of a spaghetti western, with long sweeping shots of the dusty, heat-soaked secluded area; the viewer can almost feel the sunshine and taste the sandstorms. D’Ettorre Piazzoli uses low angles for quite a bit of the movie, making the colorful cast of characters look larger than life, yet smaller than the landscape. Much of the brutality and violence in the film is implied, but when blood does flow, it erupts in that bright red Technicolor giallo way that makes the audience think that it’s seeing more guts and gore than it actually is. Surprisingly, D’Ettorre Piazzoli’s camera technique uses plenty of subtle restraint, leaving gaps to be filled in by the viewer’s wildly vivid imagination.
The score for Sonny Boy, composed by Carlo Maria Cordio (Pieces, Troll 2), is mostly down-home sounding hillbilly music, dueling banjo and guitar licks that sound as if they were copped right from that famous scene in Deliverance. There’s a bit of versatility to the score, a few dramatic Morricone-esque orchestral flourishes as well as some killer harmonica jams, but really, the whole soundtrack is very western-like. And then, there’s the main title theme: a surprisingly melodic little twangy pop ballad called “Maybe It Ain’t” that, written and performed by David Carradine, bookends the film and also shows up a few times throughout the proceedings, giving the music in the film an overall pop sensibility. The musical soundtrack for Sonny Boy is just as eclectic as the movie itself.
Weird movies don’t have to be unwatchable. As Sonny Boy shows, a movie can be strange and eccentric while still retaining a solid narrative structure.