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Sonny Boy

Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
Shout! Factory
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Robert Martin Carroll
David Carradine
Paul L. Smith
Brad Dourif
Syndey Lassick
Michael Boston
Bottom Line: 

Robert Martin Carroll’s 1989 oddity, Sonny Boy, is one of those films I’ve always wanted to see, but, for some reason or another, just never got around to it. I had my chances for sure, as the film always seemed to be sitting on the shelf at my local video rental joint, but there were always other films that took precedent, and Sonny Boy was relegated to my video “to do” list. Of course VHS gave way to DVD, and, when Sonny Boy was passed over by the medium, I ultimately forgot about the film altogether, until Shout! Factory announced they were bringing the title to Blu-ray!

Sonny Boy centers on a group of thieves led by the mercurial Slue (Paul L. Smith), who operate with impunity out of Harmony; a remote town in the New Mexico desert. The locals and the bought-and-paid-for Sheriff (Steve Carlisle) of Harmony all look the other way as Slue and his cohorts Weasel (Brad Dourif) and Charlie P. (Syndey Lassick), along with his transvestite girlfriend Pearl (David Carradine) buy and sell stolen goods and vehicles, many of which were taken by violent means, including the group’s most recent acquisition; a shiny red convertible taken by Weasel after murdering the vehicle’s previous owners at a nearby motel. Unbeknownst to Weasel is the fact that the couple he murdered were traveling with their infant son, who was still in the car when he stole it. This throws Slue into a rage, and, as he attempts to beat some sense into Weasel, Pearl decides she wants to raise the baby as her own. At first Slue is completely opposed to the idea, but, soon his warped paternal instincts kick in, and he decides to raise the child and mold him into his own image. Dubbed Sonny Boy, he is raised in a steel shack, fed live chickens and table scraps, and even has his tongue cut out.  As he enters is forced to endure all manner of physical abuse meant to toughen him up and make him a vicious, feral killing machine with whom Slue can take out his enemies. When Sonny Boy becomes a young adult (now played by Michael Boston), however, he begins to feel conflicted and question his upbringing, and, when Weasel and Charlie P. decide to use Sonny Boy for their own schemes, Slue’s violent creation is unleashed upon the citizens of Harmony, awakening the resolve of the small town’s citizens with dire consequences for Slue and his gang.

Despite being filmed at the tail-end of the 1980s, Sonny Boy looks and feels like something straight out of the early 70s, with a grimy-yet-beautiful aesthete that, with its wide open vistas and lovingly shot scenes of the New Mexico desert, calls to mind the hallucinatory and gorgeous visuals of films like Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. While it’s a disturbing and violent film, Sonny Boy is also quite humorous and deliriously offbeat, and this tone, paired with Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli’s wonderfully artistic cinematography and Carlo Maria Cordio’s folksy score (including a great little ditty sung by Carradine, himself) makes it more arthouse than grindhouse.

The lead performances, especially those of Carradine and Dourif, are exceptional, while the use of dozens of unknowns and non-actors as the citizens of Harmony lends the film a sense of homegrown realism akin to that seen in John Boorman’s Deliverance.

This is a difficult film to categorize as it really sort of transcends genre. Sure, there are horror elements, but there’s also ample amounts of black comedy, tragic romance, and a none-too-subtle social message at play here making it something of a dark, whitetrash fable about a man raised as a beast whose humanity somehow finds its way to the surface, and it’s delivered in such a far out, novel way that I found myself dwelling on the ideas and imagery of the film for days after viewing.

Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray presentation is just gorgeous. Yes, there are some artifacts that pop up here and there, and the image does suffer from a touch of excess grain at times, but, man, does this thing look great otherwise. The image is exceptionally crisp and vibrant, with the blues and reds of sky and sand popping off the screen with a true sense of depth and dimensionality. The level of fine detail throughout is so effective one can almost feel the grit and grime on skin and fabric. In my opinion, this is one of the finest transfers Shout! Factory has given us, and the accompanying (and perfectly suited) 2.0 DTS HD Master Audio track is equally as impressive, with crisp dialogue, and nuanced atmospheric sounds. It’s a quiet track for the most part, but can prove quite robust when the need arises, especially in scenes involving gunplay or the screams of Sonny Boy’s unfortunate victims rattle the speakers.

In terms of bonus features, Shout! has managed to round up both director Carroll (along with wife, Dalene Young, who was featured in the film as Doc Wallace) as well as screenwriter Graeme Whifler, giving each a commentary track of their own. All participants offer their own unique interpretations of the process of making the film, and each should be considered required listening for fans eager to glean more information about both the production as well as the intent of the film.

A wildly misunderstood and woefully underrated film upon its original release, Sonny Boy is a film deserving of a second look, and Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release will hopefully expose this film to the wide audience it deserves. Highest recommendations! 


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