The ’80s were arguably the pinnacle of the horror genre. However, the ’80s were also a period of time I affectionately refer to as the wild west of horror cinema. It was a time marked by flashy cover art, when studios were cashing in on the direct-to-video craze, and making money hand over fist. Fledgling studios would pump out film after film with more than mixed results. More often than not, the flashy cover art was used to mask the worthless trash hidden within. This was not always the case, shown perfectly with the Scream Factory reissue of 1989’s “Sonny Boy”. Now I don’t claim to have seen every ’80s horror film, but I am at a loss as to how this film escaped me for so long. It feels like something torn from the pages of Rob Zombie’s angst-ridden high school notebook. This film is dripping with enough profanity, sleaze, and trailer-trash that you’d swear Zombie went back in time to direct it himself.
Sonny Boy begins with a punk-rock Brad Dourif (also known as the voice of Chucky) stealing a car while committing a double homicide. As the crazed maniac drives off into the twilight, he notices a baby resting comfortably in the backseat of the stolen car. As the thief enters his hometown, he delivers the vehicle & infant to a ruthless crime boss named Slue (played masterfully by Paul L. Smith) and his transvestite girlfriend Pearl (played by the maniacally insane David Carradine). Fans of Carradine have NEVER seen him in a role like this, and he uncomfortably eats up the screen in every scene. He also performs the opening song, which feels like some kind of trailer park version of a Hank Williams jam. I understand that life doesn’t always imitate art, but this may give us insight into some of the proclivities that we learned about after Carradine’s untimely demise.
Slue wants to kill the infant, while Pearl insists on keeping the child as her own. What transpires is nothing short of horrific, as Slue begins to take control of the infant. Pearl acts as the “motherly” influence complete with breast-feeding and lullabies, while Slue begins to put the child through various “acts of strength”. We begin to meet the character of Sonny Boy through his use of voice over from the time he was five years old. On his fifth birthday he is revealed to be living in a box, and for his birthday gift his tongue is removed, to which Dourif exclaims, “he ain’t even shedding a tear”. Like many abused children, Sonny Boy believes this is his “father’s” way of showing love and making him a man. This is hardly where the abuse ends, but it is at this point that we realize Sonny Boy is being groomed to be a ruthless killer.
The town where Slue and Pearl reside lives in fear of the couple, and even the law won’t touch them. As Sonny Boy begins to do his father’s bidding, the town begins to catch wind of what’s going on in them-there-hills, and they don’t take kindly to it. The town will either save Sonny boy, or run him off à la Frankenstein’s monster. The boy is naive and knows nothing other than violence. Is he a victim? Or a psychotic killing machine?
This film, for all its cheese & sleaze, actually makes some interesting points about child abuse and its victims. Can someone just be a product of environment, or does it cut deeper? Every character is absolutely loathsome, and this may be difficult for some viewers to find anyone or anything redeeming within. It’s conflicting to see a movie where there is no clear protagonist. It is like choosing the lesser of two evils. Although Pearl acts as the only nurturing light in Sonny Boy’s life, her actions are deplorable, and she often shows indifference towards Slue’s continued abuse.
As stated above, this film reads like something out of Zombie’s repertoire. I would be shocked if there isn’t a print of Sonny Boy prominently displayed on the auteurs film shelf. Shades of “Sonny Boy” can be seen in everything from “The Devil’s Rejects” to Alexandre Aja’s “The Hills Have Eyes”. “Sonny Boy” borders on not being a horror film, much like “The Devil’s Rejects” walks that same tightrope. Hardcore fans should seek this one out and ask themselves the same question “how the hell have I not heard of this?”