Midnight Movie: Sonny Boy (1989)

Note: The version I saw is six minutes shorter than the unrated cut (spoilers in that link) which was only released in the UK. Thankfully, there’s a special place in hell for proponents of film censorship.
I would have rather seen it in this aspect ratio

Wow. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie modified for 4:3. Especially one with such incompetent panning and scanning. Unfortunately, VHS is probably the only way you can see Sonny Boy, a weird little film that apparently never made the leap to disc or digital media. Pan and scan this terrible is like trying to watch a movie through a telescope, but someone else is holding it to your eye. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s worth watching it this way until someone tracks down the rights and gives the film a proper release.

Sonny Boy opens on a secluded motel where a young couple are being spied on by a good-for-nothing desert thug named Weasel (Brad Dourif), who looks pretty much how you’d expect a guy named Weasel to look. Weasel murders the couple and takes off in their convertible, which he tries to sell to the local crime boss, Slue (Paul Smith, who played Bluto in Popeye). Slue is a grown-up bully who lives in a junkyard of stolen merchandise with his transvestite wife, Pearl (David Carradine, who also provides the theme song). As Slue and Weasel are negotiating the price of the stolen convertible, Pearl notices there’s a baby boy in the backseat and she immediately adopts him as her own.

So what happens when a baby is raised by a trio of monsters? First, they give him “the gift of silence” by cutting out his tongue. Then, in a montage of Sonny Boy’s formative years, we see how Slue and Weasel physically torture Sonny, against Pearl’s wishes, in order to toughen him up for the real world. These games of abuse culminate in Sonny Boy’s rite of adulthood, in which Slue ties the boy to a stake and Weasel lights a ring of fire around him. You’ll see Pearl off to the side, desperately trying to put the fire out with a tiny bucket of water. She’s shaking her head as if to say, “Oh, boys will be boys.”

I know all this sounds horrific, but it’s kind of sweet—perhaps bitterly so—in the surreal context of the film. The film makes no excuses for the way its characters behave, but it’s clear this is the only way these people know how to raise a kid, a kid they clearly love and care about. You begin to wonder if the reason they lack a moral compass is the same reason Sonny Boy lacks one: perhaps they were raised like animals, too. Anyway, one day Sonny sees himself in the mirror for the first time, face covered with the blood of Slue’s enemy, which inspires the boy-in-a-man’s-body to begin the long, difficult process of deprogramming himself…

Or something like that.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with the film (such as an overly explanatory voiceover, a cheat of an ending, and a hamfisted message about tolerance, acceptance, yatta, yatta, yatta), but it’s clear the movie was a labor of love. There are plenty of creative shots, surprisingly great casting, and an unwillingness to make the film something it isn’t in order to satisfy more commercial audiences. According to the grapevine, the subject matter of Sonny Boy was so disturbing, theaters pulled it from showings within days of its release. I don’t buy that because the film simply isn’t that disturbing. I think the real reason it was pulled is couldn’t have been a crowd-pleaser in 1989, which seems to be the year moviegoers began demanding more of a film’s budget than the content itself.

Mere minutes into Sonny Boy, I was reminded of a type of film I haven’t thought about in a long time. Growing up in the late eighties and nineties, there was no shortage of small, “quiet” films on HBO and Cinemax, films I’d never heard of before they simply came on one day and unexpectedly hooked me. I honestly don’t know how to explain these types of movies, and I’m sure the TV programmers only acquired them for filler content, but they were kind of like the younger, unknown siblings to “slice of life” films like Something Wild. In other words, they were smaller versions of mainstream movies when movies had more in common with novels than video games.

Ultimately, that’s what’s most satisfying about Sonny Boy: its unexpected restraint. I probably would have liked it just as much if “the joke” was that you get to see the star of Kung Fu in a dress, but amazingly, it doesn’t go there. Sure, there are people who get thoroughly blown up by artillery shells, but if you’re looking for a raunchy exploitation film to show a drunk and rowdy crowd, Sonny Boy isn’t the one. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a watch on a hungover Sunday morning, though.

Midnight Movie: The Visitor (1979)

The Visitor opens on a plane of unreality in which a force of good (John Huston) comes face to face with a force of evil. When the evil flings off its sacramental robe, it reveals it has taken the form of a little girl. Cut to a different plane of existence: Franco Nero, in Christ-like garb, tells a group of bald disciples the mystical backstory concerning these forces. I’ll be damned if my eyes didn’t glaze over at this long, dull explanation, which is probably why I had so much trouble following the rest of the movie.

Maybe I would have been lost anyway, but it’s worth noting a great deal of The Visitor suddenly made sense in the end. Whether or not the rest of it means anything is up to the individual viewer.

You’ll probably want The Visitor to take you on a cosmic trip. With exposition like Nero’s, though, the film is like winning a free vacation, but only after listening to a sales pitch for timeshares. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie. It’s actually quite good for borrowing so heavily from so many different sources. (Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen came to mind for me. Others have compared it to everything from The Exorcist to Star Wars.) Despite these obvious influences, you’ve never seen anything like The Visitor and you’ll never see anything like it again.

Following its dreamlike prologue, the audience is whisked away to the un-magical land of a basketball game in Atlanta, Georgia. When the away team nearly turns over the score in the final seconds, a little girl in the front row uses her supernatural powers to make the basketball explode in the player’s hands. (No one seems to think it’s weird that the basketball blew up like a gunpowder-stuffed piñata. You’d think any ref who witnesses something like that would at least call interference.)
The eight year old girl responsible for the exploding basketball trick is accompanied by her mother, played by Joanne Nail (Switchblade Sisters). Nail’s character is being courted by Lance Henriksen, the owner of the basketball team. Henriksen proposes to the girl’s mother, who refuses his offer despite creepy persistence. We soon learn Henriksen is an agent of evil when we see him in the boardroom of rich and powerful Illuminati types. The mysterious figures, led by Mel Ferrer, remind Henriksen that their evil plot hinges on Nail getting pregnant again. Apparently their goal is the sort of event that happens whenever the gatekeeper comes into contact with the key master. 
Meanwhile John Huston’s character, the inter-dimensional traveler from Nero’s plane of existence, arrives on Earth. He can freely hop between realms, but requires a commercial airliner to take him to Atlanta. When the little girl discovers her arch-nemesis is on Earth, she angrily uses her Omen-like powers to turn a birthday gift into a loaded gun and promptly shoots her mother in the spine. This “accident” leads to a couple more surprisingly high-profile talents: Shelly Winters and Glenn Ford, who play the new nanny and a police detective. Later the film will introduce Nail’s ex-husband, a doctor played by Sam Peckinpah. 
Seriously. All these people are in this movie. If you only like one of these people, you owe it to yourself to see this movie.
The problem with The Visitor (and I’m nitpicking here because the more I look back on it, the more I like it) is it has too much plot for what it wants to be. And it’s a plot that will be just a little too familiar for fans of pre-Halloween horror. I usually love movies like this and I’m no stranger to psychedelic journeys, but no one’s asking directors of acid films to stitch together their visual exercises with coherent—but ultimately pointless—plots. I just feel The Visitor would work a lot better if it didn’t try to be so damned routine in between its short bursts of wonderful lunacy. 
The Visitor is a film for viewers who love film itself. I couldn’t recommend it to anyone else.

Midnight Movie: Masters of the Universe

Here’s one I haven’t seen since I was five or six years old. I don’t think I watched Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid, so the extent of what I know about He-Man comes from Masters of the Universe. I’m pointing this out so I don’t offend the die hard fans out there with my ignorance. For all intents and purposes, I’m an adult who’s just been exposed to the He-Man mythos for the first time. Let’s not pretend this movie was made for people my age. The extremely obvious attempts at comic relief make that perfectly clear.
The mighty warrior He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) lives on planet Eternia, home of Castle Grayskull. The castle, which holds a plethora of magic secrets, has just been seized by the villainous Skeletor (Frank Langella) and the commander of his hellish army, a witch named Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster). There the villains have taken “The Sorceress of Grayskull” hostage with the help of a “cosmic key” which rips holes in the space-time continuum. Sooner than later this plot device will conveniently usher the characters to Earth, probably because the producers couldn’t raise enough money to shoot the entire film on the Eternia sets, which I imagine is what we all came for in the first place.
It’s on Earth that a duplicate of this cosmic key is lost and He-Man must recover it before Skeletor’s minions do. Joining him are a character named Man-At-Arms, a troll, and a female warrior known as Teela, played by Death Spa’s Chelsea Field. (I’ve always thought Field had an interesting and unusually photogenic look, so I was thrilled to see her in a sort of Red Sonja role even though she’s relegated to keeping lookout in the background of too many scenes.) This band of heroes cross paths with the most insignificant characters in the film: a couple of teenagers played by Courtney Cox and TV actor Robert Duncan McNeill.

I’m guessing Cox and McNeill’s characters weren’t part of the original He-Man mythos. They feel like an afterthought, added by misguided screenwriting logic: “We should give audience members someone they can relate to!” The film wastes so much time on these sickeningly white bread teenagers it’s a cheat to everyone who came to see swords, sorcery, and cheesy action. If, like me, you thought Masters of the Universe was going to be set almost entirely in a fantastical world like Flash Gordon, you’re going to be disappointed anyway.

Masters of the Universe desperately wants to be the next Star Wars film, and although Bill Conti’s music and most of the camerawork are pretty good, you tend to realize you’re watching the first take of many scenes. In one action sequence, He-Man is heroically holding off the bad guys as his friends flee through a doorway. Meanwhile the door itself, which is supposed to be propped against a wall, keeps falling and distracting Lundgren from his acting. Later, when being lashed by one of Skeletor’s henchmen, Lundgren’s reactions to the whip are hilariously out of sync. Early on there’s a big panoramic showing Skeletor’s army of bad guys marching prisoners of war across a battlefield. One of the bad guy extras trips front and center and has trouble standing back up. You’ll hear echoes of Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood enthusiastically yelling, “Cut! Print!”

Which isn’t to say this is a cheap movie. Despite the flaws, Masters of the Universe just isn’t bad enough to warrant a midnight movie-going audience. And despite some wonderful costume creations, it isn’t good enough for adults, either, partly because the villains’ inability to kill anyone plays out at the expense of suspense. The film looks pretty damn good in HD and roughly half of the special FX are kind of impressive, but Frank Langella’s skull makeup restricts his performance rather than enhancing it.

If you ever wondered why movie adaptations differ so much from their source materials, Masters of the Universe is the answer. A movie should stand on its own. I suspect MotU’s intended for fans who’ve already explored the rich universe in various media and are already familiar with Man-At-Arms, Teela, and the entirely pointless inclusion of the Sorceress of Grayskull. As an introduction to the He-Man universe, MotU is like walking in on a modern television series midway through.

Introducing Monday Midnight Movies!

Midnight Movie Monday begins November 9th.

UPDATE: So yeah, as of November 27th, 2015, this feature is going to be on Fridays. Just makes more sense.

ANOTHER FUCKIN’ UPDATE: So yeah again… as of January 2016, I’m, uh, kind of not doing this weekly at the moment. Too many 2015 movies to catch up on.

Like I said a couple days ago, I’m planning a weekly feature which resembles 31 Days of Gore, but it’ll be a lot broader in terms of genre choices. Considering I just did well over thirty horror movies in a row, I’ll probably focus on action, science fiction, and fantasy for a while. I won’t be reviewing new movies for Midnight Movies (a title which is subject to change, by the way), and I’ll either choose terrible movies or exploitation films (or both) for this new feature.

I’m actually eager to see this shit again

Any movie I want to talk about which doesn’t fit my idea of a midnight movie will appear no differently than movie reviews often appeared on this site in the past… in other words: sporadically. So if it’s a new release in theaters or on VOD, it will not be featured in Midnight Movies.

Although it’s not written in stone, here’s my current criteria for Midnight Movies:

  • Movies that never quite made the leap from VHS to DVD (such as Sonny Boy)
  • Movies I haven’t seen since I was a kid (such as Masters of the Universe)
  • Movies with high exploitation values (such as Malibu Express)
  • Movies that are unimaginably awful (such as the Anna Nicole Smith vehicle, Skyscraper)
  • Movies oozing pure, unadulterated cheese… my favorite flavor
What this feature will ultimately become is anyone’s guess. I’m not sure I’ll do it every Monday, either. I’m just trying something new. We’ll see how it goes
So why am I finally introducing regular features to this blog after updating it so sporadically for the past few years? The older I get, the more I like regularity in my life. That and I want to experiment a little with this blog’s content.
Once again: Midnight Movie Monday starts November 9th. I imagine it’ll be mostly weekly. Mostly.