“Sonny Boy’s my kid. I made him what he is. And he ain’t no painter.”
A low-rent thief named Weasel (Brad Dourif) accidentally kidnaps a baby when he steals a car. His boss Slue (Paul L. Smith) and transgendered wife Pearl (played by David Carradine with remarkable grace and power, especially considering the type of movie surrounding) decide to raise the child, albeit as a feral instrument of destruction. They keep him in a box with no sunlight. For his 8th birthday, they cut off his tongue. They bring him into town and set him loose on their enemies. He grows up into a murderous naïf, curious and stupefied by the outside world. When the titular Sonny Boy eventually escapes, his adventures bring unwanted attention upon his twisted family.
On paper, this reads like a grimy Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip-off, but writer Graeme Whifler and director Robert Martin Carroll’s film gradually comes together as something altogether stranger than its premise would imply. A large part of that is their decision to play it essentially straight, transforming what could be campy horror into surprisingly affecting melodrama. Their secret is sincerity; no matter how horrific or crazy the events depicted, the creators treat them as real obstacles to these characters’ happiness. This is a film in which multiple people are murdered via cannon, a film in which Brad Dourif gifts his recently severed thumb to the boy who bit it off, a film in which a doctor is discredited due to his use of monkey parts – and it is still enormously affecting.
Sonny Boy is, above all, a film about unconditional love and devotion. Can such a thing exist? Should it? In the case of family, Sonny Boy is faced head on with that question. He was raised by these people, his whole life built by them. But, as he slowly comes to realise, they are definitely not good people, not only to him, but to the entire town they terrorise. Still, Sonny Boy can see the hints of kindness in his family, hidden under all of their grime. To a certain extent, not seeing that good would be a bit existentially damning. The townsfolk’s first reaction to his presence is generally violence and hatred; if he can’t find the humanity of his parents hiding beneath a frightening exterior, why should he expect society to do the same for him? Whifler and Carroll’s answer to these questions paints an ugly, bitter picture of their worldview, but one not without hope.
The surprisingly poignant core is helped immeasurably by the performances and musical score. Everyone here is incredible, especially the aforementioned Carradine, and Michael Boston, who brings a pretty-boy soulfulness to the mute Sonny Boy. Composer Carlo Cordio (who also scored Troll 2, so I don’t know what’s happening) fills the soundtrack with lilting harmonicas, his score seemingly pulled from some lost Western decades before, a cheesy melody that cuts straight through the insanity.
And that’s saying nothing of the theme song, sung by Carradine himself. A wistful country ballad about a futile search for a place where he doesn’t have to cry anymore. Listen as he sings, “Maybe there’s gold at the end of this rainbow/and maybe it’s just pain/and maybe it ain’t”
That’s sincerity if ever I heard it, and that sincerity is as sad as hell.