Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Blue Sunshine (1978)

**There are going to be SPOILERS ahead**

One night at an intimate party, pro-am crooner (actually, he’s a photographer) Frannie (Richard Crystal) is revealed as being almost totally bald (with some scraggly clumps left for creepiness).  Suddenly fueled by bug-eyed rage (and looking like a cross between Kevin McDonald of The Kids In The Hall and Peter Bark of Burial Ground: The Nights Of Terror, both of whom, frankly, if you told me they were the same person, I would believe you), he winds up killing three women by fireplace immolation before being thrown in front of a truck by our improbable protagonist Jerry (future softcore bigwig Zalman King).  Suddenly finding himself on the run, Jerry and his honeybunch Alicia (Deborah Winters) try to get to the bottom of what’s going on while leisurely avoiding quasi-intrepid copper Lt. Clay (Charles Siebert).

The first and most prominent theme at work in Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine is one of pasts, of skeletons in closets.  We all have stupid things we did when we were young.  For some they were just goofy, kid-type things.  For others they were strikingly disturbing and even downright heinous.  It doesn’t matter.  The point is these are things we would rather forget about and have (usually) moved past.  When they arise again, they are both embarrassing and potentially threatening.  After all, we are not the same people we were then, and for as much as we grow and change over time, much of our world is shaped by what people think of us in the here and now.  For them to discover the unexpected of us is an obstacle, possibly an insurmountable one.  So we have Jerry’s pal Dr. Blume (Robert Walden) who dealt drugs to pay for college (this is referenced later on as well, when a junkie mistakes him for a pusher, even though he is, in fact, there to pass something off to Jerry…drugs).  We have politician Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard) who was also a big drug source in college.  Frannie dropped acid in the past, though that’s really his only transgression as far as we’re told.  Ed’s estranged wife Wendy (Ann Cooper) did the same, though for her to admit as much would ruin Ed’s future (this was the Seventies, not the Nineties).  Plus, the fact that their marriage is broken adds to this sense of shame.  We’ve all heard about people having acid flashbacks, sometimes years after taking the drug.  The brilliance of this story is that these flashbacks take concrete form in the present.  This sin of the past manifests itself in horrific terms.

In that respect, we have the idea of movement within social strata for the characters.  They were in college around 1968, the height of the hippie era.  They were free thinkers.  They were radicals.  They experimented in all manner of ways, searching for some truth of themselves and some path to a better world (I’m sure there were those more selfish, to boot).  We see a couple of pictures of Ed that Frannie took back in the day.  One has him shirtless before a field of swimming colors, the poster boy for turning on, tuning in, and dropping out (which he naturally did not do himself).  The other has him dressed as Uncle Sam giving the middle finger.  Clearly, they were the counterculture, the outsiders who wanted to shake things up, to rebel.  In the present (and only a scant ten years later on), you have Blume, who is a successful and skilled surgeon.  You have Frannie, who is apparently still a photographer but has traded his tie dye for a tweed blazer, his ripple for chardonnay.  Of course, the one who has apparently changed the most is Ed.  He has gone from flipping the bird to the Man to being the Man.  He has become the establishment he used to defy.  Intriguingly, it brings up the question of whether they were ever earnest in their earlier beliefs, or was it just something to do at the time, a phase, and how much did they actually struggle with their decisions to change?  Or was it more insidious?  Did these changes occur in small increments, like the proverbial longest journey, with the end being reached after putting one foot in front of the other only to understand the full extent of the distance covered by looking back at the road traveled?  

Further than this, it brings up the concept of the monster within.  These characters are all seemingly nice people in their day-to-day lives.  They smile, they are kind to people, they have friends.  When they go bald, they are filled with uncontrollable fury, their minds (and therefore their bodies) are no longer their own.  But everyone has a dark aspect to them, and here they are turned up to eleven and unleashed.  This loss of restraint symbolizes a loss of self.  This is reinforced by the physical characteristics of these flights of fury.  The victims get intense headaches.  They are blocked from thinking their own thoughts anymore.  They have a hyper-sensitivity to sound.  They are blocked from hearing the thoughts of others.  They are isolated and removed from the world, exterior and interior.  The baldness constitutes uniformity and conformity.  They all look the same.  No blonds, no brunettes, no redheads.  Just bug-eyed baldies hellbent on destruction.

You may have noticed that I have not talked much about King or his character Jerry.  There are reasons for this.  Number one, the man is not a good actor.  His skills veer toward the overwrought end of the thespian spectrum.  Further he manages to bring a level of blandness to his character that can almost be felt physically.  With that in mind, the script doesn’t really pay him much attention anyway, except in his role as an expositional machine.  He strolls up to people (including the poorly used [though that’s not saying much here] Alice Ghostley, whom I like to think of as the female Paul Lynde), gives them no information about himself, and asks wildly intrusive questions.  And these people answer them, as if this is perfectly normal.  When he does engage in any sort of action, it is strictly because the film has been sagging in the pacing department (probably fat from all the nigh-endless talking).  This is the only reason we even have the character of Lt. Clay, and even he feels like he is simply thrown in to remind us that Jerry is on the lam.  Speaking of which, for a man supposedly wanted for murder, Jerry makes absolutely no bones about showing his rather distinctive face in public all over the place.  And no one ever recognizes him.  Add to that the fact that this entire story could likely have been cleared up (or at least put on the fast track to resolution) by the eyewitnesses who saw Frannie snap a band, essentially constituting an Idiot Plot.  But then we wouldn’t have the mystery of Blue Sunshine to delve into, which is neither played up for its deeper implications nor resolved in a satisfactory manner (it wasn’t for me, at any rate).  It aims strictly for the middle in everything (except King’s acting). This is the second time I have watched this film.  The first go round, I thought it was pretty good.  I have to say, however, that on second watch it really doesn’t hold up, even under light scrutiny.  If I were to recommend a Lieberman film to someone, I have to say it would be Squirm, not this.

MVT:  The premise is compelling, and there are tons of ways it could have been explored, layers that could easily have been added through allusion alone.  None of this comes to pass, unfortunately.  I think this film is one of those ripe for a remake by someone who can take the core conceit and expand it logically (think: John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly).

Make Or Break:  The Break is the scene where Jerry interrogates Wendy.  The unlikelihood of Jerry being let into her pad at all is tough to take.  What makes it worse are the ways the filmmakers utilize to drag out the inevitable conflict in an effort to build tension.  It just doesn’t work, and none of this is helped by the fact that we’ve seen very similar scenes in the movie a few times already.

Score:  5.5/10         

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