Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Director Report Card: Jeff Lieberman (1977)

2. Blue Sunshine

Here's how Jeff Lieberman tells it, on some special feature somewhere. After the release of “Squirm,” his father died. Lieberman chose to handle his grief by throwing himself into his work. Out of this creative rush emerged “Blue Sunshine.” The project was filmed in 1976, immediately after “Squrim.” It wouldn't be released into theaters until 1978. It seems “Blue Sunshine” would reach its widest audience as a late night movie in the eighties, even being showcased on Elvira's “Movie Macabre.” The film's cult following has only grown since then and it's often regarded as one of Lieberman's best movies.

It's Christmas time on the West Coast. Jerry “Zippy” Zipkin joins some friends for a holiday party, including his girlfriend Alicia. In the middle of the party, a friend suddenly looses all his hair and flees, staring wide-eyed. He later returns and murders three women, throwing their bodies in the fireplace. Jerry, the only other person present, is blamed for the crimes. Jerry goes on the run and soon discovers that there have been similar incidents, of people going bald and becoming violent. He discovers all the attackers went to college together. Back in the sixties, they were all sold a strain of acid called Blue Sunshine by Edward Flemming, who is now running for senate.

By the late seventies, it was apparent that the idealism of the hippy movement was not going to change the world. Few films, however, address this idea as head-on as “Blue Sunshine.” Most of the character's were idealistic college students, hippies and stoners, part of the changing cultural tide in the late sixties. A decade later, they've moved into the same stale suburban communities they came from, locked in loveless marriages. Eddie Flemming, once an acid head, has become the biggest sell-out of all: A politician. And now, acid flashbacks are making the former hippies into killers and madmen. Lieberman literializes the peace-and-love era curdling into an uglier cynicism by having it return as something brutal and evil.

Then again, maybe the kids are just getting old. Those affected by Blue Sunshine going bald, foreshadowed by shots of the round and pale moon in the opening credits, is not just a memorable visual. Flemming's ex-wife is so stressed out, by the divorce and her best friend's rowdy kids, that she's losing her hair. One of the murderers believes his wife is cheating on him. The idealism of youth making way for petty, adult concerns is not a phenomenon exclusive to the baby boomers. It's simply a factor of growing up and getting old. Losing your hair is also something that happens to some people as they age, as Jerry's doctor friend discovers. So the main symptom of the deadly acid flashbacks is also symbolic of growing old, and facing death, in general.

Jeff Lieberman doesn't just wrap these ideas up in the horror/thriller genre. “Blue Sunshine” belongs to an even more specific style of story: The Wrong Man thriller so popularized by Alfred Hitchcock. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time causes the authorities to suspect Jerry is a murderer. However, this decision is probably the least interesting thing about “Blue Sunshine.” The detective subplot never really goes anywhere and is bluntly disposed of in the last act. Being on the run from the cops never prevents Jerry from contacting his girlfriend and pals when he needs to. The man-on-the-run plot gets more unlikely as the film goes on. Before “Blue Sunshine” is over, Jerry is mistaken for another murder by bad timing. Lieberman also throws in a very silly and utterly superfluous car chase.

As a horror movie, “Blue Sunshine” makes good use of a slow building type of tension, the audience never being entirely sure when one of the former acid heads may go nuts. This is most apparent in two sequences. The first of which occurs when Jerry spies on David, his doctor friend, in the operating room. He watches David grow more agitated, being handed different sharp implements, the audience wandering if he'll snap. (This recalls a similar scene in Cronenberg's “Rabid,” which was probably filmed around the same time.) He doesn't but the inevitable happens later on. As Jerry leaves the apartment of Fleming's ex-wife, the clearly distressed woman collapses on a table. She pulls her hair off, grabs a butcher knife, and goes after the two kids. This is cut with Jerry riding the elevator up and down, realizing he needs to head back up there. Both sequences are expertly directed and editing, creating a decent bit of suspense.

There are other scenes in “Blue Sunshine” that go more for the throat, in various brutal ways. We do not see the police officer murder his wife and kids. Instead, Jerry visits the home. He wanders from room to room, seeing the outlines of their corpses on the floor and the lingering blood splatters. As he looks over the crime scene, we hear the sounds of violence: the barking dog, the screaming kids, the yelling lunatic. Which makes the violence far more disturbing than just depicting it on-screen probably would've been. Most of the transformations, from normal person to murderer, happens gradually. At least once, it happens suddenly, a victim being slammed into the wall violently. These moments make an impact.

As effective as “Squirm” was, it was also deeply hampered by its goofy premise. “Blue Sunshine” is much less silly than “Squirm.” However, the director still miscalculates a few moments. There's that aforementioned car chase, which feels amusingly out-of-place. The very first attack scene potentially produces some chuckles. A man having his hair yanked off and fleeing into the night is kind of funny. The same guy returning to the house, starring wide-eyed and deranged, comes off as kind of silly too. The attack sequence involving the kids is undermined at the last minute by the funny image of a woman, dressed only in a robe and panties, being tossed over an apartment balcony in an especially awkward fashion.

Lieberman clearly learned a lot between his debut and his follow-up feature but he still had a ways to go. You can see this conflict in “Blue Sunshine's” final act. Fleming's burly bodyguard finally falls under the effects of Blue Sunshine. He rampages through a disco and a shopping mall. These images presents further commentary on seventies materialism, re-contextualizing the excesses of the dance club and the shopping mall as a location for horror. Lieberman also builds some decent suspense as Jerry is stalked through the store. However, there's also some weird goofy scenes here. Like songs being performed by weird ventriloquist puppets. Or the film's final villain being dismissed in such a blunt, sudden way.

Aside from being a memorably offbeat seventies horror flick, “Blue Sunshine” is also notable for something else. It's a starring role for Zalman King. A character actor in the sixties and seventies, King would later reinvent himself as a highly successful producer of softcore porn. It's a little odd to see a man best known for creating “9½ Weeks,” “Two Moon Junction,” “Wild Orchid,” and “Red Shoe Diaries” starring in a movie. As a leading man, King is certainly unconventional. He has a sweaty and wild appearance. He overdoes it in a few scenes, like when imagining beating up one of the bald men. However, King is at least a likable enough actor that the audience doesn't mind following him on this adventure.

Zalman King is supported by a decent cast too. Deborah Winters is also likable as Alicia, Jerry's girlfriend and main companion on his journey. She's at her most charming when leading on the detective investigating the case. As would-be senator Fleming, Mark Goddard is perfectly insincere, hiding his greedy ways and criminal past behind a glad-handing smile. Robert Walden gets a few laughs as David, Jerry's stressed-out but sympathetic doctor friend. He also has decent chemistry with Zalman, making his scenes a highlight. Lastly, Ray Young is appropriately intimidating as Wayne, the jock-turned-bodyguard that becomes the film's main antagonist in its last act. 

A big reason “Blue Sunshine” works as well as it does it Lieberman's direction. Once again, the filmmaker smartly works with the few resources he has. “Blue Sunshine” is mostly well directed and well edited, making the suspense sequences land successfully. Lieberman establishes an eeriness early on, with those opening shots of the full moon. Helping along that unnerving atmosphere is Charles Gross' spooky electronic score. Gross lays on the shrieking synth a little too much in later scenes but, in the earlier moments, the quiet melodies are genuinely creepy.

“Blue Sunshine” got some decent notices upon release in 1978. Notably, the film got written up in the Village Voice, who incorrectly believed the movie was claiming to be based on a true story. After playing theaters, TV showings would grant the movie a cult following of sorts. It seems to me the movie kind of disappeared after that. I had never heard of “Blue Sunshine” until it was re-released on DVD in 2003. Since then, the film's cult following has only grown. It even got a 4K restoration recently! While still having a few problems, “Blue Sunshine” shows Jeff Lieberman's skills improving considerably in his second feature. [Grade: B+]

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