Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I dunno man, I took the BLUE SUNSHINE and I feel fine...

It doesn't really have all its marbles together but Blue Sunshine (1978) provides an interesting amalgam of low-rent mid-70s horror filmmaking that's roughly comparable to the slew of early 70s artsy gut-punch horror shows coming out of NYC, Toronto, and Pittsburgh--De Palma's Sisters, Romero's The Crazies, Cronenberg's Rabid, Cohen's God Told Me To-all touched by Taxi Driver-like nods to the conspiracy thriller and a Big Chill-style alumni "what happened to the dream we all shared at Stanford ten years ago, when we all dropped this weird acid called Blue Sunshine made by our chemist friend who's now running for political office?" cross section of compromised idealists. They all start wigging out, and it turns out they've lost their hair and been wearing wigs and barely keeping it together - any little wig slip--figurative or literal--can send them over the homicidal edge, all right around the ten year-mark of their trip. Dude, that Blue Sunshine's flashback kick is prcises as a Quartz watch.

Perma-scowler Zalman King must have been the 'guide' of the bunch ten year ago, or the conscientious objector who didn't want to pollute his chromosomes, so he's the only one not turning homicidal and bald ten years after basking in the 'blue.' He nonetheless takes it on himself to run around stopping it all, anyway, single-handed. That means looking guilty holding the knife he took from his assailant before she fell to her death after he barged in on her and started yelling, etc. Rather than stick around and explain to the cops, King just presumes they won't believe him so runs off one to singlehandedly save the next acid casualty (and indirectly hasten their end). He didn't cook it up, or sell it, or even take it. He had nothing to do with it. He's just a narcissist martyr who wouldn't share a chance to be the hunted Hitchcockian hero in a million years. To most temporarily sane viewers, no matter how much acid they've done, he's only slightly more irrational and wacko than the baldheads he visits. Oh Zalman King, your self-righteous scowl is so unrelenting you make Jason Patric seem like Harpo Marx!

Like its leading character, Sunshine can never figure out where it wants to go or how it can help (it's not like he's got a bag of Thorazine with him). It lacks the nerve to take two tabs and go off the deep end like everyone else, it mopes on the sidelines and 'misses the party' at which Hitchcockophiliac De Palma, STD clinician Cronenberg, downtown paranoiac Cohen and blue collar Swift Romero lost their minds. So while those dudes broke new cinema ground and flew into cult immortality, and today have a body of work still trenchant and discussed, director Jeff Lieberman was left behind, the late arrival to the acid test, too nervous to follow them into the deep end, preferring to dabble in a little bit of each of their areas, to finish the drinks they left behind and hang in the back, feigning interest in the bookshelf.

That's a problem because we can tell Liberman has seen The 39 Steps but considering he's making a movie about the effects of LSD, has Lieberman even ever done any? The only person you know for sure did some in the whole film is Leon the replicant (below) and the guy in the poster at top. Star Zalman King on the far other end of the spectrum, is such a wearingly sober Sean Penn-ish scowler he makes us annoyed. Perhaps King annoyed Lieberman too, as the film seems to dryly mock his martyrish spotlight hog (he was probably directing all his own close-ups and milking lines for every last ounce of method interiority).

"wake up, time to fly!"
Meth, I hear you callin'
The plot is set in motion when--at a druggy all-night party--a guy is revealed to be bald and wearing a wig. When the wig comes off he gets mad and kills three women! Well, who wouldn't? He's hit by a car after King takes it on himself to chase after him, and then King takes it on himself to run like an outlaw, presuming in his self-centered martyrdom that the cops will automatically suspect him of the murders. He never deigns to clarify why it's so important he finds out who took the blue acid ten years ago at Stanford. Apparently the guy who made was a kind of local Tim Leary, but he's now a Mitt Romney running for office, which is as unlikely a transformation as you're liable to find with a budget this low. Still, the murderous freak-outs are pretty hilarious, with the killers apparently perfectly normal, if a little stressed and sleepless, until someone rips off their wig and exposes them as bald and they go apeshit with superhuman strength.

As for the rest of the cast: Deborah Winters is cute and alert as the girlfriend who King uses for odd jobs and leaves in the dust of parking lots when he's going to go talk to a witness or whomever. She seems ready to be beamed up into a better film, and deserves a much cooler leading man. She's sassy, sweet, and able to manipulate big dudes into her sway. As one of the alums who took the sunshine, Adriana Shaw (above and below) looks just like my old college girlfriend (more than ten years ago--uh oh) and gets the scariest scene when, in her blazing red bathrobe one morning, she finally snaps and attacks some neighbor's kids she's minding who are being too loud watching cartoons in her living room. The blocking is a little clumsy but it's great to see a director other than Spielberg dare to play the sweet childocide card. To paraphrase William Carlos Williams, so much depends / on a bald lady in a red bathrobe / with a butcher knife / chasing small children.

My doctor added Abilify
While I expected more from a film named after a brand of blotter acid, there are various points where it almost all comes together, like it's a few feet shy of 39 Steps... let's say 22 Steps. It never, if you'll forgive the expression, gels. Still, I'm glad it's around, in the freezer, waiting for just the right time to blow the world's mind or at least divert it for a hair (if you'll forgive the expression). Just don't invite old sullen, sulky, self-righteous Zalman King to the party, at least not until he gets his Red Shoes laced. He's apt to come at you with some elaborate long-ago disproved factoid about the drugs you're doing, and then try to get you to go to rehab, or refuse to let you drive yourself home, even though you only had one drink, ten years ago.

May also induce scowlingitis


  1. Heh. To find a reference to that poem about the white chickens in a review of Blue Sunshine is pretty trippy.

  2. Awesome review. Such an odd movie.


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