Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blue Sunshine (Ellanby Films, Cinema Shares International, Warner Bros., 1978)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Blue Sunshine, a 1978 production of something called Ellanby Films, released by Warner Bros. and a company called Cinema Shares International, written and directed by Jeff Lieberman and the pioneer in the genre later popularized by Alex Cox’s Repo Man and other more recent films: the deliberately obscure thriller in which the protagonists are people living on the edge either of society or of sanity, usually (as here) through their drug use. The film opens with a beautiful blue shot of a full moon filling the left side of the screen while the right side gives the credits in light blue lettering against the night sky. We periodically cut away from the credits to be introduced to some of the central characters, including Dr. David Blume (Robert Walden); who’s about to do an operation on an elderly and obese woman who’s understandably worried about it; Wendy Flemming (Ann Cooper), ex-wife of Congressional candidate Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard) — a 1960’s student radical who’s now decided to work within the system for change — and our protagonist, Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King, who later became a director himself and specialized in similarly edgy, obscure, drug-soaked thrillers), who’s at a party when one of the guests suddenly freaks out, it’s revealed that he’s been wearing a wig to cover up his near-total baldness (just a few remaining streaks of hair still cling to his scalp), and he ends up throwing three female guests into the fireplace and killing them in an especially cruel and frightening manner. Jerry tries to stop him but fails; he gives chase and the homicidal maniac is finally run over by two men in a truck; he has a final blast of energy and sits up but then collapses again and dies. Jerry is suspected of killing all these people and so he’s in the position of a classic Hitchcock hero, fleeing the police and realizing that the only way to get them off his back is to solve the crime himself.

Through a series of edgy confrontations with the other people involved, he realizes that other people — including a father in Glendale who went berserk and slaughtered his entire family, then killed himself, and whose photo appears on the cover of a tabloid and reveals he went bald before he committed the murders — are also freaking out and similarly becoming homicidal, and eventually he realizes everyone involved went to Stanford University a decade earlier and took an especially potent form of LSD called “Blue Sunshine.” Users who did enough “Blue Sunshine” ended up with their chromosomes permanently rearranged (in the late 1960’s the government put out propaganda claiming that LSD could cause chromosomal abnormalities and this had the desired effect of discouraging a lot of people from using it; later, other studies disconfirmed this) so that, as a delayed reaction a decade later, they would first lose their hair and then become homicidal. Jerry catches Wendy as she yields to her Blue Sunshine flashback while babysitting her neighbor’s kids in her apartment; he saves the kids but in the process of fighting back against the super-powerful Wendy, throws her off the balcony of her apartment to her death — and thereby creates one more corpse the authorities suspect him of killing. Among the people Jerry confronts about all this is Ed Flemming, who in college was a drug dealer and sold the lethal “Blue Sunshine,” though he himself never took any of it because “with acid, you never knew what you were getting” (which of course is true of all illegal drugs, then and now!). Jerry learns that Wayne Mulligan (Ray Young), the head of security for Flemming’s campaign, was an ex-football player at Stanford who was always asking for hits of Blue Sunshine, and he obligingly goes ballistic in a final climax, held at a Flemming event inside a disco (according to director Lieberman, the Ramones and other New York punk bands would show the final scene during their live shows because depicting a homicidal maniac attacking people inside a disco fit in with the punks’ anti-disco stance) in which his supporters flee the room in fear of their lives, and Jerry finally brings down Mulligan with an air gun armed with a tranquilizer dart Jerry prepared from drugs supplied him by Dr. Blume — who earlier accidentally killed his surgery patient while experiencing his own Blue Sunshine flashback.

Blue Sunshine was a cheap movie (the budget has been estimated at $550,000, which was a professional-level production budget for 1978 but not a major-studio one), shot in five weeks (though real “B”-meisters like Nick Grindé, William Beaudine, William Nigh and Roger Corman frequently shot their movies in five days!) and suffering from cheap effects work — the “bodies” allegedy being burned in the fire in the opening look like the dummies they no doubt were, and the artificial pates worn by the actors playing bald (or nearly bald) Blue Sunshine victims are singularly unconvincing — but it’s a haunting film and a quite memorable one, effectively scored by Billy Jackson, Wayne Ferguson and Paul Griffin (who collectively called themselves “The Humane Society for the Preservation of Good Music”!) and with a tough, no-nonsense performance by Zalman King in the central role. The rest of the acting varies; Ann Cooper is hauntingly beautiful and delineates her character well, Mark Goddard is superb at the smarminess his opportunistic politician character shows (ironically we were watching this on December 14, given in the script as the date of the special election in which Ed Flemming is running for Congress on, from what we hear of his speeches, a vaguely progressive platform) and the veteran Alice Ghostley is marvelous in the role of the neighbor of the Glendale man (a police officer) who slaughtered his whole family under the influence of a Blue Sunshine flashback — but some of the other performers, especially the women killed early on, have first-day-of-acting-class monotones and Deborah Winters in the thankless part of Jerry’s girlfriend does the best she can with an underwritten role. (Her most chilling moments come when she’s trying to use Wayne Mulligan’s obvious — and unrequited — interest in her to extract information from him, and we know — though she doesn’t — that he’s way too dangerous for her to be playing that game with him.) I remember watching Blue Sunshine fairly often in the early 1980’s, when it was played a lot by KTLA Channel 5 in L.A. in the wee hours of the morning — and I suspect a lot of aspiring directors watched it then and were influenced by it when they started making films themselves. Ironically, my only TV then was black-and-white and last night was the first time I’d seen this film in color! Charles described it early on as “a George Romero movie with bits of The Prisoner” — and the Blue Sunshine victims, though far less numerous and not clumping together, do look more than a bit like Romero’s zombies — and he was clearly less taken with it than I was because he’s long since seen all the films that got their aesthetic from it, whereas I saw Blue Sunshine before those other films were made and, indeed, the first time I saw Repo Man I thought, “Cool! Somebody else made a movie like Blue Sunshine!”