Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Red, White and BLUE SUNSHINE

Zalman King, keeping tabs on things in BLUE SUNSHINE.
In the hairy heyday of 1970s horror, Jeff Lieberman was on the short list of North American names to watch, along with George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven and John Carpenter, among others. These were young, inventive guys, all looking for ways to bend and advance horror in ways comparable to EASY RIDER's embodiment of a quantum leap for the Western. Much as the Western had needed to gain distance from the Old West to become relevant, horror needed to break away from its gothic roots and find a foothold in present day. In many cases, what the new generation of horror directors embraced as a focal point was the distance between what average people were being told by the government and the hard, unvarnished truth.

Of all these creators, Jeff Lieberman is a fascinating case because, while he didn't ultimately have the opportunities nor the cultural impact of those other filmmakers I mentioned, his half-dozen features have held up well. His characters have a human dimension that just seems real, never editorializing as Romero's sometimes do, or mixing up the larger and lesser than life types as Carpenter does; his protagonists are typically mensches who become more than they were as a result of conquering whatever deranged, scary adversity is thrust upon them. Lieberman first gained attention with his debut feature SQUIRM (1976), an independently-made AIP acquisition that lured viewers in with a low-ball concept (killer worms) which it proceeded to trump with some truly unforgettable special makeup effects gags, courtesy of Rick Baker. In retrospect, SQUIRM's burrowing, subcutaneous worm effects looked forward to the metallic tendril attachments of the Flesh Gun in Cronenberg's VIDEODROME (1983).

Though he's made other interesting pictures (for example, 1981's JUST BEFORE DAWN may be the best of all the 1980s horror films about campers roughing it in nature), Lieberman's reputation seems to rest on his sophomore effort, BLUE SUNSHINE (1978), which has now been definitively resurrected in a deluxe Blu-ray/DVD/CD three-disc set from FilmCentrix.

BLUE SUNSHINE immediately asserts its invention with a dazzling credits sequence that shuffles a few tense, seemingly unrelated scenes with shots of an enlarging, blue-tinged full moon and a haunting, Stomu Yamashta-like score by Charles Gross, against which the main titles take their time to unfold. The story that follows ties the initial loose threads together. Zalman King plays Jerry Zipkin, already involved in an obviously passionate relationship with Alicia Sweeney (Deborah Winters) - which, in itself, already subverts the cliché of two characters falling in love as they struggle to survive a nightmare together. While attending a party (where the guests include DARK SHADOWS' James Storm and future BLADE RUNNER star Brion James), Zipkin's best friend Franny (Richard Crystal, the brother of Billy Crystal) suddenly loses all his hair and flees the premises, sending others out in search of him. With only a few young women left behind, Franny returns, eyes fully dilated, to embark on a rampage of murder that ends in his own death.
The dilated eyes of suddenly hairless Frannie Scott (Richard Crystal).
When Zipkin returns to the scene, closely followed by cop Lt. Jennings (Stefan Gierasch), everything he does only serves to make him look more guilty of the three women's murders. Following a remarkable pan shot that dials away from Zipkin's escape by car to the exterior aftermath at the party house, we follow our protagonist on a frankly incredible search for the truth behind what happened to his friend, which eclipses even his more pressing need to clear his name - and only serves to get him into worse and worse trouble.

Jerry Zipkin is innocent, I tell ya!

Remember those scenes in ALIEN with Jones the cat, where the cast would strain credibility by looking for the cat in all the darkest, most forbidding rooms and passages of the spaceship? It's a bit like that with Zipkin. His character arc seems predicated on always doing not just the wrong thing, but the freaking unbelievable thing, to the point where the film could almost pass as a surreal parody of prevailing cinematic clichés. Zipkin returns to the party house and sees the fireplace ablaze with the stacked dead bodies of three women... and he tries to put out the fire by by beating it with a rug. He gets shot and goes to Dr. David Blume (Robert Walden, a particularly fine performance), an old estranged college chum, who treats his wound with a shot and a bandage. In a confrontation with yet another person who suddenly loses all their hair and goes berserk, threatening two small children with a carving knife, Zipkin intervenes and somehow manages to throw her off a balcony to her death. After reading a newspaper story about a similar hairless murder spree of an entire family, Zipkin ventures to the murder house and - offering no better reason than human curiosity - pumps the gabby next-door neighbor (Alice Ghostley) for unreported details - and then proceeds to break into the murder house and suffer a gibbering meltdown over the taped body positions and bloodstains still besmirching the walls and floors. After Zipkin's exploits finally make the front page of the paper, pegging him as a fugitive murder suspect, he returns to his doctor friend and asks for enough powerful sedative to put someone down hard - and gets it delivered to him under a bridge at MacArthur Park! And the reason he gives for being on the run? "I can't go to jail, not even for one day. I'll go bananas!"

Ann Cooper as Wendy Flemming. Is it just me, or is this last shot Hari Krishna zombie imagery?
So it's not particularly logical, but it is a lot of fun - which is apparently what Lieberman intended first and foremost, as he speaks more than once in the disc's extras about the relationship he perceives between horror and comedy. That point aside, the more we find out about what's causing these people to change, the more cause we have to suspect that Zipkin's irrational actions may be indicative of his own pending hair-loss. What he discovers - the truth that he alone is able to extract, using nothing more than his wide-eyed, strangely puppy-dog-like entreaties for answers - is that, ten years earlier, when he and these other people were all students at Stanford University, a strain of LSD called Blue Sunshine was making the rounds - apparently manufactured by a political science major, Ed Flemming (LOST IN SPACE's Mark Goddard), who is presently running for Congress. Zipkin doesn't exactly have a plan about what he intends to do once he obtains this information; I suppose you could say "At least he's not just standing around, he's out there doing something" - but one of the most haunting qualities about BLUE SUNSHINE (and the SPOILER-sensitive may want to look away for the remainder of this paragraph) is that Zipkin's campaign ultimately doesn't make any difference. The closest thing the film has to a genuine hero, Lt. Jennings, is left unconscious in a men's room and dragged to a chair by Alicia. That's the last time we see Alicia, too. Flemming is never exposed or held accountable for producing and distributing this drug that, as he had no way of knowing, would turn people into murderous time bombs with a ten-year delay. The people who used the drug in college gradually lose their hair and pay the piper. As for Zipkin, we last see him on his knees, beside Blue Sunshine's latest victim. A couple of captioned screens detail the fates of a secondary character or two, but in the end, we are never told if  "Zippy" was ever able to clear his good, if silly, name.

If this sounds like the film fumbled its game, not so - because when BLUE SUNSHINE ends, we are left feeling as though a much bigger, more involuted story is just beginning, and that is a wonderful and rare jolt to the imagination. And for a film longer than 90 minutes to leave the viewer feeling like the whole crazy ride has passed in half that time, like a preamble to much bigger game? Well, that's a remarkable achievement in itself.

Mark Goddard as Ed Flemming - America's Past, Present and Future.
In the audio commentary and other extras included in this set, Lieberman recalls that his inspiration for this film came from seeking a tongue-in-cheek analogy that he could apply to government-issued anti-drug warnings, much in the way that three-eyed monsters were proposed in 1950s films like Roger Corman's DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1956) as a likely result of atomic radiation. It seems to me that he would have reached the same creative conclusion had he started out, more seriously, to write a horror film analogy of the "acid flashback" - or even the film noir concept that our past has a way of catching up with all of us. All of these apply to the film, with Lieberman's tongue-in-cheek analogy offering the best explanation of various narrative decisions it makes. But I feel it would be a mistake to overlook what the film seems to present to us in all seriousness, namely its Bicentennial America setting (one shot dotes on a sign congratulating America on its 200th birthday) and the backstory of Ed Flemming's running for Congress, which strongly recalls Charles Palantine's race for the US Senate as a background to Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976). What BLUE SUNSHINE specifically addresses in this area is how the quintessentially American mythology of the self-made man, so central to American political mythologies since the days of Lincoln, is a self-serving lie - that political success is dependent on the containment and rewarding of lies and kept secrets. Just as Flemming's political career is rooted in outlaw activities and even human casualties, all sacrificed to his personal enrichment and a bullshit idea of personal freedom, so were the political careers of our nation's forefathers fundamentally rooted in crimes against others, ie., genocide committed in the name of their freedom from tyranny. It doesn't matter how conscious these ideas may have been to Lieberman; what matters is that they were so inherent in the political and yuppie milieux he chose for his story, there was no way they could be avoided. (The first monster in the film is named Frannie Scott - shades of Francis Scott Key!) BLUE SUNSHINE didn't surface till a couple of years after the American Bicentennial but, to the best of my recollection, it's the only horror film of that festive occasion to go beyond, say, Altman's NASHVILLE and summon the darker resonance of US history and politics and their obscene commercialization. In other words, it couldn't have resurfaced at a better time. (Flemming's campaign slogan is, appropriately, "Here Is The Future.")

Though the subtext is there, BLUE SUNSHINE is first and foremost a fun ride. At one point, Zipkin notices a bald man reading a newspaper and does a double take - allowing the eagle-eyed among us to notice that the page is open to a double-bill advertisement for SQUIRM and TENDER FLESH. And if the commercialization of politics and the consequences of our actions are the main meat of the story, an accident of scheduling caused the story to culminate in a department store during the Christmas season, which not only drives home another message about commercialization, but genuinely anticipates the milieu of Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979) - a film that actually cops a scare from BLUE SUNSHINE involving the sudden appearance of a bald mannequin. 

Earlier I mentioned the human dimension of Lieberman's films, and you won't find better examples of this than in BLUE SUNSHINE. In scenes of kitchen talk involving two neighboring women (Ann Cooper and Barbara Quinn), Lieberman's writing shows a real knack for knowing how women really talk and look out for one another, taking on a share of each others' responsibilties. Likewise, though we never see Zipkin and Alicia in a romantic situation, Zalman King and Deborah Winters use their few scenes together to convey what the story doesn't share of their relationship through a palpable hunger for each others' physicality. It's this that also helps to sell the extremes that Alicia must endure to try to establish "Zippy's" innocence.

Deborah Winters and Ray Young in BLUE SUNSHINE's famous "Disco Sucks!" sequence.

The FilmCentrix DVD-9 Region A disc presents a 4K transfer of the film's original camera negative, which was recovered only a few years ago after decades mislaid. It's very pretty, and the audio is offered in a choice of DTS-HD 2.0 or 5.1 (tastefully done with select surround sound effects). There is an audio commentary by Lieberman - unfortunately, it's 15 seconds out of sync, so that the frequently referenced shots are never onscreen as they are being pointed out or discussed. It's moderated by someone I presume to be Elijah Drenner, though his name is clipped off the beginning of the track.  Some of the same ground is covered in video interview material also included (mostly contemporary, though there is also a 12-minute Mick Garris interview of Lieberman dating from just after BLUE SUNSHINE), but Lieberman is a very entertaining, down-to-earth and candid subject. Other extras include an 8-minute select scene commentary by Mark Goddard, a visit (or attempted visit) to original locations, trailers, on-camera interviews with script supervisor Sandy King and actors Robert Walden and Richard Crystal, an image gallery, and a spate of vintage LSD scare films.

Tucked inside the snapcase is a bevy of other bonuses, including a 28-page booklet of liner notes by Steven Morowitz, Nicholas McCarthy and Mark J. Banville, an Ed Flemming for Congress bookmark, a small replica of David Blume's BS Diploma from Stanford - backed with a repro of Movielab's original color analysis of the film, a reduced reproduction of a TV syndication brochure, and - for the daring among us - a blotter consisting of eight tabs of Blue Sunshine - presumably from the 255 doses reportedly "still unaccounted for."

Don't say you weren't warned.   

(c) 2016 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved by the author.