Tuesday 13 August 2019

The Question in Bodies #25: Blue Sunshine (1977)

It's been a while since I've done a cheap, fun 1970s exploitation movie, and recently I was reminded of the existence of Blue Sunshine, which is one of those movies with a mild but attractive infamy in film buff circles, one of those legitimate minor cult films, in the category of Lemora, or Liquid Sky, or Carnival of Souls, or Let's Scare Jessica to Death.

Jeff Lieberman's Blue Sunshine is one of those quirky little low-rent shockers you find from time to time, the sort that I enjoy watching far more than any number of “good” movies. Let's take a look at it.

Under a blue moon, we see a number of brief vignettes: a doctor checking on a patient, is told by the woman that he looks terrible, and she asks if he's going to cut her and she asks if he's going to cut her again and he bugs out a bit at that. A babysitter is reading about Rapunzel to a couple of kids, only she's stressed and headache, and the little girl she's looking at takes a tug at her hair and a big clump comes out, and she bugs out at that. A cop's wife confides on a friend that he's been losing his hair and acting strangely. And then he turns up and looks a bit mad, and there’s something very, very wrong here.

The plot proper starts when we meet Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King), who's hanging out with his pals one evening when one of them, Frannie (Richard Crystal) suddenly, abruptly goes a bit weird. His wig falls off, revealing him to be almost completely bald, and he charges out of the house, screaming. The men go looking for him, only Frannie comes back and murders three of the women. Jerry gets back to find the carnage. There's a scuffle and a pursuit; chased by Jerry, Frannie gets hit by a truck, the truck driver sees enough to blame Jerry for all the deaths, and Jerry goes on the run. Jerry, helped by Alicia (Deborah Winters), who also witnessed Frannie's rampage, tries to clear his name. The clue comes when he reads a news story about the cop who went bald and murdered his family before committing suicide. Doing some realistically inept detective work, Jerry manages to piece together that both men had been in the same year at Stanford ten years before – the Summer of Love, right? – and they'd both had contact back then with a strain of acid called Blue Sunshine. Jerry's pal David Blume (Robert Walden), the strung-out hospital doctor from the prologue, leads him to Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard), once a hippie dealer, now a populist politician in the middle of a run for Congress and consequently not willing to talk about it. Eventually, after fatal encounters that make it look more and more like he's a mass murderer, Jerry manages to bring down Flemming's bodyguard and fellow alumnus Wayne (Ray Young), also gone bald, bug eyed and stabby, with an animal dart gun, loaded with a tranquilliser dart David has prepared, and a conscious adoption of sensible gun practice. The film ends with a card saying that Wayne has some sort of genetic complaint caused by the drug and that there's about 250 former users of Blue Sunshine out there who haven't been located.

Blue Sunshine is a terribly interesting film, and also an interestingly terrible one. This is not a criticism in any way: it falls neatly into that glorious category of movies that are in no way good but which are also sort of brilliant.

Jerry Zipkin is an awful person, shouty and self-justifying (although also, weirdly, he's called out for being a bit of an activist – a cop says he once quit a job because they didn't hire enough women, so the intended message is at least that his heart is in the right place). He's also a bit of an idiot, and has an unintentionally hilarious habit of winding up stood next to a corpse holding a murder weapon when someone walks into the room, whereupon his main defense is to yell “I didn’t do it!” and run away, and that's OK, because frankly I want my horror protagonists stupid and, you know, not aware they're in a horror film.
When Flemming's ex-wife Wendy (Ann Cooper), the babysitter from the prologue, finally wigs out (yes I went there, and I'm not sorry), it supplies the best-known images of the film. But it also gives us a scene where she goes after the kids in her care with a carving knife that has, although it is supposed to be nerve-wracking, very little peril, because it's filmed in a tiny, cramped apartment and the child actors are quite little and are treating it like a pretend game, so Cooper has to move very slowly to avoid catching them before she's stopped. Meanwhile, Jerry is on his way back up to the flat, and he's in the lift and so the scene of Wendy menacing the kids is intercut with him waiting patiently while listening to lift music, smiling at a dog, holding the door for a little old lady and so on, which is supposed to ramp up the tension but just makes the whole thing sort of funny.

My favourite bit, though, is when David Blume reveals that he sold the stuff but never took it. He's just losing his hair and going boss-eyed with barely hidden rage because he's in the medical profession, and that's what working in a hospital does to you, which comes across as a bitterly amusing plus ├ža change conceit in 2019.
The central conceit, that taking the wrong sort of acid might ten years later give you alopecia universalis, only not the usual kind, the psychopathic rampage kind, is sort of absurd, but it's the right sort of absurd, the sort of absurd that some people do actually believe, and a lot of people sort of feel a bit unsteady about. It's the central conceit of a whole, venerable subgenre of Drug Scare Cinema (Reefer Madness, the father of them all, was made as early as 1936!) but has the added frisson of your sins finding you out, of these things coming back to haunt.

Now obviously I'd like to say that in 2019 you couldn't get away with marrying a condition that lots of people in the real world have and struggle with, and being, you know, a horror movie monster, but I've seen at least one new film this year that does exactly that, so I'll just shrug and while I could say something terribly intelligent and a bit patronising about horror movies being an expression of what people find uncanny and responding to it, in the end I'll probably just admit that if you live with alopecia, you're not going to be well represented in this movie. I mean how often do people with alopecia appear in movies and TV at all? There's the British TV presenter Gail Porter who's been bald since her 30s and just carried on broadcasting. And Jeana Turner, who was a runner up in America's Next Top Model in early 2018, and who was encouraged to own it and make it her USP, which I guess is sort of positive?
Huh. Maybe not.

But in fiction, it only seems to come up as a Very Special Sympathy Episode Thing, where we have the Inspiring Story of a Brave Person We Should Probably Feel a Bit Sorry For. And Blue Sunshine.

Blue Sunshine not only has the crazed killers getting alopecia totalis – and Dr Blume calls it that, explicitly – but also carries the strong subtext that any person with alopecia you meet might be a mutant psycho. This is underlined by the caption at the end saying that there's 250 potential bald psychopaths still out there, and there's this scene where Jerry sees bald people on the street who look at him a bit funny and you're supposed to think maybe more Blue Sunshine casualties are out there, and it could be anyone. Anyone with full body alopecia, that is.

People cutting drugs has always been a thing (I very peripherally knew a person, who once, long ago, so I was told long after the fact, offended their dealer and was murdered by being administered an uncut dose of heroin, their own heroin habitually having been cut with sugar). And often the things the drugs are cut with are nastier than the drugs, and while I'm not aware of any agent that gives you alopecia and makes you a spree killer, it is true that years after the fact there's all sorts of things that might crop up. In the 70s, bad acid flashbacks were a thing people talked about.
It's particularly current now in the UK. Up until 2016, British drug laws operated on a sort of whack-a-mole principle. As part of the continuing historical commitment of HM Government to punish poor people, drugs tended to become illegal as and when people noticed them on the street. The loophole this created became an issue in the mid/late 2000s with the increasing popularity of "legal highs", lab-made alternatives, usually but not always artificial cannabinoids. They were legal in the sense they weren't illegal yet, and circumvented laws about unlicensed chemicals by having things like "bath salts" or "plant food" written on the packets next to a "not fit for human consumption" tag. Every time the British Government made one illegal, a new one would seem to pop up, cheaply mass produced and on the counter of the head shop.This has had the interesting side effect of creating a crash in the weed market. The cost of weed, or whatever you want to call it, hasn't risen in line with inflation for over 20 years, and that's made it in some social categories more commonly used than standard shop-bought cigarettes, the price of which has rocketed.

Although the British loophole got closed in 2016 and they're now under a blanket ban here, their illegality is immaterial to the almost frenzied production of new forms of chemical. And these drugs, scare stories aside, have unpredictable effects and side effects, both short and long term, and haven't been around quite long enough to have been the subject of enough sustained research to separate out the myths from the realities. But, like the drug in Blue Sunshine, it's been about ten years since they hit, and watching Blue Sunshine now, as dated as it is, as much as it most definitely takes a side in the hippies vs disco debate, you sort of wonder what sort of ways those various highs might come back to haunt, or, more realistically, how people might expect them to.

In a lot of ways, the present day feels like a painful acid flashback to the 70s. Blue Sunshine, as dated and wobbly as it is, is a grim 70s prediction of our own present-day paranoia.

Want to read more of my film criticism? My Bram Stoker Award nominated compilation We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror is out now!

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