Weird is a very comfortable word in Jeff Lieberman’s lexicon. From the night crawler nastiness of Squirm (1976) to his mountaintop massacre Just Before Dawn (1981), his films are always a little left of the norm and all the better for it. And in between those two, he decided to take a run at a paranoia thriller nursing a major ‘60s hangover, pulsating with psychotic, Kojakian ex hippies. Welcome to Blue Sunshine (1978), a film more potent than the brown acid your great uncle said he took at Woodstock. (Although he probably wasn’t even there.)
Released Stateside in May (after a stop across the pond at the BFI the previous November) by Cinema Shares International (the fine folks behind Soul Brothers of Kung Fu), Blue Sunshine’s limited run and puzzled looks from critics saw it quickly fade away into cultdom, where it resided for decades with Lieberman’s other films until the inevitable re-evaluation in the DVD age. Regardless of when you’ve taken the trip, Blue Sunshine’s cosmic stance still vibrates with enough ghoulish ill will to wilt all the flowers in San Francisco.
The film opens with a striking image of a full blue moon, Poe-like in its dark, gothic beauty, and cuts back and forth over several uneasy settings as the credits, disconnected, roll out. There’s the good doctor Blume (Robert Walden – Lou Grant), seeing to a kindly old patient, even as he suffers from debilitating headaches; the cop’s wife who should be less concerned with his alcoholism and more with the wild eyed look in his eyes; the babysitter Wendy (Ann Cooper – Seems Like Old Times) whose patience for her screaming charges is running thin; and where the story truly starts, at a cabin party with Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King – Galaxy of Terror) and his group of young professional friends. An overzealous partygoer grabs the hair of Frannie (played by Billy Crystal’s brother Richard, definitely not trying out for the romantic lead in When Harry Met Sally), revealing blotted baldness underneath a wig before he flees in a feral panic. Frannie loops back to the cabin while Jerry searches for him, unfortunately, resulting in Jerry being blamed for the death of Frannie and the preceding slaughter.
On the lam and accused of murder, Jerry enlists the help of his girlfriend Alicia (the gorgeous Deborah Winters – insert audible sigh here) to find out why people all over the city are losing their hair and committing atrocities in the name of...well Jerry has no idea, except all the chromed psychos are Stanford grads, and they have one thing in common: they all took a form of LSD called Blue Sunshine, sold by fellow alum and political hopeful Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard – Strange Invaders) 10 years prior at the height of free love and cheap drugs. Can Jerry get everyone to just mellow out, and like, not kill each other?
Blue Sunshine, like all of Lieberman’s other films, leans into a strange humor without ever distracting from the story at hand. Squirm revels in its Southern Gothic vibe while still providing eerie chills (I mean, as much as you can with worms. Personally I think they’re pretty gross), and Just Before Dawn is well aware of its nods to Deliverance and Friday the 13th, but upends those expectations with some wry wrinkles of its own while sliding in suspenseful moments in line with the genre. Blue Sunshine’s central conceit is and of itself a big joke; the love blinders of the ‘60s are ripped away brutally by the very same “tonic” the hippies were prescribed to.
And it is a great joke. All the idealists, the passive purveyors of peace and understanding who fought the establishment become the very thing they rebelled against. Everyone here is now a suit and tie, or has given into domestic boredom far removed from the tie-dye set. (The 10 year psychotropic delay in the acid’s effects is one hell of an unexpected surprise.) And while Squirm is more of a measured swamp tour, Blue Sunshine bows right off the bat to the marquee paranoia pulse pounders of the day (think Three Days of the Condor, The Parralax View) with frantic close ups of eyeballs, evoking the shape of the titular drug and beckoning moon. Everyone is a possible loon, until Jerry determines who has or hasn’t ingested the lysergic time bomb. Again, Lieberman merely tips his hat to the conventions of the day; there is no great conspiracy theory in play, other than politicians have the same dusty bones in the closet as you and I.
So once again he does that voodoo that he do so well. The film is loaded with quirky moments and asides that wouldn’t play in a normal film. A woman yells at her kid for taking an extra pudding from the fridge, our babysitter finally melts at the kids’ chant of “We want Dr. Pepper!”, a disco smackdown perpetrated by a Flemming aide and so much more (there’s a fireplace murder that’s an all timer) keep Lieberman knocking on the mainstream’s door to no avail.
And then there’s Zalman King as Jerry. King, who would become the Svengali behind Red Shoe Diaries, gives a performance unique from the rest of the cast. Looking like a cross between Sean Penn and Marjoe Gortner, King is very eccentric as our everyman out to clear his name; he makes some unusual choices that seem, well, at odds with human behavior – a visit to a victim’s home has him writhing and screaming in agony as he hears the family massacre that occurred in his head, or a tendency to contradict even base emotions such as joy or anger where a sane person would clearly express them. It’s a sight to behold, nothing less than riveting, and I’d like to believe it’s a deliberate choice Lieberman and King made to keep the audience off kilter - after all, we’re never told whether Jerry joined the gang in the acid rain dance.
But this is the Lieberman curse; his films are more than competent enough to satisfy the mom and pop moviegoer and he certainly tells a compelling story with a muscular style. But there’s something about the content that leaves a funky taste in their mouths, whether it’s the violence itself (and this has its moments) or his tendency to subvert expectations. Nothing in Blue Sunshine is the usual, and the funky taste here is that of irony. So go ahead – turn on, tune in, drop out. But remember that karma is a beautiful mistress that may come calling tomorrow, or the next day, or maybe in 10 years. Just make sure your wig’s on tight.
Blue Sunshine is available on Blu-ray in a 3 Disc Collector’s Edition from FilmCentrix.