Bite Size: Blue Sunshine (1977)

Jeff Lieberman is another of the New York City native eccentrics of genre cinema, with the same flair for the defiantly oddball as fellow hometown boys Larry Cohen and Frank Henenlotter. In his short but varied filmography Lieberman has tackled everything from nature run amok (Squirm), to downmarket Deliverance riffs ( Just Before Dawn), to atomic age alien abductions updated for the VHS era (Remote Control).

1977’s Blue Sunshine was his second feature film, and trades in Squirm‘s down in the dirt small town setting for the sunny streets of Los Angeles. A few old friends are having a party to catch up, but the evening goes off the rails when a guest playfully tugs at the hair of Frannie (Richard Crystal) as he begins to croon some Sinatra. Frannie is apparently bald beneath the hair piece, and runs off into the night in a fit of irrational rage. While the rest of the guests are searching for him, Frannie returns and violently tosses two female guests into the fireplace, burning them to death. Jerry (Zalman King) attempts to subdue the suddenly homicidal Frannie, but their altercation takes them out onto the highway, where Frannie is hit by a passing truck.

Jerry now finds himself on the run, suspected in the 3 deaths at the party. Similar bizarre attacks of hair loss, headaches and homicide are happening all over the city. Desperate to clear his own name, he enlists his girlfriend Alicia (Deborah Winters), and college friend Dr. David Blume (Robert Walden) to help clear his name. Could the truth lie in a bad batch of LSD that the killers took a decade before? And what does soon to be Congressman Ed Flemming (Mark Goddard) have to do with it?

Blue Sunshine is definitely the most conceptually ambitious of the early 70s spate of hippie hangover films, turning a cool, clinical eye toward the anti drug hysteria of classical exploitation and playing it dead straight, complete with a text card square up as the credits roll. Blue Sunshine doesn’t so much contradict the screeching authority figures of the likes of Reefer Madness, or the concern trolling tone that drops an LSD lecture into the middle of drive in classic I Drink Your Blood. The drugs will make you crazy, it just takes a decade of life as a ticking time bomb before your bad choices catch up with you.

By drolly dropping into the cinematic conversation only to facetiously correct the timeline, the film becomes an interesting bit of malicious compliance satire. Its perspective clearly mocks all of the moral panic that spawned those sorts of warnings in the first place, while still drawing horror from it for viewers who miss the archness of that reading.

The initial promise of the premise sags as the layers of the plot add elements of a conspiracy thriller, mainly because Zalman King can’t quite modulate his performance as Jerry. He’s either mumbling blandly or in the midst of bug eyed hysterics, and there’s little nuance or sympathy to be had for him as he fumbles through his investigation. Regardless of where the truth of the crimes lies, it is unsurprising that the film’s other characters don’t respond terribly well to Jerry’s brute force interrogations or dismiss his rants as the ravings of an unstable kook.

What the central performance lacks in style and finesse, Blue Sunshine makes up in spades with stylish set pieces, a cool toned color palette befitting the title, and some confident, steady camera work. There’s a sleek quirkiness to the music and visuals that makes it hard to forget. A blue moon hangs in an inky sky over the opening credits, interspersed with introductions to the major characters. The title is introduced by the almost human croak of the words “Blue Sunshine” by a pet parrot. Those once upon a time hippie longhairs lose theirs along with their sanity, with pathetic scraggly tufts crowning their chalky pallor and bulging eyes as they turn violent. By the time we get to inset shots of a celebrity impersonator puppet show serving as entertainment at a political rally or a climatic fight in the flashing cornucopia of lights at a mall disco, it all makes for a cohesive aesthetic sense that few films of this ilk display.

While flawed in its plotting and performances, the unique blend of familiar mainstream elements, exploitation style exercises, and higher than average production values makes Blue Sunshine an excellent entry point into the more psychotronic side of retro cinema. Plus, sharp eyed viewers will note that in the final department store scene, the sales floor is decorated for Christmas, adding Blue Sunshine to the list of unexpected holiday horrors.