Jeff Lieberman/ USA/ 1978/ 94 mins
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh as part of Dead By Dawn.
Jeff Lieberman is a director whose portrait could grace a dictionary definition of the phrase ‘cult filmmaker.’ His movies are low-budget, offbeat and possessed of an anarchic and subversive streak of humour. His second feature, Blue Sunshine is a perfect festival opener. A comedy-horror centred on surely the most nightmarish LSD flashback in cinema history, it’s a shonky, ramshackle delight in which even moments of relative normality are slightly skewed.
A dinner party goes bizarrely and horribly awry when one of the guests goes on a murderous rampage after it’s revealed he’s gone completely bald. After killing three of the guests, he is in turn killed in self-defence by partygoer Jerry Zipkin (Zalman King). On the run from the police as the prime suspect, he tries to solve the mystery, which involves an overworked surgeon, a politician running for Congress, and a batch of acid known as Blue Sunshine cooked up on a university campus in the late 60s.
From the off, Blue Sunshine leans far more towards the comedy than the horror. The acting is campy, the plot silly, and the action littered with hilarious little details, often completely incidental. It looks and feels like a spiritual precursor to the postmodern, genre-savvy likes of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. It would be easy to write it off as trash, albeit very funny trash. However, there is plenty of technical skill to appreciate. Lieberman can certainly frame a shot and knows how to build tension within a particular scene; no mean feat when he crams in as many bizarro visual gags as he can. This in no way falls into the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ guilty pleasure category.
Part of what makes Blue Sunshine so watchable is the mad-eyed Zalman King. Looking like the perfect convergence of a Venn diagram between Sean Penn, Michael Landon and Patrick Swayze, King is better known to a generation of pre-internet teenage masturbators as the man behind Red Shoes Diaries. His unique features fit the offbeat feel of the movie and he understands exactly where to pitch his role. Of course, he also has a head of luxurious locks that make him an aesthetic antithesis to the baldy baddies.
Blue Sunshine, for all its knockabout, rickety charm, can be read in a few ways. The first interpretation is the one Lieberman claims he was aiming for during the Q&A that followed the screening, an affectionate pastiche of the moral panic anti-drugs propaganda flicks of the 60s. It can also be taken as a commentary on the lingering death of the idealism of the hippy movement and the counter-cultural lifestyle, symbolically triggered by the deaths at Altamont and the murder of Sharon Tate by the Manson Family. The youthful rebellion of the users of Blue Sunshine has come back to haunt them as professionals and parents.
Far more weird than scary, Blue Sunshine‘s limited resources are always apparent. For all the implications of its central idea, the stakes always feel low-key, which undermines further the horror element. What it does have is unlimited restless energy and an unfailing ability to wrench a gale of incredulous laughter from the viewer every few minutes or so. Is it a good film? Probably not. Is it a great festival experience? Absolutely.