Movies: Blue Sunshine (1977)

The seventies were a weird time, man, which is probably why the movies that came out during that decade are always such a trip to watch. And in the case of the movie I’ll be discussing today, I mean “trip” pretty much literally, because the film was written as a cautionary tale about the dangers of LSD, sort of like the Reefer Madness of the disco era.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about 1977’s Blue Sunshine; I feel like I was always kind of aware of its existence and figured I’d get around to watching it eventually since it was seen as such a (minor) cult classic, but for whatever reason, I never pulled the trigger on it until just the other day, when I was scrolling through Shudder and spotted it. I was in the mood for some seventies cult weirdness, so I popped that tab right onto my tongue (metaphorically of course) and settled in for the experience.

Now, while I will say that this film is fairly strange, it isn’t nearly as bizarre as I was expecting, and that bummed me out a little bit, not gonna lie. I think because I knew the movie was about “bad acid,” I was anticipating crazy freakouts and kaleidoscopic visuals punctuated by a pulsing acid rock soundtrack, but this thing is surprisingly staid, although admittedly interestingly quirky. It felt sort of like a low-rent early Cronenberg film, or maybe something directed by Larry Cohen if Larry Cohen was substantially less talented. I don’t mean to be uncharitable by saying that; Blue Sunshine was directed by Jeff Lieberman, who also gave us the delightfully cheesy 1976 killer-worm flick Squirm, so clearly there was some pizazz behind the camera.

Blue Sunshine also features a bevy of very recognizable TV and film actors from the era, including Zalman King (who was also a writer and director, mostly of erotica; he even collaborated with Adrian Lyne on 9 1/2 Weeks in 1986, though I mainly recognized him from Roger Corman’s 1981 Alien ripoff Galaxy of Terror). There was also Deborah Winters (from Kotch with Walter Matthau, and the TV movie Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo); Mark Goddard (Major Don West on Lost In Space); Robert Walden (Lou Grant, All the President’s Men, Audrey Rose, and Capricorn One); Charles Siebert (Trapper John, M.D.; he also directed a bunch of episodes of Xena and Hercules); and Ray Young (Blood of Dracula’s Castle, Five Bloody Graves, Coffy). AND there were two very small but appreciated cameo appearances by the always awesome Alice Ghostley (who played Esmeralda on Bewitched and was also the cool shop teacher Mrs. Murdock in Grease) and motherfuckin’ Brion James (Blade Runner, 48 Hours, The Horror Show, Tango & Cash, The Fifth Element), who randomly impersonates Rodan at a party in this film, so if that’s your secret fantasy, then Blue Sunshine is definitely the movie for you.

Although Blue Sunshine is generally regarded as a horror movie, it’s actually more of a seventies-style conspiracy thriller, and you can tell that the filmmakers were going for a sort of Hitchcockian, “wrong man accused of a crime” narrative that never quite manages to deliver on that premise. The movie has enough odd little details that fans of cult cinema from the shag carpet era should dig it, but I feel like if you’re not really on that wavelength, it might fall a bit flat; in my opinion, it’s a bit too strange for more mainstream tastes, and not weird enough to be so bad it’s good, even though the concept behind it is actually pretty intriguing.

So at the beginning of the movie, there are a couple of different things going on that don’t seem initially related to one another. First, you have this ragged-looking woman lamenting the state of her marriage to a guy sitting with her at the kitchen table. Is this her lover? Her brother? The plumber? Who knows. While they’re talking about the husband, the husband comes home and just stands there in the kitchen doorway, looking at them sort of blankly.

Then there’s a woman named Wendy in an apartment, and she’s babysitting the two bratty kids of her neighbor down the hall. We find out later that Wendy is in the process of divorcing a guy named Ed Flemming, who is running for Congress.

And then there’s this small gathering happening at a cabin-looking house out in the hills, a party so seventies that you can practically smell the fondue. It’s at this shindig that we meet our two main characters: Jerry Zipkin, aka Zippy (played by Zalman King), and his girlfriend Alicia Sweeney (played by Deborah Winters). There are also a bunch of other people at the party, but spoiler alert, they don’t last too long, so I don’t even remember what their names were.

Anyway, another guy at the party, Frannie (Richard Crystal) gets goaded into singing a Sinatra song for everybody, but then right in the middle of the song, he attempts to mack on one of the other guest’s girlfriends. Said guest then attempts to yank him off, but pulls off the man’s wig instead, revealing that Frannie is bald. But not like, completely bald; there are still messy hanks of hair hanging out willy-nilly, like the shit has been falling out. At this point, the dude completely loses it; his eyes go black, and he starts kicking the shit out of everybody, at one point even stuffing one of the women into the enormous fireplace to burn to death. He then takes off into the surrounding woods and Zippy runs after him, while the remaining party guests jump in a car to give chase.

Zippy finds Frannie and the pair struggle, but then a fortuitous truck happens by on the road, and Zippy kinda pushes Frannie in front of it, which kills him. Rather than explaining what the fuck is going on to the two men in the truck, Zippy just runs off, making him look extra suspicious, and one of the truck guys shoots at him, winging him in the arm. Zippy makes his way back to the house, where he discovers that in the melee, Frannie stuffed THREE of the women at the party into the fireplace (it’s a big fireplace), and rather than calling the cops, Zippy just kind of sits there and stares at their scorched bodies, giving the authorities time to arrive at the house and accuse Zippy of murder.

Zippy escapes, though, and goes on the lam. The first place he goes is to visit his friend, a surgeon named Dr. Blume (Robert Walden), who fixes up his arm. Zippy just tells the doc that he was shot in a hunting accident, and leaves it at that.

Zippy’s girlfriend Alicia, convinced that he’s innocent, starts meeting him on the down-low to help him sort out how he’s going to clear his name. Shortly afterward, they see a newspaper article about a guy who lost all his hair, flipped out suddenly, and killed his entire family (including the dog), in a scenario that sounded very much like what happened with the late, lamented Frannie. This other flipped-out guy, incidentally, was the same guy we saw at the beginning, who came home and found his wife talking to that other guy at the kitchen table. So that explains what was going on there.

Zippy and Alicia also discover that both Frannie and the other flipped-out dude both went to Stanford ten years before. And when Zippy breaks into Frannie’s house and looks in his photography studio, he finds a trippy-looking picture of aspiring Congressman Ed Flemming that bears the caption “Blue Sunshine.”

He goes to one of Flemming’s rallies to ask the guy if he knows what Blue Sunshine is, but Flemming clams up immediately, even though it’s pretty clear he knows exactly what it is. Zippy then asks his friend Dr. Blume, who also went to Stanford ten years ago, if he’s ever heard of the stuff, and though he doesn’t remember at first, he eventually recalls that Blue Sunshine was, as previously alluded to, a particular type of LSD that Ed Flemming was selling to a bunch of the students back then. Dr. Blume bought some from him to sell, but never took any himself, though several other people he knew—including Frannie and the first flipped-out guy—had definitely taken it. From this information, Zippy surmises that the LSD had caused some kind of time-delayed chromosomal damage that caused everyone who partook in the bad acid a decade ago to suddenly lose their hair and turn into psychotic maniacs all at the same time.

Proving this hypothesis is quite another matter, however, and I have to say that Zippy is really not helping his case with some of the lunkheaded shit he does in the course of his “investigation.” He goes to visit Ed Flemming’s ex-wife Wendy, who we know is also on the verge of a freakout because she’s been complaining of headaches and noise sensitivity and is clearly wearing a wig. Wendy inexplicably lets Zippy, a total stranger, into her apartment where she is alone with her neighbor’s two children, and while she denies knowing anything about Blue Sunshine, Zippy is staring at her so creepily that she eventually kicks him out.

After he leaves, though, she has her psychotic break, tearing off her wig and chasing the two obviously laughing children around the apartment with a knife. Zippy, using his apparent spidey senses, returns to her apartment and busts the door down in time to save the kids, but unfortunately, during his struggle with Wendy, she is flung out of the balcony window to perish horribly on the concrete many floors below, and when the neighbors all rush in to see what’s going on, Zippy is standing there like a knob, holding a bloody knife while the two children scream in terror. Not real good optics for someone hoping to be absolved of murder, but Zippy really seems to be his own worst enemy in this regard, in the sense that he’s clearly not very bright.

Anyway, Zippy and Alicia figure out that Ed Flemming’s assistant/one-man goon squad Wayne Mulligan also took the Blue Sunshine back in the day, and Alicia arranges to meet him for drinks in a mall discotheque (!!!), because apparently that was a thing that existed. She’s been working with a somewhat sympathetic cop without Zippy’s knowledge, you see, and I guess she’s hoping that Wayne will either divulge some info about Blue Sunshine while the cop is present, or will freak out and go on a baldheaded rampage through the blinking neon lights and mirrored wall panels of the disco. Happily for us, the second thing happens, and the gigantic Wayne tears through the place like a rabid bear, flinging seventies party people hither and yon and causing a stampede into the main part of the mall, where Ed Flemming is giving a political rally, complete with a puppet show (!!!) featuring cool but sort of unsettling-looking puppets of Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. Seeing this part, I thought someone had slipped ME some Blue Sunshine, but no, it really happened and was captured on film for posterity.

Anyway, all of this leads to a sort of climax where Zippy pursues Wayne through a department store (oh, and this movie is set at Christmas too, so you could technically call it a holiday horror, I guess), eventually taking him down with a dart dipped in paraldehyde that he loaded into a Walther pistol he bought earlier from an oddly enthusiastic gun store dealer. The paraldehyde, incidentally, was purchased on the sly from Dr. Blume, in a baffling scene set in a park where Zippy is first accosted by a junkie who refers to him as Jimmy and seems to know him, but whose presence or purpose in the story is never explained.

So after Wayne gets darted in the housewares department like a lion on the Serengeti, the movie literally just ends, freeze-framing with a couple of paragraphs talking about how this was sort of based on a true story, how Wayne’s blood tests showed signs of chromosomal damage, and how the FBI thought there were still some unaccounted-for doses of Blue Sunshine floating around out there, just waiting to make someone go bald and go batshit, to paraphrase one of the movie’s more notable lines of dialogue. So we never do find out if Zippy got cleared of murder, if Ed Flemming had to give up his political career after the whole “selling killer LSD in college” thing came out, what happened to the first flipped-out guy’s pet parrot, or why Brion James was pretending to be a pterodactyl at the party that kicked off the whole sordid mess. The movie’s not long, only 94 minutes, but I was actually pretty entertained all the way through, so the abrupt ending was really jarring for me. I was expecting there to be at least one more scene where everything was wrapped up, but nope, it just stops. Maybe they ran out of money at exactly that point.

As I said, if you’re really into odd seventies cinema, and particularly dig sort of overblown, scaremongering drug-panic films, then this might be your cup of ayahuasca; it’s not as silly or crazy as I would have liked for maximum entertainment value, but there is enough random what-the-fuckery to keep you interested in what’s going on. It definitely also plays into that seventies political conspiracy vibe, and some of the acting (particularly by Robert Walden, who plays Dr. Blume) is pretty great, although lead actor Zalman King gives such an off-putting performance that it’s hard to relate or sympathize with him. I’ve read that his particular approach to the character came at the behest of the director, who wanted him to act sort of weird so the audience wasn’t sure if he had also taken the Blue Sunshine and was on the verge of full-blown psychosis, but his strange behavior mostly just makes him seem creepy and not very likable, and he makes some really stupid decisions in the course of trying to prove his innocence that really could have been avoided with just a tiny iota of forethought.

It’s definitely not a movie for everyone (then again, what is), but I had a pretty good time with it, and maybe you will too. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


One thought on “Movies: Blue Sunshine (1977)

  1. This is the first time I’ve heard about this film. I wonder if this film has anything to do with the album by the Glove, or that’s just a coincidence…in any case, I’m just musing out loud, but thanks for another interesting review!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s