Reviews

People Lose Their Hair -- and Their Minds -- in 'Blue Sunshine'

Like an amber-colored water goblet, Blue Sunshine embodies the late '70s.


Blue Sunshine

Director: Jeff Lieberman
Cast: Zalman King, Deborah Winters, Mark Goddard, Robert Walden, Charles Siebert, Ann Cooper, Ray Young
Distributor: Flat Iron
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1978
Release date: 2011-09-20

People in L.A. are losing their hair... and their minds. When a man’s hairpiece falls off at a party, he goes berserk and kills three women. An estranged wife whose locks have come loose menaces her neighbor’s children. Jerry, a guest at the party-turned-rampage, becomes a suspect in the murders. As he attempts to establish his innocence, he discovers that those implicated in the killings experimented with a variant of LSD called Blue Sunshine as students at Stanford University ten years before.

Blue Sunshine belongs to the fertile period from the mid-'70s to mid-'80s that saw the release of such horror classics as Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, The Evil Dead, and Nightmare on Elm Street. The second feature from director Jeff Lieberman, Blue Sunshine shares the hallmarks that made the other films rise above B movie genre status—solid acting; inventive camerawork; dark, grotesque humor; and frank, arresting violence.

Where Lieberman’s work departs from the early films of John Carpenter, George Romero, Sam Raimi, and Wes Craven is its odd fealty to mainstream film and television. Based on the popular belief that users of LSD were susceptible to behavior-altering flashbacks years after they last took the drug, Blue Sunshine is the kind of message film that filled networks’ “movie of the week” slot in the '70s.

In fact, Blue Sunshine nearly was a movie of the week. In an exclusive recent interview included on the DVD, Lieberman explains that his film screened so well on the festival circuit in Europe that it caught the interest of ABC executives. You can understand why. Blue Sunshine opens with a trio of scenes that channel three enduring staples of episodic TV: medical, domestic, and police dramas.

A doctor treats his own debilitating headaches while comforting an elderly patient. A woman reads a fairytale to a friend’s children as she copes with her estrangement from her husband. A cop talks to a colleague’s wife about her spouse’s drinking until the husband barges into the room. These threads structure the entire film: Lieberman tells his bizarre tale firmly within the conventions of '70s TV drama.

The deal with ABC ultimately fell apart when Lieberman realized how much of the film he’d have to edit to satisfy network censors. Primetime audiences just weren’t ready for Blue Sunshine. ABC aired some dark, quirky fare in those days, but a film about hairless psychopaths who burn their victims in the fireplace or stalk them in a mall disco, and whose title is squawked by a parrot perched on the shoulder of one of the characters?

It’s an entertaining thought experiment to imagine an alternate '70s universe where Blue Sunshine (or at least a pale, censored simulacrum of it) took its place with such immortal ABC movies of the week as Moon of the Wolf (1972), Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973), and Trilogy of Terror (1975).

Even without a television deal or a wide theatrical release, Blue Sunshine became an influential film, or at least a notorious one. The Ramones projected it during performances at CBGB. Robert Smith (The Cure) and Steven Severin (Siouxsie and the Banshees) named their 1983 album after it. Lieberman’s insistence that he never intended to freight Blue Sunshine with cultural commentary notwithstanding, the film seems to have captured something essential about the era.

The party that ends in murder takes place in an A-frame, to jazz-fusion music. As the camera pans past a turntable and a pile of records to open the scene, you can almost smell the Discwasher fluid. One of the Stanford Blue Sunshine bunch is a candidate for Congress who attempts first to deny, then to cover up Jerry’s revelations. “In the 1960s Edward Flemming and his generation shook the establishment with new ideas,” goes one TV spot about the sleazy pol; “today, Ed Flemming can bring these ideas into government, working within the system for change”.

Blue Sunshine provides a sad denouement of the promise of the generation that dabbled in consciousness expanding at Stanford ten years earlier. In this regard Lieberman’s film has as much in common with Return of the Secaucus 7, John Sayles’ musing over '60s-era disillusionment that was coopted by Hollywood in The Big Chill, as it does with Wes Craven’s brutal revenge-slasher Last House on the Left.

In short, to use the word that Lieberman returns to again and again in describing his film, Blue Sunshine resonates.

The interview with Lieberman and a gallery of production stills are the only DVD extras.

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