Camera Obscura (Blu-ray)
Synapse Films (DVD)
Color, 1977, 94 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Jeff Lieberman
Starring Zalman King, Deborah Winters, Mark Goddard, Robert Walden, Charles Siebert, Ann Cooper, Ray Young
Camera Obscura (UHD / Blu-ray) (Germany R0 4K/HD), Le Chat Qui Fume (UHD / Blu-ray) (France R0 4K/HD), Filmcentrix (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Shout! Factory (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Synapse Films (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
For horror fans raised during the slasher glut of the '80s and beyond, adapting to the socially twisted North American terrors of the 1970s can be an uphill battle. The decade really kicked in with the 1973 domestic, commercialized terrors of The Exorcist before plunging into the dangerous territory of David Cronenberg's early works and Philip Kaufman's astonishing 1978 reinvention of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, films which pondered whether all of these psychoanalytic, hot-tubbing, free-wheeling, substance-abusing lifestyles might have some nasty consequences down the road. In real life they did, of course, as the early 1980s proved, and Blue Sunshine now feels prophetic in its depiction of a post-1960s culture ripping apart at the seams as it tries to dissolve back into normal, capitalist society. As a horror film there isn't much aggressive shock material on display; the unease of Blue Sunshine lies instead in its queasy sense of the mind and body breaking down without any control, all accompanied by a nerve-jangling score that sounds exactly like a musical anxiety attack.
In an eerie opening montage, various young adults find their hair falling out and their behavior gradually becoming more aggressive and jittery. The first major warning sign comes at a small party out in the woods, where a crooning party clown, Frannie (played by Billy Crystal's brother, Richard), loses his wig to reveal a bald dome underneath, then promptly goes berserk and kills those around him by stuffing them in the fireplace. Good guy Jerry (future Red Shoe Diaries honcho Zalman King) chases the lunatic into the road, where he's promptly run over by a truck and leaves Jerry with all of the blame. Now a man on the run, Jerry consults a friendly doctor (Robert Walden) and follows a trail of clues to track down a chain of potential murderers, all bred from a nasty batch of experimental LSD taken by Stanford college students years before. Jerry also learns that the man responsible for this chemically-induced madness might also a prominent, respectable politician; even worse, the decade time bomb embedded in the drug means a whole slew of new killings might begin.
Director Jeff Lieberman apparently felt the urge to provide his own twist on various exploitation genres during his early career, starting with rampaging nature (worms, in his case, courtesy of Squirm and continuing with this, a response to the drugsploitation films of the late '60s. He finished his drive-in trilogy five years later with the Deliverance-inspired wilderness terror outing, Just Before Dawn, before settling into more routine cable and home video fare. Blue Sunshine is arguably the slickest and certainly the strangest of the bunch, with bizarre tonal shifts and strange plot U-turns comparable only to Larry Cohen's God Told Me To. As usual King's acting ability ranges from mannequin-style passivity to shrieking overacting (no wonder he decided to move behind the camera), but the approach here is kind of appropriate as the film builds to its fever-pitched, department store finale. The visuals of grimacing bald people running around with butcher knives and plunging off buildings offer some palpable chills, and Lieberman throws in some stylish flourishes like a discotheque attack sequence later aped in Scream 2 of all things.
An early home video staple courtesy of Vestron, Blue Sunshine disappeared for several years (how appropriate) before resurfacing courtesy of Synapse's premiere DVD in 2003. Taken from the best available 35mm print and running 94m32s, the transfer looked quite nice overall for the time with rich colors and a faint sheen of film grain to remind you that this did indeed play movie houses. Scratches and scuffs have all been carefully removed, as demonstrated by a nice restoration demo piece on the DVD. The original mono mix is included, but those looking for some audio-related thrills will get a kick out of the 5.1 mix. Almost absurdly aggressive, this is quite a treat as all the channels get a workout throughout most of the running time. Even the innocuous sound of a crackling fireplace is dramatically foregrounded in an early scene, bursting from the front speakers with unnerving impact. Lieberman contributes a number of extra features, beginning with an audio commentary in which he discusses with Howard S. Berger the ins and outs of low budget shooting, the obstacles posed by the production, and the problems with creating multiple bald people on film. An early Lieberman short film, The Ringer (19m44s), is a stylized parody of Afterschool Special-style alarmist educational films, complete with dizzying close-ups and stern monologues. Then he turns up again for "Lieberman on Lieberman," a half hour career overview in which he discusses everything from his big break to his most recent activities. The disc is rounded out with a still gallery and the creepy theatrical trailer, which must have turned a few heads at the drive-ins. The first pressing of the disc includes a second disc, the complete music score on CD, which is guaranteed to disrupt the happy mood at any party.
After that the film went incognito again for a while apart from a 2007 DVD from Shout! Factory, hosted by Elvira and paired up with Monstroid. In 2016, indie label Filmcentrix (a mainstream-targeted offshoot of adult film distributor Distribpix) released a much-needed Blu-ray featuring a stunning scan from the recently uncovered camera negative. Obviously it proved to be a big upgrade, with the DTS-HD MA English audio options including the 2.0 mono theatrical mix and 5.1 remix. That release also features a new Lieberman commentary with Elijah Drenner, and it's a great one as well as he talks about his own experiences with LSD and the government propaganda around it, the challenges dealing with his lead actor, his fondness for genre films, the influence of Cold War films, and more. Also included are two trailers, a select scene commentary with actor Mark Goddard (8m45s) about some of the acting muscles he got to flex in his role as a prominent politician, followed by a slew of video bonuses. "Tuning In On Tuning Out" (6m32s) features Lieberman discussing his own take on the film being slotted as an anti-drug movie and extrapolations on his own views and memories involving LSD, and in "Supervising Sunshine" (9m35s), script supervisor Sandy King (who went on to produce several John Carpenter films) recalls her time on the production paying attention to everything from props to costume continuity while mingling with non-union "packs" at the time. Then the actors get their say in "Paging Dr. Blume" (9m57s) with Walden and "The Lunar Crooner" (7m1s) with Crystal sharing their stories from working with the self-confident Lieberman, their backgrounds that led them to auditioning for the film, the approaches to their characters, and connections that helped them out along the way. An archival appearance from the Fantasy Film Festival (12m8s) aired on the Z Channel back in the '80s features Mick Garris interviewing Lieberman about this film, the making of Squirm, and his affinity for comedy. A "Q&A at the Jumpcut Cafe" (15m20s) is a much more recent Lieberman appearance as he goes into the genesis for the film, his sci-film film influences, and his thoughts on the final product decades later. "The Locations of Blue Sunshine" (8m43s) has Lieberman cruising in a van with Drenner through the L.A. locations and riffing on his family background in Brooklyn. Finally you get a bath of scratchy LSD classroom scare films (20m41s), exactly the kind of cautionary but psychedelic tomes Lieberman was responding to with his film.
In 2021, Blue Sunshine made its UHD premiere with two nearly simultaneous European releases also containing a Blu-ray. The German edition from Camera Obscura is the more elaborate option compared to the French one from Le Chat Qui Fume; both are taken from a fresh 4K restoration, and it looks fantastic either way with deep, rich colors and pin-sharp detail throughout with no damage in sight. While the Blu-ray looks about the same as the U.S. one in terms of color timing and framing given they're from the same film source, the fresh remaster makes a difference with the UHD in particular (which has HDR10, though the French release doesn't note it) really bringing out every bit of detail in the film. It's quite a vivid viewing experience all around. Both also port over all the extras from the Filmcentrix release on the Blu-ray options (commentary, featurettes, archival Q&As, etc.) and let the film itself fill out the UHD with only the commentary, while adding the alternate trailer and The Ringer with optional Lieberman commentary to the Blu-ray. The Camera Obscura also has a 35-image gallery of posters and stills accompanied by soundtrack music, plus a booklet with an essay by Dr. Marcus Stiglegger; audio options include PCM 2.0 mono for the differently pitched German theatrical and home video mixes and the English mono mix, plus a DTS-HD MA 5.1 English track with optional German or English subtitles (plus optional German subs on the extras). On the other hand, the French release has optional French subtitles and, rather than a DVD, tosses in a bonus Blu-ray featuring a no-frills presentation of Lieberman's 1988 VHS cult film Remote Control with Kevin Dillon and Jennifer Tilly (under the title Meurtes en VHS), though you can also purchase it separately on Blu-ray or DVD from Lieberman himself.
Updated review on January 21, 2022.
Camera Obscura (Blu-ray)
Synapse Films (DVD)