Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Sadist (USA, 1963)

"School's out, teacher!"
Charles A. 'Charlie' Tibbs (Arch Hall Jr.)

Wow. What a fucking great movie...
The set-up is hardly original or uncommon: the car of a group of people — in this case three teachers on their way to a Dodgers game in Los Angeles — develops engine trouble so they pull into a rural, independent gas station with a car graveyard. Odd thing is, though there is still warm food on the table in the kitchen of the house, no one is there — until a psychotic young man appears, with his silent Baby-Doll-like girl in tow, brandishing a gun....
In all truth, we here at A Wasted Life had often both heard of this low-budget B&W thriller, aka Sweet Baby Charlie and Profile of Terror, usually in relation to the facts that it is the first known movie to be inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate killings and, supposedly, the only good movie that the legendary Arch Hall Jr ever made. In regard to the latter, this happens to be the only Arch Hall Jr movie we've seen to date, so we have nothing to compare it to, but The Sadist is definitely a ten and Arch Hall Jr's turn as the Starkweather figure ain't too shabby either.
For the uninformed, the Starkweather-Fugate murders were a two-month (December 1957 & January 1958), ten-body murder spree in Nebraska and Wyoming conducted by the James Dean wanna-be Charles Starkweather (24 Nov 1938 — 25 June 1959) and his 14-year squeeze Caril Ann Fugate (that's them above). The entire sordid tale has since inspired many a film aside from The Sadist, the most famous of which are probably Terrance Malick's feature-film debut Badlands (1973 / trailer) and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994 / trailer).* In The Sadist, among other things the names and locations and ages are changed (the age of the killerette inspired by Fugate, for example, is changed from 14 to a more socially acceptable 18), but the source nevertheless remains glaringly obvious.
In turn, also for the uninformed, some info about the legendary Arch Hall Jr., who left the film business in 1965 to become a pilot and is now enjoying his retirement doing fun stuff (see his website here). He is, as the name indicates, the son of Arch Hall Sr., a true personality and former Hollywood stuntman who enjoyed an active if mostly lackluster career in the movie industry that spanned from before his first un-credited onscreen role in the serial Dick Tracy Returns (1938 / chapter 1) to its gloriously inglorious end with his screenplay for the Ted V. Mikels' film The Corpse Grinders (1972 / trailer). (The Jack-Webb-directed war comedy The Last Time I Saw Archie [1961 / theme], by the way, is based on his war-time experiences.) Hall Senior founded the no-budget movie studio Fairway Productions,** allegedly with the goal of making his son Arch Hall Jr a bankable star and musician, a goal that allegedly faltered not just due to the low quality of the Fairway productions but also to Hall Jr's own desire to become a pilot. Many of their limited number of projects have become classics of craptastic cinema, and while Arch Hall Jr never did become a bankable star, he and his films have definitely long become an object of cult popularity.
Still, Hall Jr was never seen as a particularly effective actor, in part, perhaps, to quote Ray Dennis Steckler from ReSearch #10: Incredibly Strange Films (1986), because Hall Jr was "a nice kid and a good singer, but he didn't seem to have his heart in it; never seemed to really care." It would seem, however, that in The Sadist he did care, for in the film he offers an unrelenting and effective performance so consistent and ruthless that it is 100% believable. In truth, almost all the performances in The Sadist are excellent, but Hall Jr, whose interpretation of the giggling psycho Charles A. 'Charlie' Tibbs owes a lot to Richard Widmark's giggling psycho in Kiss of Death (1944 / trailer), is such an overriding presence that the other actors almost fade into the background.
"Almost", however, is the word here: Marilyn Manning (of What's Up Front! [1964 / scene] and Eegah [1962 / full movie]) is also highly memorable as the mostly silent and equally sadistic and simple-minded white-trash nubile Judy Bradshaw, and it is hard to forget the realism of the doomed family-man teacher Carl Oliver*** as portrayed by Don Russell (the director of the nudie cutie Tales of a Salesman [1965 / trailer]). The powerless manly-man teacher Ed Stiles (Richard Alden of The Pit [1981 / trailer]) manages well enough, the desperation on his face literally tangible at times, but like that of the fresh-faced, helpless and almost sexy Doris Page (Helen Hovey, Arch Hall Jr's cousin in real life), his performance is occasionally overshadowed by the others.
For all that we had heard about The Sadist in the past, we were lucky enough to have never heard a full plot description, so we went into this movie without really knowing where the story would go or even whether it was half-way competently shot. What we were confronted with proved to be an eye-opener: The Sadist, filmed in a searing and hard B&W, is a tightly scripted and absolutely suspenseful 92-minute emotional downer told in real time. And just as tight and solid as the script is the great cinematography of the movie: scenes are blocked and framed and shot with a cinematic eye that both belies the movie's low budget roots and also reveals some knowledge of past films — more than one shot, for example, indicates an intentional homage or visual reference to Sergei Eisenstein.**** The script is also in no way flabby, spending just enough time to set up the situation and introduce the teachers before taking them (and the viewer) through a realistic, brutal and sucker-punching nightmare.
Shot on a budget of $33,000 dollars over a period of two weeks, The Sadist is one of those films that really has to be seen to be believed. An almost upsetting movie, it remains persistently depressing and unforgiving until the end, and by the time the unexpected resolution plays out, a total of eight bodies litter the rural landscape. And while clearly an exploitation film aimed at drive-ins and threadbare cinemas, The Sadist evidences such visual and narrative power that it transcends its own roots: when it comes to no-budget crime films, this nail-biter of a movie is easily of the same caliber of such well-known — not to mention acknowledged and respected — hard-hitting gut-crunchers like Edgar G. Ulmer's now somewhat creaky masterpiece from 1945, Detour (full film), and one-film-wonder Leonard Kastle's unflinching slow-burner, The Honeymoon Killers (1969 / trailer). The Sadist, like Night of the Living Dead (1968), is one of those films in which the ostensibly meager sum of the parts adds up to produce an unexpected masterpiece — but unlike any of the three other films just named, The Sadist still lingers in relative and totally unjust obscurity.
Help change that: watch The Sadist now, and then tell all your friends about it...

* Other related films include the 1993 US TV movie Murder in the Heartland and the 2004 "true story" Starkweather (trailer), written by Stephan Johnson, the scriptwriter of Ed Gein (2000). The "murderous white trash lovers" aspect, in turn, can be found in movies as diverse as the excellent and under-appreciated early Brad Pitt movie Kalifornia (1993 / trailer) — made at a time when David Duchovny was the bigger name — as well as the entertaining Peter Jackson black/action comedy The Frighteners (1996 / trailer).
** We haven't been able to find a definitive list of all films that came from the house of Fairway Productions, but the firm produced a number of fun films. Their first film seems to have been the nudie-cutie Magic Spectacles (1961, dir. Bob Wehling), which Arch Hall Jr. supposedly scripted. Aside from The Sadist, the titles featuring Hall Jr as an actor are The Choppers (1961 / full movie), Eegah (1962), Wild Guitar (1962 / full movie  / trailer), The Nasty Rabbit (1964 / full movie) and Deadwood '76 (1965 / full movie). Known productions without Hall Jr are Tell It Like It Is aka The Weird Ones (1971), Ray Dennis Steckler's The Thrill Killers (1964 / trailer) and What's Up Front! (1964).
*** The convincing look of fear in his eyes and those of fellow teacher Doris Page when Charlie shoots the car window above their head is probably not acted: there were no special effects used here, only real bullets going through the window a foot or two above their heads.
**** In this regard, we would tend to say that the "director of photography" Vilmos Zsigmond — working here under the pseudonym "William Zsigmond" — should get the accolades: he went on to a long and successful career spanning from films like this and Satan's Sadists (1969 / trailer) to respectable projects like The Deer Hunter (1978 / trailer), The Witches of Eastwick (1987 / trailer), Maverick (1994 / trailer) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977 / trailer), the last for which he won an Oscar. In turn, director John Landis (10 June 1926 — 17 Dec 1991), who also wrote the script for The Sadist, forever remained in the netherworld of no-budget filmmaking from his first films (Stakeout! and Airborne [full film], both released in 1962) to his last known and uncredited directorial turn, the under-known hixploitation roughie Jennie: Wife/Child aka Tender Grass (1968 / credits).

Full film:

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Zzikhimyeon jukneunda / Record (Korea, 2000)

(Spoilers.) Over here in Germany, the DVD release (shorn of probably the movie's best and bloodiest 4 minutes) was saddled with the rather incongruous title Fear No Evil; the English-language title Record is without doubt much more on the mark, as home video plays such an important aspect to the movie's plot... but title and censored gore aside, what is perhaps truest about this film is that it is no wonder that most of those involved don't seem to have made another film — we really hope that none of them quit there day job to take part in this thing.*
Which is not say that the movie, a slasher, has absolutely no redeeming values, it's just that its redeeming factors don't add up to a worthwhile film, as in the end there are only three: the fact that it's an Asian (Korean, to be exact) horror film that for a change isn't about some white-faced, long-haired, all-powerful ghost, and it features a hilarious and unexpected event that interrupts the fiery immolation of a "dead" body as well as a singular mildly innovative shock scene involving a cell phone and arm.
As just mentioned, Fear No Evil stands out as a rarity in that it is a Korean slasher flick, one modeled after the standard American template that hasn't changed all that much since first introduced who knows when. (Most people like to credit Carpenter's Halloween [1978 / trailer] as the genre's granddaddy, but while that film may arguably have been the one to start the modern Golden Age of Slashers, the genre itself can arguably be traced back to Coppola's Dementia 13 [1963 / trailer / full movie], Powell's Peeping Tom [1960 / trailer], or — if you're of the type that see slashers and bodycount films as one and the same — even the now rather dull films Terror Aboard [1933] or Thirteen Women [1932 / song about the film], the latter an early Myrna Loy film that holds the distinction of also being the only surviving film featuring a credited Peg Entwistle.**) In regards to the slasher template, Fear No Evil follows it so closely that for a while one is almost convinced that the film is meant to be ironic but that like, say, Tim Burton's non-slasher Planet of the Apes (2001 / trailer), the filmmakers play with the tropes so closely that it becomes impossible to see that they (and the film) are not being 100% serious. But after a while, it becomes obvious that in the case of Fear No Evil, at least, the film is less knowingly ironic than it truly is simply by-the-numbers and seriously sub-standard.
Like so many a dead-teenager flick, the driving instigation behind the revenge killings in Fear No Evil is the classic prank that goes wrong. In this case, prank played by the school's best (two babes, three dudes) on the school loser. The babes, sorta plain Hui-jung (Seong-min Kang) and hot stuff Eun-mi (Chae-young Han, "Korea's Barbie Doll" and only participant to have achieved a subsequent show biz career, in her film debut), invite the eternal loser to join them for a weekend alone at a secluded cabin as the set-up, unknown to the loser of course, to film a fake snuff film. But when the three dudes show up to play their parts as the masked killer home-invaders, they unintentionally use a real knife (!?!) and don't notice, until it is too late, that it not only punctures the boy's chest but that there is real blood everywhere — the latter is odd indeed, as obviously no one thought to bring fake blood with them in the first place. (As a whole, the events of the set-up give the viewer the feeling that if the five students are truly examples of South Korea's best and brightest, than the future of the region may indeed lie in the North.)
Needless to say, like the much better I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997 / trailer), the movie Fear No Evil emulates most closely, the five students don't want to ruin their futures due to the "accident" and decide to destroy the body (and the self-made video of their deed) — an event that also goes hilariously wrong. Nevertheless, convinced all is OK, they swear themselves to secrecy. But then, a year later, not only is the "snuff film" video online, but a masked killer in a red jumpsuit is out to kill them one by one... Five students being a relatively low number for a body-count movie, however, the unknown and unstoppable killer also does away with an occasional innocent (elder sauna worker, MILF school nurse, ambulance attendant, policeman) as well.
Our DVD version, cut, is hardly the most bloody of films, so we'll reserve comment on the gore, but we must state that seldom have we seen a film in which teenagers, conscious that someone is out to kill them, so consistently find a reason to separate or go somewhere alone. Indeed, they do it so consistently they could well have all worn "Kill Me, Please" signs on their backs — but as stupid as their actions are in this regard, they do give cause for regular laughter. Likewise, the killer(s) — yes, a nod to Scream (1996 / trailer) is at hand as well — are so obvious, that they each could just as well have worn a sign on their back saying "I'm a killer". Needless to say, on the whole Fear No Evil is rather lax when it comes to suspense or tension...
For that, it is mildly funny in a bad film sort of way. Aside from the above, who can't break out in guffaws when one student flirts with the MILF nurse by saying something to the effect of "I've got heat pimples on my inner-thigh, you want to see them?" Likewise, it is sort of amusing when the final girl and guy consciously hunt for the killer — they don't know it's more than one, of course — and then, when they finally find him, lose their cool and start running around like to chickens without heads. The fun ridiculousness of that bit is topped soon thereafter when, after surviving that, they end up having a wham-bang showdown with the second killer, who appears to be as unstoppable as Arnie in the first Terminator film (1984 / trailer). (A fun scene, perhaps the best of the movie.) As always, however, the filmmakers simply don't know when to stop and throw in a final after-graduation scene with a twist from left field that is as aggravating as it is prefatory to a possible sequel.
So is Fear No Evil any good? Not really, but as derivative and idiotic as it is, there are many far worse slashers out there, many of which you find reviewed elsewhere on this blog. The end question is, does the fact that there are worse films out there really make it worth your time to watch this movie? In our humble opinion, your money would be better spent on kimchi...
 Antipodal to Fear No Evil — 
a trailer to film that doesn't exist:

* Jae-hwan Ahn, who plays the wimpy teacher in the movie, no longer has to worry in this regard: he killed himself in 2008 at the age of 36.
** In the case of the last two and earliest films, however, it must be said that they are definitely far less slashers than body counters, while with the exception of Dementia 13, all the historic precursors listed — including Halloween — listed lack a key ingredient of the modern slasher: that the killer remains unknown until the final showdown.
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