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:

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