Friday, May 3, 2013

The Sadist

I spend a lot of time watching movies, a good portion of which are exploitation and B-movies that I find myself compelled to mine through in an effort to find cinematic gold.  The movies can have, to say the least, extremely varying quality, and the task of culling through the prospective titles can seem laborious and defeatist, but then a movie like The Sadist (1963) comes along and it makes the whole process worthwhile.

The Sadist has a simple and straightforward narrative, but its approach to storytelling is advanced for a film made in the early 60s, as the action takes place in real-time, ratcheting up the tension.  Also, the movie is surprisingly brutal and unapologetic, with a seedy and uneasy atmosphere.  The Sadist is a master class to young filmmakers on how to make a great movie with only a single location, a handful of actors, and very little money.  All you need is a solid script and a future Oscar winning director of photography.
The Sadist opens with a trio of high school teachers driving through the California countryside on their way to a Dodger baseball game.  Unfortunately they have a bit of car trouble and have to pull over at an old junkyard/service station and even more unfortunately, nobody seems to be around.  The three of them wait and just sort of mill about before deciding to fix the car themselves.  Suddenly, they are confronted by the gun wielding Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall, Jr.) and his hanger-on girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning).  Seems our teachers have chosen the wrong rest-stop at which to pull over.
Charlie is an amoral maniac, loose on a two-state kill spree with his slightly deranged girlfriend in tow.  Holding the teachers hostage, he psychologically and physically tortures them while he forces Ed (Richard Alden) to fix the car with intentions of using it as a getaway vehicle.  Charlie waves his gun around menacingly while he sneers and makes threats, following through on a couple of them.  Charlie shoves Doris (Helen Hovey) down to the ground, rubs her face into the dirt, and manhandles her a bit.  Carl (Don Russell), the oldest of the three teachers, tries to reason with him, but his pleas only seem to push Charlie further, resulting in Carl getting pistol-whipped. Charlie then takes it another step by taking Carl's wallet and shredding his family photos AND their baseball tickets!  Harsh, man.

The harshness of the psychological torture is matched by the film's unflinching brutality.  Not even halfway into the movie, in a scene that doesn't use any cutaways or clever editing, Charlie (SPOILERSPOILER) kills one of the captives!  What makes it more chilling than shocking is that he does it for no reason other than his own amusement.  He does it strictly for kicks!  It is at this point where The Sadist turns the corner on being a second-rate B-movie and becomes a white-knuckle-thriller, grabbing you by the collar and bringing you to the edge of your seat.  
The Sadist was made on the most modest of terms.  With a budget of $33,000 and a cast of mostly inexperienced unknowns, the film was produced by Arch Hall, Sr. (who also provides the opening narration for the film) and his Fairway International Pictures, which was a poorly bankrolled independent company known mainly for producing schlocky drive-in fare.  One of Arch, Sr.'s chief goals as a film producer was to help launch his son's rock n' roll career and turn him into the next Ricky Nelson.  Arch, Jr., for the most part, just seemed to be along for the ride, helping his dad make some money and half-assing it in movies like Wild Guitar and Eegah (both 1962).  Arch, Jr. would eventually leave acting to pursue his true dream: being an airline pilot, a job he held for 35 years until he retired in 2003.

In The Sadist though, Arch, Jr. really goes for it, getting dangerously close to going over the top, but keeping it just on this side of MEGA-acting.  Instead of his guitar, he wields a gun and instead of crooning love songs he sneers and giggles while asserting his dominance over his captives.  It really is a bravura performance, as his unpredictability and unrelenting menace make him a captivating screen villain.
Arch Hall, Jr.'s facial features are another thing that adds to his performance as Charlie.  His doughy face has been described as looking like everything from a "demented baby" to "that bat from Ferngully."  His youthful appearance though adds to the threatening persona that he wields.  It's a shame his heart wasn't in acting and it's a double shame that he's probably better known for Eegah, the goofy caveman-in-modern-times movie starring Richard Kiel, which was featured in a fantastic Season 5 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  In that one, Arch, Jr. pretty much just drives around his dune buggy and plays a few tunes on his guitar, nothing as truly memorable as his deranged take on Charlie Tibbs in The Sadist.
His girlfriend Judy gives The Sadist an extra level of creep.  She doesn't really speak in the movie, but she does whisper things to Charlie and seems to egg him on quite a bit.  She definitely seems to be compliant in what Charlie is doing, but it is never quite clear what Judy is thinking.  At times she acts like a little girl, excited about make-up and perfume she finds in Doris' handbag, and other times she gets all crazy eyed while brandishing a knife.  Marilyn Manning brings a subtleness to the role, giving Judy these little mannerisms that reveal her wildness and most (if not all) of her acting is conveyed through her eyes.  She girlishly flirts with Charlie, doing a little dance for him at one point, and they act like any other pair of goofy kids in love.  It's just that this goofy couple are unstable and without remorse.
Marilyn Manning also starred with Arch, Jr. (and Arch, Sr., for that matter) in Eegah, in which she was also cast as Jr.'s girlfriend.  In that movie, her performance is. . .not that good (to be fair, nothing about Eegah is that good), so it is interesting that they managed to get a solid performance out of her on The Sadist simply by not giving her any dialogue.

Also:  for anyone that has actually seen Eegah, watching Tom and Roxy from that movie run around terrorizing people in The Sadist makes the viewing experience that much more strangely awesome.
The other actors in The Sadist didn't really go on to do anything else.  Richard Alden, the only professional actor in the film, would toil for a couple decades in TV and bit-part obscurity.  He's pretty good as Ed, although he is a frustrating character whose cowardly optimism makes him a fairly ineffective hero in the story.  His masculinity seems to constantly wilt to Charlie's demented will.  Doris, on the other hand, has much more resolve and fight in her, especially as the film moves along.  Helen Hovey was Arch, Jr.'s cousin (making his terrorization of her a little extra creepy) and this was her first and only movie appearance.
In addition to being the sympathetic Carl, Don Russell was also the film's production manager, a role he also performed on Wild Guitar.  Interesting enough (and to continue the MST3k connections) Russell was second unit director as well as the henchman Ortega in the truly dreadful The Incredible Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964), a film that was briefly second-billed with The Sadist at drive-ins.
The true star of The Sadist (with all due respect to Mr. Hall, Jr.) is not in front of the camera, but behind it rather.  This was the first credited American feature film to Hungarian-born cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, here credited as William.  Every inch of the frame is carefully composed, as the camera peeks through broken windows, peers over shoulders, and glides around the junkyard.  Most importantly, it leers at Arch Hall's sweaty goon-face, allowing little respite from his madness.  Zsigmond's work on The Sadist elevates the film to a much higher, professional looking level.  The movie was shot in 35mm over three weeks and Zsigmond would layer the set with cars and junk and create depth in the frame using a lot of deep focus and long lenses.  The cinematography in The Sadist is among the best you'll see in any B-movies from the 1960s.

Vilmos Zsigmond would work with director James Landis and Arch Hall on a couple more films, the strange "comedy" (but awesomely titled) The Nasty Rabbit (1964) and Deadwood '76 (1965) before continuing his B-movie career on some of schlockmeister Al Adamson's pictures and the like.  His first major "straight" movie was Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand (1971) which would lead him directly into working on Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971).  Zsigmond would team with Altman again on Images (1972) and the fantastic The Long Goodbye (1973), and he would also shoot 70s classics like Deliverance (1972), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977), for which he won an Oscar.  Entering the 1980s, Zsigmond would shoot Brian de Palma's Blow Out (1981), which, after scanning his credits, might be his last significant film, although I have to admit some affinity for both Real Genius (1985) and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), both of which star Val Kilmer, which is kind of weird (on my part, not Vilmos' part).
The kill crazed lovers in The Sadist are inspired by the real life kill spree perpetrated by Charles Starkweather and his 14-year old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate (seen above) across the Midwest in the late 1950s.  Their wave of terror would introduce a new villain into American mythology:  the thrill killer.  Arch Hall, Jr. does a good job capturing the look and the unhinged characteristics of Starkweather.  Ten years after the release of The Sadist, Terrance Malick would direct his debut film, Badlands (1973), also inspired by the Starkweather events (although a much more lyrical and less thrilling version of the story) starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.  Other films like Natural Born Killers (1994) and The Frighteners (1996), as well as songs by Bruce Springsteen and J Church, would also find inspiration in the story of Charles Starkweather.  The Sadist, however, was there first.
The Sadist does have some problems with the occasional choppy editing and the final chase during the ending seems to drag on and on a bit, but the finale itself is very satisfying and the film still has a great economy to its storytelling and is a fantastic minimalist effort.  The Sadist has a matter-of-fact starkness about it.  Taking place in a remote, mostly barren landscape, the unbearably hot sun that beats down on the characters mirrors the unbearableness of their ordeal and how there seems to be little hope of escape.  Punctuating this sense of hopelessness, at one point Charlie flips on a car radio and the Dodger baseball game is on, the game that Doris, Ed, and Carl were supposed to be at.  It is another gut punch reminder of where the three of them should be and where they actually are.  Along with Charlie and Judy's manic craziness, this unrelenting amount of tension was not common among other drive-in quickies of the day.

Upon release, The Sadist did not do well at the box office.  Audiences expecting cheap drive-in thrills got something much more gritty and downbeat.  The film would quickly fall into obscurity, seeing a rerelease in the 70s (under the title Sweet Baby Charlie) that caused little to no fanfare.  The film would start to find an audience on the home video market and has slowly been gaining the recognition that it deserves since then.
Now 50 years after its release, The Sadist still hold up extremely well and proves to be an exploitation cheapie that rises far above its pedigree.  Its visceral and unapologetic tone are right in line with a lot of modern thrillers, and in some ways it's a much more entertaining movie than many of those films.  Its powerful minimalist nature, combined with its tick-of-the-clock real-time narrative make The Sadist one of the the most criminally underrated and underseen exploitation B-movies of the 1960s, or any era.
*This first trailer for The Sadist is a UK DVD release trailer from 2008.  It does a pretty good job of conveying the story without giving away any major spoilers.  Watch it!

*This next one is the original theatrical trailer and like a lot of movie trailers from the era, this is fairly heavy on the spoilers and whatnot, so watch at your own risk.  I'll also mention that the guy doing the introduction in the trailer is Arch Hall, Sr. (Nicholas Merriweather was his pseudonym) and he provides the narration as well.

Fun fact: as a budget saving measure, during production live ammunition was used in some scenes.  BANG!
Here's a cast/crew photo, not sure who director James Landis is, but I'm fairly certain that Vilmos Zsigmond is the guy smiling and sitting next to the camera with his hands on his knees.

Watch out for snakes!

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