Say what you will about Arch Hall Jr. (and I know many people have), but he gives an outstanding performance in James Landis' The Sadist – one that is quite unlike his amateurish appearance opposite his father in Eegah, only a year earlier. In fact, Hall Jr.'s chilling portrayal of a psychotic, gun-toting, homicidal maniac is what makes this “bad” movie so “good.”
Before the credits are displayed, we see a close-up on his eyes, with the following narration (by Arch Hall, Sr.):
“I have been hurt by others. And I will hurt them. I will make them suffer like they have made me suffer.”
Three treacly sweet school teachers are on their way to a ball game when their car stalls in a junkyard behind an abandoned gas station. Not only are there no other signs of life, but two dead bodies are inside the backhouse, still seated at a table where their last meal was served. Yes. Something is definitely wrong.
From out of the wrecked cars come a young pistol-wielding man (Arch Hall, Jr.) and his mentally deficient girlfriend (Marilyn Manning). For the next 90 real-time minutes, we are treated to one act of brutal violence after another.
Hall Jr's Charlie Tibbs is a creepy, baby-faced killer who taunts his victims one at a time. The oldest teacher (Don Russell) is a family man with two children the killer's age. As he pleads for his life, the man gets on his knees and talks to the maniac like he would with his own son. That was the wrong thing to do: Hall not only hates teachers, he hates fathers too. The other two victims, muscle-bound Richard Alden and a pretty blonde Helen Hovey, helplessly watch in horror as Tibbs and his partner viciously humiliate them.
Following a couple more cold-blooded deaths, the two psychos leisurely enjoy eating the food from the dead family's house while the hostages whisper to each other about how they could possibly escape. They know they're next.
What sets The Sadist apart is the film's realism. Unlike other low-budget, crazed-killer movies, James Landis' effort is as volatile and unpredictable as the maniac with the gun, one that builds suspense to a bloody crescendo. The viewer can thus empathize with the two victims, thinking of ways to escape right along with them. Never mind the fact that in real life we know they would both surely end up dead.
At one point, Hovey gets away – but since this is 1963, she is wearing a tight skirt with a matching frilly blouse and high heels. She goes running through the desert landscape, limping and falling all the way. In desperation, she kicks her shoes off and runs barefoot. We see the cuts and bruises on her feet and the snags in her nylons.
The entire drama is played outside, under a blazing hot California sun, which makes the characters' predicament all the more unbearable and oppressive. One great touch of atmosphere is that during a crucial, tragic moment a car radio plays in the background. The station happens to be set to the ball game that those three poor, miserable school teachers had missed.
Whether because of James Landis' direction and screenplay, or the harshly lit cinematography by Close Encounters of the Third Kind's Vilmos Zsigmond (here billed as William Zsigmond), The Sadist is a powerful “cult” movie – one that fully deserved a wider release at the time. In fact, The Sadist always frightens me; so much so, I have a hard time classifying it as a “bad” movie at all.
© Danny Fortune
THE SADIST (1963). Dir. / Scr.: James Landis. Cast: Arch Hall, Jr., Richard Alden, Marilyn Manning, Don Russell, Helen Hovey.
Image via DVD Talk