The Sadist (1963)

The Sadist

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The Sadist is the story of three high school teachers, Ed, Doris, and Carl who are on their way to a baseball game. On the way to the event, they run into a little car trouble and pull over at a nearby gas station/junkyard. After a quick inspection, Ed determines that they will need a new fuel pump, so while he tries to track that down, Doris and Carl search the property looking for the owner, but cannot find one. Though, during his search, Carl does find a house with four plates laid out upon the breakfast table: two empty, two untouched.

Realizing this is hella suspicious Carl runs back to the others, but it’s too late. The three of them are quickly confronted by a gun wielding Charley Tibbs and his girlfriend Judy.

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I cant tell if she’s really short or if Hall is just really tall…

Charley inform them that he and Judy are going to let the three of them fix their car, because they need a getaway vehicle and their car will do nicely. Of course, the three of them do what they’re told, but little do they know just how much trouble they’re really in.

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Needing new prescription glasses is the least of his worries.

Like many films that would come later, like Badlands, Natural Born Killers, Murder In The Heartland, Starkweather, and so on, The Sadist is loosely based on the story of teenage murder Charles Starkweather, who from January 25-29 1958 went on a murder spree accompanied by his girlfriend, Caril Anne Fugate. The films hold many similar attributes to one another, like comparable basic plots and that element of “true psycho romance”, the main difference being that The Sadist did it all first and years before.

The film contains a very primitive, unrepentant tone that one doesn’t usually associate with movies from the 60’s. The atmosphere is seedy and there’s an air of unease that permeates every scene. The setting is barren, remote and unpopulated, not unlike Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, informing both the viewer and the protagonists that help is extremely unlikely. Still, that doesn’t remove the slight ray of hope that the teachers may have to escape their predicament, which is just enough to keep the viewer interested.

The film greatly benefits from wonderful cinematography, done by non other than Vilmos Zsigmond, who won an Oscar for his work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Of course, this being filmed in 1963 and one of his earlier credited films no one would have known the difference. But that early talent shines through loud and clear here, giving this little low-budget film an edge over it’s companions who were blessed with deeper pockets.

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Another aspect of this film that makes it stand out is two of its actors, the first, notably, Mr. Arch Hall Jr. himself. Hall starred in a series of films in the 60’s geared toward the teenage drive-in crowd, most of which seemed to be nothing more than glorified ads for his early music career funded by his father (Arch Hall Sr., who produced every one of his films and even starred in a couple.) A track record like that doesn’t really indicate that there’s a good actor to be found there, but apparently when properly motivated, perhaps as a chance to be taken seriously (There’s no singing to be found anywhere in the film, thankfully), he does an admirable job.

In Charlie, Hall creates a character that everyone hopes for in a serial killer film. Charlie is unpredictable, unhinged and menacing. Hall brings an eeriness to the role. Just watching scenes of him sitting and giggling, while holding three people at gunpoint and chugging a soda are enough to make you uneasy. Even when he takes things a little over the top, any laughs they create come less from the campy-ness, and more from the sensation that you’re watching someone who is genuinely unstable. Perhaps if he’d been given the chance to do more serious films his film career would have fared better.

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My one complaint about him is that he often stood around like he was in an old western: wide stance and knees bent as if he’d just gotten off a horse. He also had a tendency to make an awkward looking snarl, although that’s more related to the look of his face in general. Overall though, those are minor complaints.

The second person I was impressed with was Helen Hovey as Doris. The Sadist marks her only film role – ever. Hovey’s Doris is at once naïve, terrified, hopeful, and then later, ultimately, determined. She really everything you’d expect from a heroines in a slasher film. She gives you the impression that, deep down, she believes that everyone is good at heart and wants to do the right thing. So when Charlie and his girlfriend arrive on the scene and shatter that image it’s a bit heart wrenching to watch that hope flicker. But I guess if she was only going to pick one film to star in, she made a good call.

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Though her character sadly suffers from the teenage slasher “can’t shut the hell up while I’m trying to hide” affliction.

Being slightly familiar with Arch Hall Jr.’s film record, I wasn’t expecting to be as impressed as I was. The Sadist has no business being as decent as it is. The film has a simplistic story, no budget, and it features unknown actors or actors with a questionable track record. And yet, somehow, the movie gods must have been smiling down upon its production. Though filled with unknowns, the acting is believable (if not occasionally over the top), the atmosphere is unsettling, the cinematography is impressive and the narrative moves along at a nice clip.

Don’t misunderstand, this is still a B-movie, but it’s a good B-movie and most deserving of it’s cult movie status. I have little doubt that if they had been granted a bigger budget that it would have had a good chance to be bumped up from a B to an A film. If you enjoy B-movies and thrillers then The Sadist is something you may want to look further into.

The Sadist is currently streaming on a variety of platforms.

It is also available on DVD and Bluray.

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Michi

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