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The Sadist (1963)
"I have been hurt by others. And I will hurt them. I will make them suffer like I have suffered." Thus begins The Sadist, horror cinema's best-kept secret. After Charlie's opening lines, a narrator (uncredited producer Arch Hall, Sr., actually) speaks for a moment. He explains the goal of sadists: "to inflict moral insanity on the innocent," and that is exactly what the film itself does. It takes three epitomical Americans -- middle-class teachers on their way to a baseball game -- and utterly destroys them. And there's nothing that can be done about it.
All we see in that opening credit sequence are the evil eyes of the main character, Charlie Tibbs. We know immediately from his words, his voice, and his eyes that he is dangerous and at least a little psychotic. Sometimes when a movie opens with a shot of someone's eyes, we can expect to be placed in that person's point-of-view in order to understand them. In The Sadist, however, the horror comes partly from our inability to know why Charlie does the things he does. When the camera does reverse to his viewpoint, it is only to horrify us more: he sees the world just fine -- it's just that he wants to hurt it. As Ed Stiles, one of Charlie's captives, puts it, "You can't reason with that kid. He wants blood … and nobody's gonna talk him out of it."
The plot is simple, and was inspired by what have been called the "thrill-killings" done by nineteen-year-old Charlie Starkweather with his girlfriend, Caril Fugate. Three schoolteachers are driving to a baseball game when their car breaks down. Luckily they are near a junkyard, which they pull into in hopes of finding someone who can help them. They spend some time looking around for the owners when suddenly a smirking Charlie Tibbs, alongside his mostly silent girlfriend, Judy, a girl with equally crazy eyes, is pointing a gun at them. We spend the rest of the movie with the captives, submitted to all the things a sadist would do. He terrorizes them, hurts them, humiliates them, mocks them, executes one of them, and giggles creepily the whole time.
The rest of the horror comes from the pervading hopelessness for the captives. They make escape plans, they beg for mercy, but nothing works. An effective sort of exchange takes place when the teachers first meet Charlie. One of the teachers, Carl Oliver, turns ever-so-slightly to the side. Charlie quickly points his gun at Carl with an "Ah ah ah." We know right then that Charlie is not going to give an inch. If he ever seems to, it is only because he has another motive. If he gives someone a little more time to live, it is just to toy with them. If he ever takes a break, it is to drink Coke (even this he does grotesquely) and make out with Judy. If we ever begin to question it, Charlie will show us again that he is in control. I don't know if Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper ever saw The Sadist, but watching it, one can see seedlings of that other movie of hopeless horror and mentally disturbed killers that came eleven years later.
The film's surprisingly outstanding acting also contributes to its horror. Arch Hall, Sr., often put his son, Arch Hall, Jr., in the leading roles of his films, as he did in this one. It wasn't, as some have suggested, nepotism. It was a way for the family to pitch in and help each other out. Hall, Jr., was compensated to some extent, but his acting was mainly just him chipping in for the family. He could read lines, so he was qualified. His acting is mediocre in his other movies, but somehow, with a little coaching from director James Landis, Hall, Jr., gave the performance of a lifetime in The Sadist. His look was just what the role needed, but he brought the rest, too, and his performance is what really completes the unsettling of the viewer. The character has so many quirks and eccentricities that they are difficult to list and to describe, but once he comes on screen with his baby-face, his wild version of a 1960's bad-boy haircut, and his almost cartoonish voice, you know you are in for a treat. It might sound like a character such as this would have a hard time scaring people, but Charlie has no problem whatsoever. Somehow everything combines and becomes terrifying rather than ridiculous ... well, it is a little ridiculous, too. The character is surreal, in the original sense of the word -- not in a fantastical way, but in a way that makes it impossible to understand how someone like this could have come into being, even in his mannerisms. The rest of the acting is right-on, too, but you just can't rival a character like Charlie.
Then there is the cinematography, done by William Zsigmond. This was one of his first professional jobs on a movie set, but he plays it like a seasoned professional. Sometimes the shot is unsettling, like when we watch from behind a wooden board as the car drives into the junkyard. Sometimes it is startling, as in the way we first see Charlie raise his gun to the teachers. Other times it is simply great-looking, like when we watch Charlie from behind a car's broken window. He provides the finishing touches, making a horrifying movie into a horrifying movie that looks great, too.
The details of its production make the film's accomplishments even more spectacular. This is C-level at its very best. The film's budget was $33,0001. In fact, the money was so little that real bullets were used for most of the firing -- including the round that is shot through a car window directly right above Carl's head. Hall, Sr., had practically no money with which to make movies, but he loved them, so he made them out of nothing. This lead to a number of genuine attempts at making the best film he could -- Eegah, Wild Guitar, and The Choppers, being his other most well-known, a term that I use here with utmost relativity -- but The Sadist is the only one that would amount to anything. Hall, Jr., has understandably said, "That's the only movie that I really am rather proud of"2. Likewise, virtually everyone who has seen this movie wonders how it turned out so well. If you look at a list of the films that Arch Hall, Sr., made, or that Arch Hall, Jr., acted in, or that James Landis directed, it would seem that The Sadist should not have worked. Indeed, many people believe that The Sadist's effectiveness is actually an accident -- a great one, like champagne. Looking back at the film, however, that scenario just does not appear to be possible. Everything is perfectly in place. It seems to me that for this one film, Landis and the Halls found exactly the vehicle in which they could excel, and they got a little more edge by hiring Zsigmond. In the end, though, it really doesn't matter. What matters is that for once, they made a great movie.
1 Kalat, David. "The Sadist: The Gist."; 2006. TCM Underground. 3 Jan. 2007. (link)
2 Qtd. in Earth vs. the Sci-Fi Filmmakers. by Tom Weaver. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2005.
Drive-in owners often cheated Hall, Sr., sending him checks as low as $12.50 for sold-out screenings. Some of those checks even bounced.
Arch Hall, Jr., almost died in the snake-pit scene. The snakes, which were venomous, had their mouths temporarily sewn shut for the film. The snake handler left his snakes on the set overnight, and when he was late the next day, the crew took it upon themselves to put them in the pit and begin filming. The handler arrived furious, explaining that they had used a crate of un-sewn snakes. Hall, Jr., was pulled out of the pit just as the snakes were beginning to get angry.