Once in a great while, a film that has no right to be great turns out to be just that. I’m not talking about a big-budgeted summer blockbuster where you expect it to be lacking in story; I mean a film that has no budget, and features relative unknowns or those with a spotty track record. It’s hard to even think of examples, but the film gods were obviously smiling down when the production for The Sadist commenced, as it honestly has no business being as good as it is.
Three elementary school co-workers (Ed, Carl, and Doris) are taking a road trip across California to attend a Dodgers baseball game. Along the way, they run into a bit of car trouble and pull into the first garage they come across. The place has a scrap yard in the back, and they figure it’ll be a breeze to get whatever part they need and be on their way. Unfortunately, things appear to be amiss, as no one seems to be on duty and there’s uneaten food inside a house on the property. It’s all a little odd, but Ed knows cars and figures he can go out back into the scrap yard and get the parts he needs to do the repair himself.
They’re on track getting the car running themselves when a young man comes out of nowhere pointing a gun at them, with an even younger girl in tow. The man holds the three co-workers up, taking their wallets, talking trash, and eventually pistol-whipping Carl across the face. The man tells Ed he could kill them right now if he wanted to, but they need a getaway car, and the one Ed is working on looks like it would fit the bill nicely. The three hostages decide to bide their time by working on the car and staying calm, hopeful that some cops will eventually drive by and take care of the situation. When they hear a news report on the radio warning folks to be on the lookout for a man named Charlie Tibbs and his 18 year old accomplice Judy Bradshaw, who have just gone on a murdering spree in Arizona and are now thought to be in California, they realize just how much trouble they’re actually in…
Based on the Charles Starkweather murder spree (the same case that inspired Oliver Stone’s mess called Natural Born Killers), The Sadist is a film far ahead of its time. It features a visceral, unapologetic tone that we don’t generally associate with thrillers or horror films of the 60s. It’s much more in line with the more extreme fare of the 70s, like Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Craven’s Last House on the Left. The atmosphere is very seedy, and an air of uneasiness is infused in every scene, where the slightest twitch seems like it’ll set off something horrible for the protagonists. The setting of the film is frighteningly barren and remote, and we as a viewer know full well that help is very unlikely. Still, that doesn’t at all impede the suspenseful nature of the film, and that small notion that these three teachers may be able to overcome their plight is more than enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.
The most striking element of The Sadist is its amazing cinematography. Every known quantity in the film, like director James Landis and star Arch Hall Jr., were known for nothing more than cheap drive-in quickies, and there was really no indication to expect anything else out of this. But then steps in an unknown cinematographer by the name of Vilmos Zsigmond. Yes, that same Vilmos Zsigmond that won an Oscar for his work on Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and has worked on films with everyone from Brian De Palma to Robert Altman (and let’s not forget Al Adamson!). Of course in 1963, this being only his third credited film, no one expected anything special because of his involvement either. Yet as new to the scene as he may have been, all of the talent that the rest of the world would soon discover is present right here in a little old low-budget flick like The Sadist. He gives the look of the film a superiority that many of its cousins with deeper pockets lacked, and it’s certainly one of the top reasons why the film is so unique.
The other facet of the film that makes it stand out from its brethren is the performance of Arch Hall Jr. as the deranged Charlie Tibbs. As I previously stated, Hall was noted mostly for B films before The Sadist, and the fact that many of the films he starred in were nothing more than advertising for his budding musical career doesn’t exactly scream that there’s a good actor to be found somewhere in there. But when he put his mind to it, and he did in The Sadist as he looked at it as a chance to be taken seriously, Hall was surprisingly effective. He creates a character in Tibbs that is as unhinged, unpredictable, and downright scary as anyone could hope for in a serial killer film. He convincingly crafts such a menacing force that even when he takes it well over the top, the laughs these moments create aren’t from him hamming it up but more-so from the feeling that you’re watching a generally unstable person on screen. It’s a real shame that The Sadist didn’t really find its audience until recently, because if it had at the time of its release, I’m certain Arch Hall Jr. would have gone on to have a wonderful career, and I would have loved to have seen the characters he could have created.
The Sadist is unquestionably among the prime examples of a film where, against all odds, every piece of the puzzle fits perfectly into place, creating a surprisingly capable and compelling slice of cinema that honestly shouldn’t have been. If you’ve never seen The Sadist, you owe to yourself to see that a little creativity and the involvement of some very talented people can go a long way when given little to work with. It certainly doesn't hurt matters that this is just a flat-out great thriller either.
Raunchy Tonk comes in to save The Sadist from crappy public domain releases and gives it the care it deserves. Presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, the film looks better than it ever has. In fact, I first came across the film through a crappy fullscreen Alpha Video copy, and honestly couldn’t sit through it. I’m glad the folks at Raunchy Tonk have come to the rescue, as otherwise I don’t know if I would have ever been able to experience the film. There’s some print damage present throughout, but it’s in no way distracting and for a low budget film that’s coming up on being 50 years old, it looks really good. There’s a rumor going around that this may see a release on Blu-Ray sometime down the line, and the print is definitely in good enough shape to have me interested in the results. Audio is available in its original Dolby Digital mono, and for the most part is pretty good. There are a few instances of audio volume drop-out during the first 15-20 minutes, where I had to turn up the volume to catch the dialogue, and then turn it back down again with the volume came back to normal. There’s also a bit of background hiss to note, but it’s nothing too prevalent.
Extras include an interview with Arch Hall Jr., conducted by collaborator Ray Dennis Steckler, which is inter-spliced with trailers for some of Hall’s films. The interview isn’t insightful in the least, but it’s cool to see Charles Tibbs himself and know that he’s doing well (a comeback could be in the works!). Also included is the “Arch Hall Jr. Songbook”, which is basically all of his musical performances from the various films he’s starred in. Finally, Johnny Legend gives his reflections on the film and how he first encountered it. This is easily the most interesting of the extras, as Legend is quite knowledgeable on these actors and flicks, and he provides some nice information.
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