This film was up in the air. There was much debate upstairs about where this film should be categorized. It is clearly a b-movie, but it’s also shot very well, by a cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who would go on to win an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Writer/director John Landis doesn’t have anything in his filmography that would make potential viewers think he had a movie like this in him, yet this film is gripping from beginning to end, and, while being steeped in noir tropes and cliché of the era, has moments of true shock and unpredictability. But, despite how excellent is this movie, I have to slot it into Shitty Movie Sundays, for one reason, and one reason only: Arch Hall, Jr.
From 1963, The Sadist is a noir thriller that is one of many films inspired by the real-life crimes of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, who went on a killing spree in 1958. Their analogues in this film are Charles Tibbs (Hall), and Judy Bradshaw (Marilyn Manning).
Somewhere in the desert near Los Angeles, a car carrying three teachers, Ed, Doris, and Carl (Richard Alden, Helen Hovey, and Don Russell), has to stop at a service station in the middle of nowhere due to car trouble. They honk the horn and shout around, but it seems no one is there to help. There’s a junkyard on the property, and while Ed is pulling a fuel pump out of one of the wrecks to place in his own car, Charlie and Judy appear and hold the three at gunpoint. Charlie and Judy have been killing their way to Southern California from all the way across Arizona, but now they’re stranded. The owners of the station were no help, so Charlie killed them. Now, he wants Ed to finish the repairs to his car, which Charlie and Judy will then take, and be on their way.
Charlie promises to leave the trio alive if Ed does the job, but there’s no way to tell if he’s lying. He sure does give a lot of indications that he’s going to kill them, no matter what he says. And this is all about Hall. Veteran viewers will be hard-pressed to find a performance as ridiculous and excessive as Hall’s portrayal of Charlie. He never turns it off. He’s in almost every scene in this movie, and he never stops sneering. There’s never a moment where he isn’t spewing his lines like a caricature of every 1950s greaser punk in a hot rod flick when they get into a knife fight. It’s overacting taken to high art. Hall’s performance dominates this film to the point that it, alone, negates so much of the hard work of everyone else involved.
At the same time, it’s a wonder to behold. How did this happen? Why did Landis not rein in his lead? Was it encouraged? These are the questions a viewer will be asking themselves while they watch the work of a single cast member turn a movie shitty.
Lest I make it seem the rest of the film is perfect, it is not. Landis’s script wallows in some of the most familiar tropes of the time, including the one hostage who has to be a tough guy. Then, he’ll go and build tension as effectively as any great cinematic auteur. There are also short, painterly interludes — breaks in the tension where the focus shifts to a single character. It’s character development through the establishing shot, and usually devoid of dialogue. Here, Zsigmond’s talented work shines through, as it does in many other shots of the film.
This is a patient, well-thought-out film. Landis took his rather pedestrian screenplay and crafted a taut tale of life and death, and he unleashed an out of this world star upon us. Really, it’s hard to convey just how much Arch Hall, Jr. commands this movie. He is absurdness, personified. He’s one of the biggest cans of ham I’ve ever seen. He plays psychotic like Cody Jarrett on top of the gas tank, and he does not stop. His voice and mannerisms are exaggerated, and he’s wound up like a top. There are so many more metaphors and similes out there. I could spend an hour with Roget’s coming up with more and it still wouldn’t satisfy me that you, dearest reader, have comprehended just how wild Hall is. Just watch the movie. It’s obscure, but it’s out there.
Hall didn’t ruin this movie, but he did make it shitty. This movie is a proof, a test case, that proves just because a movie is shitty, does not mean it’s bad. Excellent in some aspects, mediocre in none, with an unforgettable lead, The Sadist is a wonderful watch, shitty or otherwise. It takes over one of the prime spots in the Watchability Index, bumping Deep Blue Sea out of the top 5. It’s a must-see, folks.