It’s time for the 31 Days of Horror: 2014 Edition. For those of you who weren’t around for last year’s journey, the plan is to watch at least 31 horror movies I’ve never seen before and review them all. So sit back, strap in, and enjoy my journey down the rabbit hole.
Arch Hall Jr. looks like a Muppet version of John C. Reilly. I say this as a compliment. His general appearance is so startling and unforgettable, it gives him a screen presence that his hammy attempts at acting could never provide. He only has seven acting credits (six, if you discount his appearance in a short film listed from this year) on IMDB; a low number when you consider how well-known he has become for starring in staggeringly awful movies like Eegah. But when talk of Hall’s films comes up, there is also an almost consensus opinion that The Sadist, whether purposely or accidentally, is truly a good movie.
Three school teachers—Ed (Richard Alden), Doris (Helen Hovey), and Carl (Don Russell)—are driving along a back highway through the California desert when their car breaks down. Pulling into a conveniently located gas station/junkyard, they initially don’t find anyone around. But soon enough, Charlie Tibbs (Hall) and his girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning) appear. Tibbs and Judy are criminals wanted for murders committed in Arizona. At first, Tibbs just wants the mechanically-inclined Ed to fix his car so he can steal it, but soon, he’s pistol-whipping Carl and threatening to rape Doris. From there, Tibbs becomes crueler, taunting Ed with accusations of cowardice and killing Carl in cold blood. While Ed and Doris try to plot an escape, Tibbs delights in making his captives squirm with threats of a violent death.
And that is all there is to the plot. But in all honesty, all this film needs is Hall’s performance.
Not that it really needs to be pointed out, but Hall is not a good actor. His version of a Charles Starkweather-like psychopath is an over-the-top caricature. He fixes his face to a permanent sneer, spits out his lines in a single note of sarcasm, and shuffles along in bizarre gait that makes him bow-legged. But he commits so fully to such over-the-top choices that his performance starts to make sense. There’s a consistency to his eccentricities that take them from silly to disturbing. He moves and acts like a toddler caught up in a permanent temper tantrum—the id on two legs. Between his already memorable looks and the hysteria he brings to even the smallest of gestures, his Tibbs cannot help but become one of the more memorable movie psychos.
The Sadist was written and directed by frequent Hall collaborator James Landis. As has already been noted, they made some seriously dreadful films together, and there are plenty of rough spots on display here with flubbed lines, and a particularly wooden performance by Russell. But the editing is crisp and Landis makes good use of the desert location to create a sweaty, grimy atmosphere. Of course, Landis had the luxury of noted cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (credited as William Zsigmond) shooting one of his first American features. Zsigmond’s careful compositions make the film feel and look more ambitious than your average cheap exploitation movie from the era.
I can see The Sadist being looked at by some audiences as high camp. Early on, it does have that feel with Hall’s outsized performance. But the film grabbed me. By the time Tibbs’ madness fully takes over the film in its go-for-broke finale, it has transformed itself into a surprising burst of anarchy.
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