The Sadist/Profile in Terror/Sweet Baby Charlie (1963) ****
Arch Hall, whether Junior or Senior, is not a name that one associates with praiseworthy filmmaking. Arch Junior was a teen-idol singer whose forays into film were generally disposable and frequently worse than that, while Arch Senior was the producer (and usually also director and screenwriter) at whose feet we may lay most of the blame for celluloid catastrophes like Eegah!, which he conceived as star-making vehicles whereby his son might break through into Hollywood. To those in the know, it might give sufficient indication of their cinematic capabilities to mention that the Halls also had professional ties to Ted V. Mikels. So imagine my astonishment when I sat down to watch The Sadist, and discovered not the MST-worthy film fuck-up one expects when the name “Arch Hall Jr.” appears on the credits, but one of the grittiest, most intense horror movies of the early 1960’s.
It may be that the reason for this is that Arch Senior’s sole contribution to The Sadist is some pre-credits voiceover narration, with the roles of writer and director going instead to James Landis. In any event, what we have here is perhaps the most extreme mutation of the early-60’s Psycho-cash-in phenomenon, a film which plays like an early progenitor of The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Three high school teachers are driving through rural Southern California, on their way to a Dodgers game in Los Angeles. The car belongs to Ed Stiles (Richard Alden, who turned up later in The Pit and Deadline), and it doesn’t seem to be working too well. In what initially looks like a lucky break, Stiles notices a gas station/junk yard coming up on the left side of the road, and he pulls in to have a peek under the hood and perhaps pick up a replacement for whatever part is causing the trouble. While Stiles is discovering that his problem is a malfunctioning fuel pump, his companions, Doris Page (Helen Hovey) and Carl Oliver (Don Russell) go looking for the junk yard’s owner, who oddly does not come to greet them when they drive through the gate onto his property. Oliver is the first one to find a clue as to why that should be. In the little bungalow behind the shack that serves as the establishment’s business office, there is a table set with hot lunch for four, but the house is entirely empty. What makes this twice as strange is the fact that the food on the table is still warm— how could the diners themselves have vanished so completely in such a short time? Just as Ed, Doris, and Carl are beginning to worry seriously about what could make a family up and leave home altogether just a few bites into a meal, they are accosted by a burly young man in faded denim, brandishing an Army-issue Colt automatic at them. The young man (Arch Hall Jr., from Eegah! and Nasty Rabbit) and his girlfriend (What’s Up Front’s Marilyn Manning, who played Hall’s paramour in Eegah! as well) let it be known that they’ll be taking off in Ed’s Belair just as soon as he has that fuel pump replaced, and that it’ll be the end of all three travelers if they try to tell them different.
The man with the gun is Charlie Tibbs. He and his girl, Judy Bradshaw, have spent the past several days heading west from Arizona, murdering for kicks whenever their path crosses that of anyone else. The cops are on the hunt for them, of course, but so far, Tibbs and Bradshaw have managed to stay a step or two ahead of the law, partly by changing vehicles frequently— they kill the poor suckers who pick them up hitchhiking, and then score a new ride every day or two. For the next several hours, the two killers will relentlessly terrorize their latest victims, keeping them alive and mostly unharmed while making it perfectly clear that their actual chances for survival are something approaching nil. Then they decide it would be more fun to start killing again…
The Sadist is nothing if not aptly named. You really have to admire Arch Hall Jr.’s willingness to step so far outside his usual popstar image to portray one of the most authentically loathsome screen villains of the 1960’s. And though he initially comes across as a caricature of the inbred psycho hillbilly, Hall seems to grow into the role as the movie progresses, putting in what eventually turns into a truly chilling performance. Marilyn Manning’s turn as Judy Bradshaw is also deserving of note, for it is far more important to The Sadist’s success than at first meets the eye. Judy is the audience for whom Tibbs commits his crimes, and some of the most unnerving moments in the movie come when she has a sudden brainstorm, and whispers excitedly into Charlie’s ear what she’d like to see him do next. Manning plays her as a sort of teenage version of a child burning bugs to death with a magnifying glass, totally uncomprehending of the fact that the creatures her boyfriend tortures for her amusement are people just as real and living as she is herself. Next to the horrifically vivid villains, our three luckless heroes seem a bit flat and underdeveloped, although each of them gets at least one moment in the spotlight and uses it to full advantage. But what sticks out most sharply about The Sadist, at least to my eye, is the way it prefigures the ruthless harshness of 70’s horror and hints at the structural formula of the 80’s slasher movie. When Tibbs pulls the trigger on his first victim, it’s like a slap in the face for the audience— the viewer suddenly realizes that writer/director Landis isn’t kidding around, and that The Sadist is miles removed from the usual safe horror fare of the 60’s. It’s just as disorienting later on, when what looks like a certain rescue for the two surviving teachers is nipped savagely in the bud, leaving them once again to fend entirely for themselves. There’s even a slasher-style “finding the bodies” scene and a concluding reel which looks a lot like a precursor of the Final Girl endings we’re accustomed to today. You just don’t see this sort of thing in movies from 1963, and it’s that shock of the unexpected that gives The Sadist most of its power.