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The Sadist

The Sadist(1963)

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The Sadist (1963)

It starts with a cowboy.

His name is Arch Hall, and he left his South Dakota home to seek fame and fortune in 1930s Hollywood as a stuntman. He could do wild tricks-being dragged by the stirrups by a horse, jumping from one galloping steed to another, the kinds of things movies stars couldn't, no matter what their public wanted to believe.

Hall believed he had a future on the screen, but it never came to pass. He was pulled away by WW2, and when he came back he tried his hand at other careers: real estate developer, radio personality, trucking company operator...but the pull of the movies never left his blood. The dream deferred sat heavily on his soul, and then the idea came: if Hollywood wouldn't give it to him, why not just go and take it for himself? Wasn't that the true cowboy ethos?

Thus, Fairway International. A grand sounding name, its logo the equally portentous Hall family crest. Hall went into business making low-budget movies for the drive-in market-and as his top-lining star he had his own son, Arch Hall, Jr.

The wisecracking robots of Mystery Science Theater called Junior a "Cabbage Patch Elvis," which is kind of cruel-but only kind of, 'cause you can't say the description isn't accurate. Arch Hall, Jr. had corn-fed All-American-boy looks, a tussle of blonde hair in a sort of 50s era pompadour, and his own band - the Archers, for which he played lead guitar and sang. The perfect teen idol - save for his inexperience as an actor. He was roped in to the movies by his dad, neither reluctantly nor out of a personal passion of any kind, just an obedient son helping out the family trade.

The first Fairway production was The Choppers (1961), which cost the family $150,000 to make. This was cheap, even by B-movie standards, but it would be hard to recoup such costs even under the best of circumstances. And the world of indie distribution in 1959 was not the best of circumstances. Without a companion feature to fill out the double bill, Hall Senior would have little luck even getting it into theaters - and even packaged with Eegah! they'd see almost no income off of it.

Harrowed by the cost of The Choppers, Hall Sr. decided to cut back severely on expenses, and so future Fairway flicks would be made for around $30 grand. They would be, in almost all cases, the equivalent of amateur films-home movies writ large.

The Halls were now trapped in a pyramid scheme of their own making: financing new movies by mortgaging the existing catalog of productions, obliged to continue making movies in order to keep the whole enterprise afloat, hoping that eventually they'd get enough of a minor hit to pay off the accumulating debts.

This would never happen. Eventually Fairway would fold, its films would pass on into posterity merely as the butt of jokes, remembered only for their schlock value. But before that came to pass, Fairway would churn out a true no-apologies masterpiece. Lightning would strike but once, and leave behind one of the finest suspense thrillers ever made.

James Landis was an aspiring filmmaker in the infancy of a promising career, eager to make his mark with a resume piece. He approached the Halls with a screenplay he'd written about a teenager thrill killer, based loosely on the true-life murder spree of Charlie Starkweather. It was an audacious, daring script-as unlike the usual Fairway fare as night from day. Brutal, unflinching, and unpredictable, it was also good.

Arch Hall, Jr. would be for the first time truly called upon to act. Landis, anxious to make the movie everything it could be, insisted on auditioning professional actors for the role, even if he knew in the back of his mind that producer Hall Sr. wasn't going to let the film be made without his son. Junior, meanwhile, recognized that the odds of his becoming some kind of screen idol were negligible, but saw this film as the sort of opportunity everybody's been waiting for - to make something really fantastic. He worked hard with director Landis to develop his character's mannerisms and speech. When they found that he relied on his costume to inspire his performance, Landis insisted that Hall Jr. remain in costume at all times - a sort of low-rent method acting. Whatever worked.

Hall's only professional co-star was Richard Alden as the muscular yet cowardly schoolteacher Ed. The rest of the cast were the usual Fairway hodgepodge: Marilyn Manning, a secretary in an adjacent office, was called in to play the killer's equally depraved girlfriend; the film's production manager Don Russell played Carl Oliver, and as "Miss Goody Good Good" the Halls called on Helen Hovey, Junior's cousin. When a pair of policemen were needed for a scene, the production called in a pair of real policemen (who helpfully provided their own wardrobe to boot). But the lack of experience from this grab-bag cast works to their advantage, giving their respective roles more earthy realism. No one could accuse this cast of lazing off - they went so far as to allow sharpshooter Arch Hall, Sr. to fire live ammunition at them to make certain scenes as authentic as possible!

Arch Hall, Jr. delivers the performance of a lifetime. His Charlie Tibbs is one of cinema's most terrifying psychos, a gibbering manchild for whom violence is his security blanket. But the true star of the film is cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond.

Zsigmond had recently come from Hungary, where he and Laszlo Kovacs risked execution by the Soviets to secretly film the Hungarian Revolution. Sneaking out of Hungary with the film under his arm, Zsigmond found himself looking for work in the movie industry. The day would come when he would be winning Academy Awards, working with Hollywood's top directors, photographing classics like McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Deer Hunter (1978), and E.T. (1982). But in 1963 he couldn't get a job.

Say what you will about his movies, but Arch Hall, Sr. was a big-hearted man. When Zsigmond showed up in the Fairway offices, he not only got a job, but Senior would sponsor Zsigmond's entry into the cinematographer's union. With both Zsigmond and Landis at the helm, things were looking bright. These were brash young men, full of energy, determined to do everything they could to make this movie special. If that meant using their own money to buy cars to fill out the junkyard set, so be it.

Fairway was minor league Hollywood, sure, but it played by many of the same rules - such as the common practice of faking something rather than use the real thing. So rather than shoot at a real junkyard, they sweet-talked the owners of a ranch near the San Fernando Valley into letting them strew broken-down oily cars across their land and film there for a few weeks. In the end, Landis pulled in his feature for less than it cost Fairway to make the execrable Eegah!, but that didn't stop Zsigmond from shooting each and every shot with extraordinary cinematic flair. Consider this: The Choppers, which cost almost 5 times as much to make, was mostly filmed in a single room: the Fairway office itself, with one wall serving as one "location," another wall another set, and so on. But Landis and Zsigmond set up a new camera angle for virtually every single shot in The Sadist, each one chosen for maximum dramatic and narrative effect.

On top of all that, Zsigmond was challenged to fight the sun. As they were filming, the movie was still called 12:01--a nod to its real-time structure (24 eat your heart out). So while the sun tracked each day across the sky, Zsigmond moved powerful lights around to cheat the shadows and make everything appear to occur at high noon. Moving the camera was a major hassle-the heavy equipment involved and the delicate choreography to make it right was a lot for the cash-strapped budget to bear, so Landis and Zsigmond used it sparingly. But like the best of Fritz Lang, they knew just when to pull out their camera tricks to get the most mileage out of them. If you're not sweating, your fists clenched on the edge of your arm rest, your teeth gritted as this movie reaches its climax, you ain't been payin' attention.

Rechristened The Sadist for release in April of 1963, it was paired with Ray Dennis Steckler's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Steckler groused that the Halls gave preferential treatment to The Sadist at the expense of his picture; he parted company with Fairway and set out to distribute his zombie musical on his own. Meanwhile Landis, Zsigmond and Arch Hall, Jr. felt the double-bill was inappropriate for other reasons. Hall Jr. told interviewer Tom Weaver, "I'm not sure The Sadist belonged on a double-bill with Incredibly Strange Creatures, that just didn't make any sense to me from the get-go. I think it was demeaning to the quality of The Sadist."

Two years later, the dream team behind The Sadist were reunited on Deadwood 76. It was an old-school B-Western at a time when the declining market for Westerns was about to give way to a new breed of Spaghetti Westerns, and it was a flop. Landis, Zsigmond, and Arch Hall, Jr. were unable to recreate the magic that had enlivened their past hit, and Fairway came to an unfair end. Arch Hall Senior died in 1978, was buried with unprecedented honors by the Sioux Nation, and was eventually played onscreen by Robert Mitchum in the fictionalized bio-pic The Last Time I Saw Archie (1961). Arch Hall, Jr. left the entertainment world for his true passion, flying, as a commercial pilot. Zsigmond, as we've seen, went on to extraordinary heights within mainstream Hollywood. Landis never reached his true potential, his career sputtering to a halt not long after the debacle of Deadwood 76. But there remains a relic of that special moment in time when it all came together: The Sadist lives on as a white-knuckle thriller the likes of which are rarely minted inside Hollywood or outside it.

Sources:
The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film
AFI
Earth vs. the Sci-Fi Filmmakers:20 Interviews by Tom Weaver
Shock Cinema: Interview with Vilmos Zsigmond by David Konow

Compiled by David Kalat

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The Sadist (1963)

Of the many bullets fired during the course of The Sadist, a few of them were frighteningly genuine. Early in the film, Charlie Tibbs (played by Arch Hall, Jr.) corners his terrorized hostages by one of the junked cars, firing a warning shot over their heads into the car's window. Director James Landis had placed a wad of black wax into the barrel of an air rifle, with the idea that Hall would shoot the wax plug onto the window, producing the effect of a "hole" appearing on cue. But this never worked, never looked like anything but the cut-rate trick it was. So producer Arch Hall, Sr. offered an unusual option: he would put his skills as a trained sharpshooter to work and fire a real bullet above the heads of actors Don Russell and Helen Hovey! The actors, surprisingly, agreed to this-and their onscreen looks of fear are now real, as they watch their boss shoot a high-powered bolt-action rifle right at them!

This was not the only live ammo fired off during the film. During the climactic final chase, Hall Jr. shot real bullets at tree trunks and fences for inarguably authentic-looking effects as he pursued Richard Alden.

For the startling scene where Arch Hall, Jr. appears to fire a gun point blank into the face of Don Russell, the weapon was loaded with blanks, and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond "cheated" the angle carefully so that the aim of the pistol only appeared to be directed at the poor man's head. Nonetheless, when it went off, Russell was burned by residual gunpowder that flew out of the muzzle sideways, and required first-aid. Landis also shot an alternate version of the scene in which a piece of animal bone coated with a wig remnant on one side and some cow brains on the other was pulled by piano wire off the actor's head at the moment of the gunshot-but this gory effect was not convincing enough to the filmmakers to even present to the censors, and was never used.

The biggest fight The Sadist had with censors came when it landed on TV later in the 1960s. Not only did some of its stronger sequences require cuts, but the networks also demanded a title change-to the less objectionable Profile of Terror.

Zsigmond had hoped that The Sadist would be a calling card into Hollywood's mainstream, but found that prospective employers could not look past the film's uncompromisingly horrific material to judge the quality of the photography alone-time and again, producers were turned off by the violence and blamed Zsigmond himself for making such a cruel movie. He would remain in the B-movie backwater for many years to come.

Even on the set during the production, the makers of The Sadist struggled with the unpleasant nature of the story. The prim and proper schoolmarm Doris ("Miss Ice Box" to even her friends, "Miss Goody Good Good" to Charlie Tibbs) faces sexually violent manhandling by her tormentor in one scene, but Arch Hall, Jr. and Helen Hovey were cousins. Realizing that Hall was too good a boy to do what the role demanded of him, Landis took the two aside and in no uncertain terms ordered Hall to treat Hovey roughly and made sure she knew what was coming, and that Landis-not Hall-was to blame. Only then could the two untrained "actors" make their way through the experience.

Recognizing that Marilyn Manning had, at best, limited acting ability, Landis wrote her role as essentially silent: she simply needed to be a physical presence on the set, with no lines to learn. However, it is not true that her character is mute: listen carefully and you can hear her one and only line of dialogue, "I'm going to get my goody bag."

Sources:
The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film
AFI
Earth vs. the Sci-Fi Filmmakers:20 Interviews by Tom Weaver
Shock Cinema: Interview with Vilmos Zsigmond by David Konow

Compiled by David Kalat

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The Sadist (1963)

"Very tight and well-crafted-a great exploitation movie."
Joe Dante

"A minor classic."
Art Black, Psychotronic Video

"The Sadist is a tense, violent film, one unrelenting nail-biter."
Wesley Holt, Filmfax

"Brace yourself."
Marty Baumann, The Astounding B-Monster

"A surprisingly taut and effective B&W thriller."
John Charles, Video Watchdog

"Hall (so awful as the teen hero of Eegah! [1962]) is creepily convincing as a young psycho...Cheap but compelling, with effective B&W photography by Vilmos Zsigmond."
James O'Neill, Terror on Tape

"Surprisingly good shocker never resorts to exploitation in telling the taut tale of a serial killer....Arch Hall, Jr. is excellent as the cackling killer who talks like Richard Widmark and taunts victims with cat-and-mouse threats. Writer-director James Landis throws in nifty twists of plot and brings prestige to a story that in lesser hands would be schlock."
John Stanley, Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Movie Guide

"I was shocked, but Arch Hall, Jr. is awesome in this movie and plays one of the best crazies I have ever seen, which is impressive since I have seen a lot of cinematic troubledoers. In the end, I loved The Sadist."
Marc Girdler, DVD Authority

Compiled by David Kalat

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teaser The Sadist (1963)

On their way to a baseball game, three schoolteachers are waylaid by teenage serial killer Charlie Tibbs and his depraved girlfriend Judy. A series of increasingly horrifying cat-and-mouse games ensue, as the hostages play for their lives against a sadist who has every intention of murdering them all.

I'm not going to mince words: The Sadist is a masterpiece. $33,000 has never been spent so well. A generation later, Oliver Stone would hook his cameras up to a spigot of money for Natural Born Killers (1994), a bloated thing that for all its furious excess and attendant controversy hasn't a tenth of The Sadist's raw energy.

For years it has been the happy secret tucked in the back pocket of cult movie aficionados-those folks who are willing to sift through hours of dross to find the cast-off gems in Hollywood's backwash. The impoverished circumstances of its birth say nothing of a film's artistic potential-merely, perhaps, its commercial potential. Denied the resources of a big studio juggernaut to shove it down an audience's throat, The Sadist had to get by on its own moxie. Without a marquee name to publicize it, The Sadist would be relegated to the drive-in circuit forever. On initial release, this astonishing work of white-knuckle suspense was paired with an absurd zombie musical (!) - to the dismay of the makers of both films. But such were the hurdles of low-budget filmmaking in 1963.

The rarity of The Sadist's achievement is such that - with the notable exception of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond - none of its makers would ever have their names attached to anything as good, before or since. Not even when the same team was brought back together a few years later (for Deadwood '76, 1965) could they replicate the curious magic that touched this film.

The only professional actor in the cast was Richard Alden, whose future career would consist of shuffling through the background of various network TV shows, usually without so much as a credit. The only thing approaching "names" were Arch Hall, Jr. and Marilyn Manning, who had played together in the previous year's caveman romp Eegah! (1962).

Writer-director James Landis took as his inspiration the shocking multi-state murder spree by teenage psychopath Charlie Starkweather. In 1958, Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Fugate slaughtered Fugate's family and proceeded to kill their way across the country, racking up ten bodies before their own bloody end. This was the very case that Stone adapted for Natural Born Killers in 1994-just one of a half-dozen screen versions of their sorry life story: Badlands (1973), Kalifornia (1993), True Romance (1993), Wild at Heart (1990)... Although Landis was the first to cinematize the Starkweather crimes, he was following in a heady silver screen tradition. Film noir classics like Key Largo (1948) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953) wrung similar suspense out of conflicts between sadistic killers and their doomed hostages-and Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 landmark Psycho, inspired by real-life nutjob Ed Gein, focused audience attention on "true-crime" stories.

Landis cannily sets up the situation in the film to be utterly hopeless. The characters are under no illusions from Charlie Tibbs - he's going to kill them - it is merely a question of bargaining for a little more time, a few minutes here, a few minutes there. Coupled with the uncertain, often cowardly behavior of the "heroes," we have a startlingly realistic view of a nightmare. You want to call out to the screen, to tell the characters what to do-but no advice comes easily to the lips. What should they do? What would you do?

Fans of modern-day slasher films can probably guess who will live and who will die-and why. But if there is any mote of predictability to that conclusion, it is subsumed in the whirlwind of bizarre images that cascade out of the screen as it approaches. There is something almost Biblical about the final moments of Charlie Tibbs. The last one standing in the haunting final image of The Sadist is a haggard refugee, a world-weary shell of a person, for whom the most ordinary of human activities now seems unfamiliar, alien, and unattainable.

The Sadist unfolds in real time, but never have 94 minutes felt so long.

Producer: Arch Hall, Jr. and L. Steven Snyder
Director: James Landis
Screenplay: James Landis
Art Direction: Mark Von Berblinger
Cinematography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Film Editing: Anthony M. Lanza
Original Music: Rod Moss
Cast: Arch Hall, Jr. (Charlie Tibbs), Marilyn Manning (Judy Bradshaw), Helen Hovey (Doris Page), Richard Alden (Ed Stiles), Don Russell (Carl Oliver).
B&W-94 minutes

by David Kalat

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The Sadist (1963)

CHARLIE (Arch Hall, Jr.): You're a big man in front of your lady friend. But I'm gonna show her just how big you really are.
ED (Richard Alden): Put down that gun and I'll show you how big you are.

DORIS (Helen Hovey): May I get some water? This man is being blinded by his own blood. Don't you even have the decency to let me care for this man? What kind of a person are you? Do you enjoy hurting others, seeing them in pain? How can you be so inhuman?

DORIS: Oh, by all means enjoy your lovemaking! But the least you could do is allow a man a little water-your carrying on like that... you're no more than an animal!

CHARLIE: Your kind means nothin' to me! Nothin'! Do you hear? Why don't you scream? Maybe the Big Talker'll come and help you. Maybe Miss Goody Good Good still thinks she's so much better than me. How does it feel to be touched by dirt? Goody Good Good don't like it. Taste it! Taste it! Eat the dirt!

ED: You can't reason with that kid-he wants blood, Doris, and no one's gonna talk him out of it. Don't you realize what we're dealing with? He's a psycho.

Compiled by David Kalat

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