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Sadist, The

The Sadist

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