Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
All Day Entertainment, widescreen 1.66:1, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, chapters NA, rated NR, 92 min., $24.95, street date 1/9/98.
Directed James Landis. Starring Arch Hall Jr., Helen Hovey, Richard Alden, Marilyn Manning, Don Russell.
The Sadist has been a well-kept secret of cult movie aficionados, a top-notch thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.
Fairway International is best known for teen schlockers like Wild Guitar and Eagah!. In 1963, Fairway hired first-time director James Landis to helm a Psycho-style thriller based on the real-life Charlie Starkweather murders.
The real strenght of The Sadist is in the cinematography by future oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond, working on his first Hollywood feature.
Who says we don't listen to our readers? I recently received an e-mail from a Mr. Richard Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Oh wait - that's who sent Roseanne Roseannadanna all her letters. I actually heard from a Mr. Kenneth Brorsson of Swedeville, Sweden (okay, I made up the city, but I believe the country actually exists) who asked for a review of The Sadist.
Despite the fact I'd never heard of this film, I thought "What the hay!" and went for it. A rental from Netflix later - you ain't finding this obscurity at your local Blockbuster - and I was in business!
The Sadist was not at all what I expected. Okay, it was somewhat what I expected - it's not like it was a rollicking comedy or anything - but surprised me in many ways.
It offers a simple story. Three folks on their way to a Dodgers game get stuck in the middle of nowhere when their car falters. After a few mysterious minutes during which no help can be found at a service station, the culprit emerges: a snot-nosed punk with a gun and his dopey girlfriend.
The rest of the film documents what happens to these three innocents during their brief imprisonment. Tibbs (Arch Hall Jr.), who is the titular sadist, clearly delights in their pain and a great deal of tension is wrought from his nasty antics. Really, I was quite surprised at how nerve-wracking the experience was. There's little plot, and the three protagonists seem woefully inept and lacking in initiative - they offered little resistance throughout their ordeal - but the film kept me glued for the most part.
Only during the movie's overly long climax did the souffle start to collapse. For the film's first hour, it's very tense and anxious, but the stupidity of our heroes gets too extreme during the finale. The characters do so little to escape and they fail so frequently that I became very frustrated and annoyed; it was pretty clear the filmmakers didn't have enough story to build the thing to feature length so they just kept the climax running on forever to pad out the picture. While I still stuck with it, the third act simply goes on too long and unfortunately deflates much of the tensions it's built by that point.
Still, the first hour works extremely well, even though it probably shouldn't. The Sadist is a pretty crude, low-budget affair that features some pretty weak acting. Hall just goes way over the top in his performance as Tibbs; he's all sneers and giggles and leers as he emotes his way across the screen. Nonetheless, he manages a certain energy that serves the role well, especially when he goes completely ballistic late in the movie. (By the way, as the DVD's notes indicate, Hall's acting career existed because his father made movies and wanted his kid to be a star. Apparently lil' Arch wasn't too keen on this, and The Sadist was his fourth of six films. Daddy groomed him as a teen idol prior to this out of character turn, but lil' Arch looks more like a Gotti than a hottie; the boy wasn't exactly ugly, but he possessed an awfully odd psychopathic look for a heartthrob.)
As Tibbs' intellectually-deficient girlfriend Judy, Marilyn Manning actually probably does the best job of the bunch; there's not much too Judy, but Manning makes her convincingly inane and amoral. The three victims - Ed (Richard Alden), Doris (Helen Hovey), and Carl (Don Russell) all do their jobs decently well. The roles are tremendously weak and offer little opportunity to do much other than look pathetic, but the actors are reasonably competent. Hey, Russell deserves some kudos for a slightly affecting performance just because he wasn't even an actor; he was the film's production designer!
One note: While the movie came to exist as a semi-knockoff of Psycho, The Sadist took its cues from the 1958 real-life killing spree of Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Fugate. Hall's look in the film strongly resembles Charlie's greaser-tough guy image. The Starkweather spree influenced many later movies - Badlands and Natural Born Killers - and was even documented in Springsteen's song "Nebraska", but I'd bet The Sadist was the first time the story appeared in fictional media.
Even without that historical footnote, The Sadist makes for a fairly compelling experience. The film contains a fair number of flaws and falters badly toward the end, but it seemed very tense and nerve-wracking, so it accomplishes what it sets out to do.
The Sadist appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to that mild letterboxing, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 monitors. Although a few serious flaws keep it from being a terrific picture, I found it to look surprisingly good.
Let's get this over with right off the bat: the main reason this image only gets a "C-" happens due to the heavy number of print flaws I witnessed. While these don't occur constantly, they're pretty frequent and pretty large. I didn't see anything as minor as speckling or small scratches; these honkers were huge! A few thin vertical lines bob about the screen almost constantly through the movie, and many other faults can be seen. For example, during the film's extended climax, I noticed something that looked vaguely like a butterfly. As the movie continued, I saw that the butterfly actually was a running spot that flickered in the same area for a few minutes. Also, some scenes lack some frames - you'll see occasional awkward jumps. Yes, I've seen much more battered prints, and this one at least seemed free from grain, but this one had enough wrong with it to deserve a major downgrade.
Without these flaws, I would have given The Sadist at least a "B"; it's a very nice image, and looks much better than I'd expect from an obscure movie from 1963. Sharpness seems consistently fine and crisp with almost no instances of softness. I also detected no jagged edges or moire effects. Black levels appeared strong and deep, and shadow detail looked appropriate. Take away the print flaws and you have a winner; with them, the movie stays watchable but nothing more.
The monaural audio of The Sadist was acceptable but unexceptional. Dialogue seemed consistently intelligible but a bit strident, and music and effects also appeared somewhat harsh and tinny. Very little distortion was evident, though; a few times speech crackled slightly when a character would shout, but that's about it. I noticed occasional popping and hiss from the recording, but not much. For a movie from 1963, it sounds fine and if it didn't add to the experience, it didn't detract from it either.
Despite its low-budget origins, The Sadist actually features a few supplemental features. Of most importance is an audio commentary from director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond. This was his first effort in that capacity, but he'd go on to win an Academy Award for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and would be nominated for The Deer Hunter and The River. Although the track started off a little shaky in my opinion - it dealt with some rather technical matters that frankly don't interest me - the commentary soon hit its stride and became very compelling.
Zsigmond spends maybe half of the track discussing The Sadist itself and the rest talking about his career. While his Sadist anecdotes are fun, it's the latter part that really makes this commentary worthwhile. He relates his general experiences and also goes into some detail about his time on films like Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller and on CE3K. It's a very good commentary that's well worth your time.
In addition to this commentary, we get trailers for two other movies from Fairway Pictures, both of which also starred Hall: Wild Guitar and Eegah! (which also featured Richard Kiel - "Jaws" in some Bond movies - as a caveman). Both films look tremendously dated and campy; after such laughable fare, it's amazing that "The Sadist" turned out as well as it did. Anyway, the trailers are fun, though it's disappointing the preview for The Sadist itself doesn't appear.
Finally, we encounter the aforementioned production notes. These discuss the brief acting career of lil' Hall and also mention Zsigmond's later success and the restoration needed to bring the film to DVD. The notes confirm what had been (up to that point) my suspicion that the movie was based on the Starkweather case. The text is cursory but interesting.
(Stupid "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" kind of factoid I noticed: The Sadist based its story on the Starkweather murders, which also inspired Badlands, from which Springsteen took a song title, which was reversed for The River in 1984, which was an earlier Springsteen tune. So we connect Zsigmond to Starkweather to Bruce to Zsigmond again. Fascinating, huh?)
Although the movie's about as obscure as it gets, The Sadist offers a compellingly nasty little piece of cinema. It's not a classic of the genre but it possesses a brutality and terror that keep it watchable (at least until the tedious third act). The DVD looks and sounds decent at best, but that's pretty good for such an old and neglected film, and it tosses in a few supplements as well, including a really good audio commentary. The Sadist isn't a film I'd care to own, but it made for a provocative experience and is well worth a rental.
Current as of 2/4/2000
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