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The Sadist 

a/k/a Profile in Terror

a/k/a Sweet Baby Charlie

     "I have been hurt by others, and I will hurt them. I will make them suffer as I have suffered".

-- Charlie Tibbs, thrill-killer     




Gonzoid Cinema




Poor Ponch and John; they never saw it coming.


Watch it!



Sights &
The Sadist
  James Landis
  James Landis
  L. Steven Snyder

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An All-Out
Arch Attack:
The Films of
Arch Hall Jr.

The Magic Spectacles

The Choppers

Wild Guitar


The Sadist

The Nasty Rabbit

Deadwood '76


The plot of our film today is simple enough: When three small town California school teachers drive across the desert to Los Angeles for a baseball game, along a lonely stretch of road, they come upon a homestead/service-station/salvage yard in the middle of nowhere; and since their car's engine has developed a serious hiccup, the driver, Ed Stiles (Richard Alden), pulls in to hopefully have it diagnosed and fixed. No one greets them, but, it being the weekend and all, they just assume the station is closed. 

With nothing else to do while Stiles tinkers with the fuel-pump on his own, Carl Oliver (Don Russell) and Doris Page (Helen Hovey) start exploring the rows of old derelict cars and empty buildings ... As they wander about, there are plenty of foreboding clues that something isn't quite right -- an empty table with a meal uneaten, a phone off the hook -- and as these ominous clues add up, we can't help but conclude that something sinister is afoot. Alas, our three heroes are too slow to put all these effects together before they're all staring down the barrel of a .45 automatic...

I freely admit as a Nebraskan, we as a state, an entire entity, have an inferiority complex. We hayseeds and shit-kickers have a chip on our shoulder the size of Lake McConaughy (-- buy a map!) and rabidly defend our place in the union by hoping our lack of uniqueness somehow makes us unique. What else do we have to be proud of? Our biggest claim to fame is having one of the dullest stretches of any Interstate; Johnny Carson, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, James Coburn, and a lot of other famous people were born here (-- but I point out they all left); and the schizophrenic weather, with all four seasons known to occur within the span of a few minutes, aren't really tourist attractions, either.

And then there's that whole Charlie Starkweather thing. E'yup, we had the nations first fugitive spree killer. Yay us. For those few who are unfamiliar with this yahoo, back in 1958, nineteen year-old Starkweather and Caril Fugate, his fourteen year-old girlfriend, terrorized the nation's heartland as they blazed a trail through five states, leaving another trail of dead bodies behind them -- eleven people all together, including Fugate's parents and baby sister, whom Chuckles beat to death -- before finally being caught. My mother, who was twelve years old when these two were running amok, honestly doesn't like talking about it all that much; it scared her pretty good. What little she recollected was that the deadly couple were [allegedly] spotted in the nearby town of Hastings at one point -- as I'm sure they were [allegedly spotted] in every town at the time, and how her folks kept both doors locked and a shotgun, also locked and loaded, stationed by each. Everyone was scared, for this was a whole different kind of gun nut than, say, outlaw bandits like Bonnie and Clyde, or John Dillinger, who came before them. After they were finally caught, Fugate turned against her boyfriend, claiming to be a hostage the whole time, but nobody bought her story. For their crimes, Starkweather got the electric chair, Fugate got a life sentence, and teenage delinquency had taken a new, and dangerously lethal turn. And advocates against things like rock and roll music, violence in the media, and the decline of moral values had a new poster couple to vilify as a new phrase entered our pop-culture lexicon: the thrill-killer.

Over the subsequent years, Starkweather and Fugate's homicidal relationship served as the basis for several films, most notably Terrence Mallick's Badlands, and its influence spawned a whole genre in the 1990's about trailer-trash with guns with films like Kalifornia and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Crackers -- erk, I mean, Natural Born Killers. Still, Badlands debuted almost fifteen years after Charlie got the chair. Seems mainstream Hollywood was reluctant to tackle the sore subject of this new breed of mass murderer; and while they wouldn't touch the likes of Starkweather, Richard Speck or Charles Whitman with a ten-foot pole, many a smaller, independent production companies were, forgive me, quicker on the trigger. And one of the first fledgling adaptations came out in 1963 by the anti-dynamic duo of Arch Hall2 -- a/k/a Arch Hall Sr. and Arch Hall Jr. And judging by what they'd done before, cinematically speaking, you never would have guessed they'd have this good a movie in them. Coming on the heels of EEGAH!, their giant caveman on the loose epic, came this criminally underrated gem of a film: an honest study in unbridled brutality and mounting terror called The Sadist.

Now, the finger on the trigger of that .45 automatic I described earlier belongs to Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall Jr.), a thug of the highest caliber. With his jailbait girlfriend, Judy Bradshaw (Marilyn Manning) on his arm, Tibbs starts to torment this hapless trio of travelers. Doing her best to encourage him, Judy constantly whispers into his ear, egging him on, and giving him ideas that are the equivalent of somebody pulling the wings off of a fly before squashing it. Quite obviously, Charlie relishes his position of power, especially when he finds out his latest batch of victims are all teachers -- and is amped up even more by the cowed reaction of his captive audience.

Stiles realizes first that these two are the spree-killers that have been making headlines lately, blazing a trail of robbery and murder through three states. Tibbs doesn't deny it and gladly gives a play by play on how they wound up here, in the middle of nowhere, stranded with a broken down car (-- that was stolen after they killed the owner); and they had just killed the gas station owner and his family when they heard the teachers pulling in.

Itching to move on, Tibbs already has his beady little inbred eyes on their car until Stiles warns the fuel pump is shot. Knowing they're all on borrowed time, he offers to fix it -- with a hope to stall things along until they can engineer an escape. Tibbs agrees, but makes no secret of his intentions to kill them all as soon as the car's fixed. When Oliver, the eldest of them, tries to reason with their captor, he only gets pistol-whipped for it. Then, turning a lecherous eye toward Doris, Tibbs playfully uses her and Oliver for a little target practice until Stiles refuses to do any more work unless he leaves them alone. But Judy has a better idea, anyway, and whispers it into Charlie's ear. Liking the idea, he makes Oliver get on his knees and beg for his life; and he only has a narrow window to make his case -- he has however long it takes Tibbs to finish a bottle of soda-pop before his life will end! And as he knocks the bottle back, again and again, Oliver's pleas for help from his friends and mercy from the hoodlum prove fruitless. The bottle soon empty, Tibbs cocks the trigger and thrusts the gun right into his victim's face!

This is the critical point in The Sadist, and it's a pivotal moment for the audience, too. Things begin creepily enough: there are plenty of ominous clues that we're made aware of, as an audience, but not our protagonists that something is wrong -- the cut phone lines, signs of a struggle, and just an overwhelming sense that they're being watched by something. Things quickly turn sinister, confirming our suspicions, when a .45 is thrust on screen, taking up the whole frame; then the camera whirls around and we're suddenly face to face with our "sadist" -- whom we B-Movie zealots quickly recognize as the unmistakable mug of Arch Hall Jr. ... Arch's performance as Charlie Tibbs is anything but restrained, and over the top doesn't even begin to do it justice. He strikes odd poses with the gun, and his voice and inflection come off as slightly retarded as he starts to put our heroes through the wringer, physically and emotionally. And you get the first uneasy inkling that this film is a different breed of J.D. thriller when Tibbs goes through the groveling Oliver's wallet, first tearing up his baseball tickets, and then pictures of his family. This sense of uneasiness is reinforced when he accosts Doris and actually sticks his hand up her shirt and roughly cups a feel.

Whoa -- What the hell? Can this truly be happening? Is Arch Hall Jr. actually being menacing? Well ... Arch's ham-fisted delivery still has us harkening back to his other juvenile delinquent pictures, like The Choppers, and other authoritarian, albeit hilarious, entries in this particular genre. I'll admit, up to this critical point, I was laughing at old Arch, too. With that high-pitched voice and perpetual squint, all topped off with that concrete pompadour, his performance, for some reason, was reminding me of a young and pudgy Wayne Newton (-- back when he was doing guest spots on Bonanza). But then we reach that pivotal moment when Oliver's time runs out: 

Ignoring the pleas for mercy...

Tibbs, with the .45 in hand...

Sticks it point plank in Oliver's face...

And pulls the trigger.


Holy crap! What the hell just happened?

Like Tibbs, the camera doesn't flinch. We see the whole thing. Here, I'll pause to remind everyone that this is 1963 we're talking about; and I'm curious if this is the first time we actually see someone get shot in the head without the aid of a jump-cut. And after that extremely shocking moment, everything afterwards, even though Arch's character is doing the exact same things, and he's acting the exact same way, everything that seemed silly and insipid before honestly becomes chilling, and, in some cases, downright terrifying!

In an Arch Hall Jr. flick?! Are you kidding me?!

No. I'm not. And I'll even take it one step further and say this whole movie is pretty damned good, even though it's become cliché, retroactively; spoiled by a lot of psycho-degenerate/white-trash serial killer films that followed. Is that fair? I don't think so. Some people are just narrow-minded these days. And yeah, it is hard to believe when you look at the Arches' oeuvre as a whole ... See, Arch Hall Jr. was the protégé of his father, Arch Hall Sr. After getting out of the military (-- and his time in the service as a test pilot was actually made into a film by Jack Webb, of all people, in The Last Time I Saw Archie), Senior became an independent movie producer, mostly second-tier westerns. He also served as writer and director on a lot of his projects and eventually founded his own company: Fairway International Pictures. And in that capacity, he was also responsible for giving Ray Dennis Steckler his first directing gig (-- and god bless 'em for that! Arch Sr. also produced Steckler's similar, but not quite as effective, The Thrill Killers.) When westerns began to fade at the box-office, Senior switched his production-eye toward the exploitation market and backed a nudie-cutie written by Junior called The Magic Spectacles. Senior also saw the success that American International Pictures was having with their swinging beach party movies and hit upon an idea...

All Arch Hall Jr. ever really wanted to be was a pilot, like his dad, but Senior got it into his head that he could turn his son into a crooning teen heartthrob -- a cash-cow, and over the span of three short years assaulted the drive-in circuit with the critically low-budget "classics" The Choppers, Wild Guitar and EEGAH!. Each movie proved successful enough to form the budget for the next one. They're all pretty terrible -- but a demented good time, which probably explains why Arch Hall Jr. never really took off. 

With all the perceived acting talent of an avocado, coupled with musical talents that could barely muster songs like "Kongo Joe" and "Monkey in My Hatband", Junior's career quickly petered out with The Nasty Rabbit and Deadwood '76. He then gave up acting altogether, went on to get his pilot's license, and became a successful commercial aviator. Senior, who had been a modestly successful independent film producer, was crushed by this development, and, according to Steckler in the book Research 10: Incredibly Strange Films, was never the same. When Junior walked away from the movie business, Senior stopped producing, too, and the world of B-movies is lesser for it. (Arch Hall Sr. died in '76.) At last report, Junior is still flying, is a grandfather, and living in Florida but declines most offers to discuss his film career. I also understand that he's just published a novel under one of his father's many pseudonyms.

Right in the middle of all that cinematic cheese came The Sadist, but it was two other men, I believe, who should be properly credited for elevating this movie above the rest of the dreck: James Landis and Vilmos Zsigmond. Arch Sr. served only as the producer (-- and as the uncredited narrator, Nicholas Merewether) on this flick, while the writing and directing chores fell to Landis. A veteran writer for the TV show Combat!, Landis took the no-nonsense, documentary approach of that show and applied it to The Sadist. As the first serious attempt to adapt the Starkweather and Fugate murder spree on film, Landis proved up to the task, and his simple, matter-of-fact style resulted in pretty taut thriller that will knock you right on your ass because this is the last thing you're expecting when you see who's on the marquee. Zsigmond, here billed as William Zsigmond, served as the film's cinematographer, and his set-ups and creative framing give The Sadist a certain frenetic look -- a razor-blade starkness, and a down and dirty grittiness that gives the film most of its cinematic punch. He keeps switching perspectives: one minute we are on one side of the gun looking down the sight, the next we're staring right down the barrel; it's simple but effective in keeping us off balance. There's a lot of effective handheld camera work, too, getting us down in the dirt and the middle of the action -- I swear the camera barely gets over three-feet off the ground for the majority of the picture, and the frame never really does stand still once the ball gets rolling, giving this film a frenzied sense of momentum that keeps things barreling toward the climax.

Zsigmond is another one of those gifted craftsmen who worked their way up the film food chain. Breaking in with the Arches, he moved on to work with Steckler for several pictures, including The Incredibly Strange Creatures who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies, where he worked with two other famous contemporaries, Lazlo Kovacs and Joseph V. Mascelli; then Al Adamson's Satan's Sadists, before graduating to more mainstream work for the likes of Robert Altman, John Boorman and Steven Spielberg, and eventually, an Academy Award for his craft with Close Encounters. He ran into a streak of bad luck after that, though, with the critical and box-office disaster Heaven's Gate and several Brian de Palma duds, including Bonfire of the Vanities. Now back to the review!

When combining their efforts, here, these two concoct a film that is relentless, brutal and very downbeat that definitely deserves more notoriety. So why don't more people know about it? And why isn't it considered a cult movie classic? Well, with all respect to Arch and his gonzoid performance, it is the cast that ultimately sinks the film. Mention of a positive nature should be made for Marilyn Manning's equally understated performance as Judy -- and it's hard to believe that these two played the two brain-dead teenagers in EEGAH! just the year before. As Tibbs's deadly muse, she seems to be the true trigger for his homicidal outbursts. To her it's just a game, and her sinister suggestions and the scenes of her rifling the dead for souvenirs is truly disturbing. So that means the biggest problem lies with our three protagonists. These characters are paper thin to begin with and the actors don't really add anything to them. Russell fails as the voice of reason and both he and Alden appear to have gone to the William Shatner school of acting. You'll occasionally catch a hint of an accent from Hovey, a cousin of the film's star. She's a gamer, but never acts like she's in any real danger, like she hasn't quite got the difference between acting and pretending down yet, so some of the menace is lost. And as the film plays out, dare I say Alden makes a better "final girl" than she does? And to be honest, there are no likeable characters here. Well, Carl Oliver, maybe, but he's already dead. I mean, Tibbs and Judy, our thrill-killers, are sociopathic vermin, and Stiles comes off as a sniveling coward, while Doris is, well, as I hinted before, Doris is kind of a helpless cipher who you'll be yelling "Run, ya idiot!" at. A lot.

And there are several chances to escape, or take Tibbs on, but Stiles keeps wimping out -- but it is a believable kind of wimping out, so we can empathize with him a little. The biggest chance to escape comes when two passing motorcycle patrolmen stop for some refreshments. Alas, the protagonists wait too long to warn them, letting Tibbs get the drop on the cops, and he shoots them both dead. And with each dashed hope and every missed opportunity continuing to stack the deck against our survivors' life-expectancy, you're still conditioned to expect a happy resolution -- but it never comes. Evil isn't punished in the film. Evil only kind of devours itself; a hollow victory for the good guys. It starts with a deft move by Stiles, who finally summons the courage to act, and then Tibbs, his face full of gasoline, accidentally shoots and kills his partner in crime. Up to this point, as I said before, Stiles had kinda been a cowardly weasel, but you figure now that he's finally grown a pair, he'll come through and save the day, thus redeeming himself. And, like Stiles, I was counting the number of shots while Tibbs was chasing him. So after their harrowing game of cat and mouse, when the gun clicks empty and Stiles goes on the attack -- and we as an audience look forward to seeing Tibbs finally getting his head kicked in -- we, like Stiles, forgot about the stolen police revolver, and then sit in stunned silence when Tibbs pulls the second gun and drops his latest victim before he can even get close. And there will be no last-second heroics by a wounded Stiles, either, as Tibbs empties the revolver into him, punctuating that point with a gruesome finality. 

Then, after another prolonged stalk and chase scene (-- that we'll be seeing again twenty years later in Texas, if you know what I mean), Doris is saved by dumb luck and dumb luck only when Tibbs falls into an abandoned well, a den for several rattlesnakes, which robs of us of any kind of emotional payoff. And we end with Tibbs's death screams (-- that purposefully sound like a dying animal --) as Doris, in a state of shock, slowly wanders back toward the junkyard as those resonating, primal shrieks fade to be replaced by the radio call of the baseball game. 

And that is why you'll have a hard time shaking The Sadist once you've seen it, because you're angry at it -- and in hindsight, respecting the hell out of it -- for cheating us out of any kind of vindicated resolution. Just one of the many reasons why The Sadist truly is a remarkable and groundbreaking piece. And its influence can be seen in the relentless, cynical and brutal horror films of Craven, Hooper and many others in the 1970's and should be championed for this and not lampooned because if its leading man. Facts is facts: The Sadist was the first of it's kind, and definitely deserves to be better known than it is.

Originally Posted: 06/11/04 :: Rehashed: 08/08/08

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.

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