Sunday, November 30, 2008

To Inflict Moral Insanity Upon the Innocent

The man pictured above is Arch Hall, Jr., and the movie from which he's pointing that gun at you is James Landis's The Sadist, made in 1963. There has never been, to my knowledge, an official DVD release of the film, but I was lucky enough to have recently stumbled across a fairly high quality DVD of the film, the existence of which seems to be owed entirely to the concept of "public domain". My purchase of the disc coincidentally follows the latest in a long string of tantalizing references to Landis's film that I've encountered over the past year or so, the last of which being Dennis's selection of The Sadist for his Alphabet Meme list.

The Sadist has a reputation for being a particularly nasty and shocking B-movie, and the basic story -- three people on a road trip are terrorized by a giddily violent sociopath -- is one that has been exploited to those very ends countless times (in fact, the list of films that The Sadist resembles both directly and superficially is a long one, and I'll get to that later), so I didn't quite know what to expect. How far did this thing go? After all, 1963 is the same year that brought us Blood Feast, a film that, for all its lunatic incompetence, still shows how extreme the violence in a no-budget B-film could be, even in those days. I hoped that James Landis's film didn't owe its reputation to the same kind of eternal cult tastes that Herschell Gordon Lewis's film did, but Dennis was notably free of wink or snark in his recommendation, so I was quite curious when, earlier tonight, I finally watched it.

The story The Sadist tells is as I described it above, and there's very little to add to that synopsis, apart from the fact that the three people being terrorized -- played by Richard Alden, Don Russell, and Helen Hovey -- are schoolteachers, and friends, who are on a day trip to see a baseball game. Their car is in need of some small repair, and they pull off to a service station in the middle of nowhere, which they soon discover is apparently abandoned, despite the fact that the house to which the garage is connected shows signs of having been recently inhabited. Their unease begins to worsen, and with good cause, because it's around here that Arch Hall, as Charles Tibbs shows up, girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning) in tow. Recklessly waving around a gun, Tibbs tells the three teachers that they must repair their car, after which Tibbs and Judy will take the car for themselves. If the teachers do not repair the car, Tibbs will shoot them all.

The first, and primary, influence on this film must have been the true story of Charles Starkweather, a mass murderer who, with his teenage girlfriend Carol Anne Fugate, gunned down eleven people in 1957 and '58. We learn that Tibbs, a young man who even physically resembles Starkweather, has murdered more than one person before meeting the schoolteachers, and Judy, like Fugate, is high school age. Starkweather's story also inspired Terrence Malick's Badlands, and Starkweather's psychology may have inspired, nearly ten years later, another Charles, Charles Whitman, who in 1966 would kill seventeen people, firing upon them from a tower on the campus of the University of Texas. Starkweather's case was very well known across the country, and when you consider that it is still well-known today, it's not a stretch to think it may have been a bit fresh in Whitman's mind when choosing the method by which he would go down in history. And Whitman's case, of course, was at least a partial inspiration for Peter Bogdanovich's masterful Targets, a film in which Boris Karloff, playing a version of himself, opines that his brand of old-fashioned, melodramatic horror was no match for the real-world horrors of Bobby Thompson (the film's fictional stand-in for Whitman). The Sadist, meanwhile, has been labeled a horror film by some, and by Karloff's definition of "horror" in Targets it certainly qualifies.

My concern that The Sadist might follow the example of Blood Feast in terms of both gore levels and general quality were completely unfounded, and because The Sadist is less enamored of its own violence than H. G. Lewis is of the viscera in Blood Feast, while at the same time being far more blunt on the topic, Landis is able to construct moments that function like a kick to the gut. There is little to no actual blood in The Sadist, but I sometimes wondered if there wasn't more. (Pardon me for this long parenthetical interlude, but this phenomenon of thinking a film's violence is more extreme than it really is has effected, I'm told, certain viewers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I don't know if this is really true, but, though it's superficial, Tobe Hooper's film also bears some resemblance to The Sadist, not only in its basic narrative, but also in its, well, sadism. Some thirty years later, the influence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is still being felt and noted in films like Wolf Creek, while The Sadist is almost completely forgotten, despite the fact that Wolf Creek so closely resembles Landis's film that it almost functions as an unofficial remake. Which is not the same, he quickly added, as saying Wolf Creek is a rip-off.) I don't really know anything about the cult of fans that has grown around this film, but I have to assume that the scene most often commented upon as news of The Sadist was passed on by word-of-mouth over the years is the film's first killing, an act of violence the camera doesn't flinch from, even though I don't think we quite see what we think we do. But even if we just focus on what we do see, this film is from 1963, and it's presenting the audience with shocking violence that they would have a really hard time laughing about afterwards, like they could with Blood Feast.

One of the things I personally find most fascinating about the time in which The Sadist was released is not just that this was done in 1963, but that it was done in April of 1963. Cultural historians -- at least the ones with whom I have unfortunately had experience -- would be stymied by the chronology of The Sadist's filming and distribution, because, you see, cultural historians apparently believe that everyone born before they were is a total dumbshit, and the dumbshits who were adults in the 1950s and '60s (thereby having survived World War II and the Korean War, among other things) still needed the assassination of John F. Kennedy, in November 1963, to remind them that guns were sometimes used to shoot people in the head, and it was this horrifying act of public murder that allowed for the creation of films like The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde and so on and so on. I'm sure everyone reading this has seen someone making this kind of connection, but for this connection to work someone needed to tell James Landis, who was on this particular case when Lee Harvey Oswald was still greasing machinery in New Orleans.

Another aspect of The Sadist that shouldn't be forgotten is the fact that the victims are teachers, and Tibbs is, if not actually a teenager, at least still young, and mentally a teenager in some of his behavior. What a great double bill this would be with Rebel Without a Cause! Jim Stark was a fundamentally decent kid who was simply being consistently misunderstood by the adults around him. Charles Tibbs, on the other hand, is plain fucking bad, in a particularly uncomplicated way. Like Merv Griffin, he simply loves to kill. I'm tempted to say that Landis is trying to send the message -- or at least pretending to be alarmist about the topic in the service of his film's financial returns -- that Charles Tibbs is the final result of juvenile delinquency not corrected strenuously enough. But that's not really what the film is about. The film is about what its title says it's about. The Sadist is about the utter lack of empathy that exists in some people. It's about the exact opposite of human decency. It's about Charles Tibbs shooting a man in the head while his next two victims watch, and wait.


Krauthammer said...

OK, here's a question: How was Arch Hall Jr. in the role? All I know about Arch Hall Jr. Is that he's developed a cult for his not-so-good acting abilities (Eegra, Wild Guitar, etc.) While this obviously doesn't fit under any kind of "camp classic" banner, was Hall any good?

bill r. said...

Yes, he was good. I think the cult of this film overrates him a bit, and at times he can be a little cartoony, but I do think he gives a good performance.

Greg said...

I saw this a few months ago and was impressed with its presentation and story. It's not loaded up budget wise but does a good job with what it has. And killing the other man (sorry, can't remember any character names) while the other two watch, unwilling to trade spaces, was pretty stunning to see. I did think Hall was cartoonish more than you did, judging from your response to the Hammer but it worked most of the time so who cares. In fact, his cartoonish behavior made me want to smash his face in so I think that means it worked well.

bill r. said...

Hall is cartoonish, of course, but like you, Jonathan, I think by and large it works. I certainly don't think it's a great performance, like a many of the film's fans claim it is, but it's effective.

Marilyn said...

Not my kind of movie, but it does have an interesting cultural history.

In honor of the fact that she started in B-films and because I can't think of much more sadistic than cutting a woman's limbs off and putting her in a box, Marilyn Monday will be devoted to the "Helena" herself, Sherilyn Fenn.

Adam Ross said...

Hall is cartoonish in the role, but I think that helps the horror -- he's so dumb that you can't reason with him, and there's no sense he'll back down from any level of violence. I also liked the performances of the teachers, their fear always seemed genuine and added to the situation's sense of dread.

And if you haven't checked out "Eegah" (or even the MST3K lampoon), please do -- Hall plays the anti-Tibbs in nit.

bill r. said...

Adam - Yes, I think you've nailed why the performance works: there's no reason to believe that a man who behaves like this will ever not go as far as he's threatening to.

I saw part of Eegah when I was a kid, but I never saw the whole thing. I shall do so ASAP.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Same subject, but a different take. I just saw Marguerite Duras' Nathalie Granger. The story, more or less, is about a mother dealing with her young, elementary school age, daughter who has been acting violent for no clear reason. In the background, we hear a radio report about two teenage boys who have been on a shooting spree and are the object of a manhunt in the suburbs outside of Paris. Charles Whitman is mentioned by a reporter. The film was made in 1972.