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Friday, 18 July 2014

The Sadist (1963)

A few weeks back I wrote about the book "Bad Movies We Love" which made me to watch films which I might otherwise have ignored. Another book which has encouraged me to seek out oddities is the beautifully named "Slimetime" which sells itself as 'a guide to sleazy, mindless, movie entertainment'. It started life as a 27-issue fanzine in the late '80s by its author Steven Puchalski, a self-confessed lover of bizarre and generally unheralded flicks, and his lovingly researched movies were collected into book form in 1996.

It would be both wrong and unfair to lump all of his collected films as B-movies or Trash , since a number of them are true genre classics and cult favourites, such as "El Topo" "White of the Eye", "Wings of Desire", "The Abominable Dr Phibes", and many more. However the collection also includes some pretty dire bottom-of-the-barrel titles that you would never want to see more than once (if at all), and I must admit to having sat through most of these. However some of his choices were unfamiliar to me, piquing my curiosity and earning a place on my fabled 'must see' list. The above title was one of these.

Anyone who knows anything about the provenance of this movie -- to say nothing about its exploitation title -- would approach it with doubts and caution, but come away completely convinced that it is something of a near-classic. Inspired by the success of Hitchcock's "Psycho", the hack actor/producer/director Arch Hall Sr, continued his hopeless attempt to make a film-star of his supremely untalented son, Arch Hall Jr. Junior was thrust into the limelight originally in Dad's 'masterpiece' "Eegah!", where he and his girlfriend discover a caveman who has managed to survive all these years in California living in his cardboard cave. (As one interesting footnote to movie history, the giant barbarian was played by Richard Kiel, latterly Jaws in the Bond movies). Junior also had the opportunity to display his non-existent vocal talents in this film and his next "Wild Guitar". Do yourself a favour and don't try to find this pair of time-wasters.

It is therefore amazing what novice director James Landis has managed to achieve here. The 90-minute film is set in real time and concerns three school-teachers en route to Los Angeles to watch a baseball game when their car breaks down. They pull into an apparently unattended wrecking yard to attempt repairs, puzzled by the unfinished plates of warm pie in the office. Suddenly they are set upon by lumbering. simpering hulk Hall Jr, one of cinema's all-time unredeemable pyscho-killers. Inspired again by the true story of Charlie Starkweather and his teen-aged girlfriend, whose killing spree was immortalised in "Badlands", Hall plays one Charlie Tibbs on the run after his own mini-reign of terror. He is accompanied by his very childish, giggling girlfriend, played by his previous co-star Marilyn Manning, who has no dialogue but who spends most of the film wrapped around him, whispering sweet nothings in his ear, and encouraging his excesses. 

The three teachers are older, bespectacled bloke Don Russell (quickly tortured and killed), would-be action hero Richard Alden (the only one of the cast with any sort of subsequent film career), and the uptight but dishy female lead, Helen Hovey, who Hall enjoys pushing around and casually molesting. She is in fact the heroine of the movie (spoiler: the only survivor) and does a reasonable job. Pity she never made another picture -- I gather she was a Hall cousin roped into the enterprise. With its single set and minimal plot it is staggering that the suspense successfully builds. No relief appears when two motorcycle cops stop by for some cold cokes from the fridge (apparently played by off-duty policemen with their own machines); Hall blithely mows them down to the 'music' of the police radio in the background telling them to be on the look-out for the fugitives. One just doesn't know when the next bit of random violence will raise its head, right through the scary and horrifying final scenes -- guaranteed to provide nightmares for days to come!

The film also benefits from its magnificent photography, the first American job of work for Hungarian refugee Vilmos Zsigmond, subsequently one of the most lauded cinematographers of the 20th Century. He successfully captures the heat, agony, and hopelessness in this wasteland of wrecked cars. Despite itself, the film is something very special.  
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