The Sadist

Director: James Landis
Arch Hall Jr., Richard Alden, Marilyn Manning

There are several ways one can break into the motion picture industry and become a star. The most obvious way is to be a great actor and keep going to audition after audition and hope that a casting director will see your talent and get you hired as an actor in a movie. Of course, there are potential pitfalls with that strategy. There are already a lot of established (and talented) actors already in the motion picture industry, and casting directors will more often than not go for someone who is established than with an unknown. And even if a casting director is looking for a fresh face, you will be competing with hundreds of other struggling actors, many who will be just as talented as you. Maybe even more so. With all that in mind, it's no wonder that some people wanting to act in a motion picture will try other kind of ways to break into the business. One of the most clichéd alternate methods is the "casting couch" method, offering yourself sexually to people in the motion picture industry who are responsible for casting. Oh, I am sure this has happened several times in real life, but I am also sure it hasn't happened that many times. It would be hard for a casting person to justify to the producers putting up the budget of a movie the sudden casting of someone who isn't talented at acting. Another technique that someone with stars in their eyes can do to land a role is to make their own movie. In the 1993 movie Road To Revenge (also known as GetEven - no, there's no space in this alternate title), a man by the name of John de Hart wrote, directed, and produced this vanity vehicle for himself. He even got B movie legends like Wings Hauser and William Smith as supporting players to make it appear like a legitimate movie. But from reports I've read, the movie was more or less an excuse for de Hart to get into sex scenes and sing multiple songs on the soundtrack. It's reportedly unbelievably bad - which of course means that I have desperately looked for a copy to review for years, to no avail.

There is another way one can break into the motion picture business as an actor, though it's a way that seems so silly and unbelievable that it's reserved for comedies about the motion picture industry. But it's happened at least once, with the case of actor Arch Hall Jr. Hall was an actor who appeared in six movies in the 1960s, and got cast in the lead in each movie for one specific reason - he knew the head of the studio that made these movies. And the head of the studio, Fairway International Pictures, was his father, Arch Hall Sr. To be fair to Arch Hall Jr., he seemed to know that he had limitations as an actor. He reportedly told his father, "Gee, Pop, I can't sing," when his father brought up the idea of him singing in a motion picture. Hall Sr. convinced his son by pointing out a lot of people had done well in movies without a proper singing voice. Despite his father's encouragement, and being cast in one of his father's movies after another, Hall Jr., for the most part, didn't give performances that exactly pleased the critics. One movie historian years later called him, "[A] twerpy, pug-nosed pompadoured blond actor... who was only slightly better looking than Michael J. Pollard, but without the quirky charm or talent... He was amateurish and obnoxious, whether playing cowboys, rock singers, young hoods, or young gentlemen.... He seemed not to actually care about acting." Another film historian wrote about Hall Jr. in the camp classic Eegah!: "He has a face that only a mother could love... The script gives Mr. Hall every chance to make a fool of himself, and the young actor makes the most of each opportunity."

I have seen all six of Arch Hall Jr.'s sixties movies, which include Eegah!, Wild Guitar, Deadwood '76, The Choppers, and The Nasty Rabbit. All five of those movies are bad movies, though to be fair I thought Deadwood '76 was kind of weirdly watchable despite its many The Sadistshortcomings. And I will admit that in those five movies, Arch Hall Jr. simply wasn't very good. The critical comment from the previous paragraph of this review regarding that he seemed not to actually care about acting many times in his movies does seem to be true. But if one was to take a look at Arch Hall Jr.'s full filmography, one will see that there was one movie where he not only seemed to be trying hard to act, he actually gave, despite all odds against him, a great performance. That movie was the 1963 movie The Sadist. And, unlike his other movies, the parts of the movie surrounding him were also well done. Before getting into describing how all of that is so, first a look at the plot of The Sadist. In southern California, school teachers Ed (Alden, Deadline), Carl (Don Russell), and Doris (Helen Hovey,) are driving through the countryside on their way to attend a baseball game in Los Angeles. During their journey, they experience car trouble, and pull off the road into a filling station slash junkyard in the hope they can get their car repaired. They are mystified to find the place deserted, with troubling clues like discovering unfinished meals in a house on the lot. But it doesn't take long for them to find out what happens. Out of nowhere, a young psycho (Hall), with his equally demented girlfriend Judy (Manning, Eegah!) pops up, brandishing a gun. It doesn't take long for the three teachers to realize the psycho is one Charlie Tibbs, an interstate fugitive who has already caused several deaths in another state - and seems very willing to add the three teachers to his body count. The three teachers manage to save their lives by promising to fix their car so that Charlie and Judy can drive off... but Charlie's sadistic behavior soon make the teachers realize that Charlie has no plans to let them live once the car is fixed. They must do something, but the odds are not great with a loaded gun constantly pointed at them.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why Arch Hall Jr. gave such a great performance in The Sadist when in those five other movies of his that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, he was so unbelievably bad. He was still working for his producer father, and director James Landis after this movie directed Hall in two of those other Hall movies I mentioned. The most plausible theory that I could come up with is that Hall not only saw the potential with this particular role, he saw he could have fun playing a downright rotten dude. Certainly, the potential for the part of Charlie Tibbs would be evident to many other actors. Charlie Tibbs has been written to be one of the most loathsome characters ever to be found in a 1960s movie. The best that can be said about him is that he's very confident. When he first appears, the first thing he says to the three teachers is simply, "Just keep working on that car," while brandishing his gun. And that turns out to be one of the kinder gestures he puts forth in the entire film. When he learns a little later that the three protagonists are teachers, he is almost delighted, because he reveals he hates teachers because of what happened in his past, and now has in his mind an excuse to torture these three innocents further. But that's not to say that his lack of education has made him stupid; Charlie during the course of the movie shows some true criminal cunning, managing to spot several times when the three teachers try various schemes in an attempt to get the upper hand. Smart people, sadists or not, make for more formidable opponents. But what's even more dangerous about Charlie is that not only has he pretty much lost any sense of humanity, he sometimes can't even see what's in his best interest. There's one scene when Ed is working on repairing the car for Charlie when Charlie squeezes a few shots from his gun, aiming very close to Ed. Charlie finds this near killing of his ticket out of there disturbingly amusing, but we in the audience don't laugh because the person doing this is clearly one sick individual.

As well-written the part of Charlie Tibbs is, the best writing in the world wouldn't make much difference if the actor playing Charlie wasn't up to the task of bringing the character to life. But Arch Hall Jr. gave it his all with this role, and Charlie is both a believable and scary bad dude. With his creepy laugh, piercing glances, and seemingly without effort changing from one various extreme (and convincing) emotion to another - from sadistic enjoyment to pure rage - Hall is one of the all time great big screen villains. The relentlessness of Hall's nastiness does eventually get a little hard to believe - it would soon tire out your typical real life psychopath - but Hall does succeed in making Charlie someone you'll love to hate. But he's not the only other person in The Sadist to give a good performance. Marilyn Manning, as Charlie's girlfriend Judy, despite having almost no dialogue during the course of the movie, executes great use of body language and facial expressions to show that her character is almost as seriously disturbed as Charlie. In comparison to Hall and Manning, the performances of the actors playing the three protagonists aren't as memorable - though in a movie like this, it's hard to upstage the antagonists. But to be fair, they do find some moments to shine a little. Richard Alden does compliment the writing of his schoolteacher character by giving the air of someone who has some believable skills but is also not a superman, which gives his character some sympathy. Helen Hovey's character is pretty much a typical 1960s female wimp, though she has one good scene where after being briefly tortured by Charlie, she silently tries to regain her dignity before walking back to the other protagonists. Don Russell probably gives the most memorable performance of all three protagonist actors, showing some authority before things turn bad, and subsequently showing the secret helpless side of his character when Charlie starts putting him through the wringer.

I've mostly talked about the actors and their characters in The Sadist up to this point, but I also want to talk about more about the contributions writer and director James Landis made to this movie. The script for The Sadist is not just well written with its characters. While almost all of the movie takes place in one fairly small location, Landis on a regular basis injects unexpected moments to make sure things don't get boring, such as one moment when the five main characters unexpectedly get a couple of visitors that could throw off the plans of Charlie - or the protagonists. Such moments also prevent the movie from getting predictable, especially one development that genuinely shocked me during the climactic sequence. Being the director as well as the writer, Landis had the story play out in a manner few other movies have used - playing out in real time. Except for the one-time use of dissolving from one shot to another in the first few seconds of the movie after the opening credits, what we see plays out without any jumps ahead in time. This technique works extremely well for this particular movie. There is no break in the mood of the movie - the tension slowly builds as the story progresses, without giving us a chance to let our guard down. As the climax gets closer and closer we see that something big - bad or good - will happen, not might happen, and there's nothing we can do about it. All we can do is remain transfixed by what's happening and building up, and hope Landis will give us some mercy at the end. The only real flaw I found with Landis' direction was that he used music on the soundtrack a bit too often. The music is not awful - it sometimes does its job - but for the most part I found the movie more suspenseful when there was natural silence as a backdrop to what the characters were saying and doing. Despite this flaw, The Sadist is a real sleeper. It may be hard to believe that a very low budget drive-in 1960s thriller has more bite and skill than many mainstream thrillers of its time (or even today.) But if Arch Hall Jr. could find it in himself to give a great performance, I say that anything is possible.

(Posted June 3, 2020)

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See also: Curfew, If I Die Before I Wake, Rabid Dogs