PURE TERROR MONTH: The Sadist (1963)

About the author: Robert Freese has been a staff writer for Videoscope Magazine since 1998. He also contributes to Drive-in Asylum. 

Teachers Ed Stiles (Richard Alden), Carl Oliver (Don Russell) and Doris Page (Helen Hovey) are on their way to L.A. for a Dodgers game when their fuel pump goes out on a desert back road. They pull into a seemingly deserted filling station but find no help. Ed pokes around looking for a replacement fuel pump while Carl and Doris discuss the rules of baseball over a couple cold Coca-Colas.

It’s not long before giggling, gun-toting loony Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall, Jr.) and his psychotically silent gal pal Judy Bradshaw (Marilyn Manning) make their presence known. They hold the teachers hostage, pushing Ed to fix the car so they can make a getaway (Tibbs and Bradshaw are on the run for a recent murder spree and the authorities have an APB out on them. Ed knows that as soon as the car is fixed, it’s “bullet in the head time” for each of the teachers.).

Soon, Charlie tires of waiting and starts terrorizing the teachers, particularly middle-aged Carl. He pistol whips the poor guy then, in one of the most cold-blooded scenes ever committed to film, makes the guy beg for his life while he swigs down a Grape Nehi. Charlie promises to shoot Carl when he finishes the soda pop. 

At this point, viewers know beyond a shadow of doubt that anything can happen to anyone at any time. Please don’t think for a second that just because this picture was made for drive-ins back in 1963 that it is some goofy, throwaway horror flick. This sucker is mean, nasty, plays dirty, has teeth and isn’t afraid to use them.

Inspired by real life psychopath Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate, Hall, Jr. pours on the crazy the second he creeps onto the screen and does not let up until the film’s conclusion. Manning’s character is 18, as we’re told by a radio news report, and her silent portrayal of Judy is absolutely chilling.

Amazingly, the film starts at a high point early on, and continues to ramp up the thrills until the final chase through the desert. The Sadist is a taut, twisted psycho-thriller that has never gotten the credit it deserves for helping evolve the “psycho/slasher” genre. This is definitely a film cut from the same mold as Psycho and helped pave the way for such gruesome drive-in fare as The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (It is easy to see the characters of Charlie and Judy as early prototypes for Mickey and Mallory Knox from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and the image of the barefoot and bloodied heroine wandering out of the desert, away from the psychopaths, into seeming safety, is a familiar trope in most of the films by Rob Zombie.).

Don’t get me wrong, The Sadist is not nearly as graphic as the films that evolved from it, but for a flick made in 1963 with the drive-in audience in mind, it has many truly shocking moments and is a wonderfully effective psycho thriller.

Hall, Jr. starred in a string of drive-in films for his father, stuff like The Choppers in 1961, Eegah in 1962, also with Manning, and Deadwood ’76. After appearing in two films with Hall, Jr., Manning did one more feature, 1964’s What’s Up Front!, before leaving the picture business.

Hero Alden appeared in a number of films and TV shows over the years, including horror flicks like The Pit and Deadline. This was Hovey’s single foray into filmmaking, which is a shame as she delivers a great performance. (She was Hall, Jr.’s cousin.) Russell worked on a couple of other films during this time period but only acted in one other flick, portraying the greasy-faced Ortega in Ray Dennis Steckler’s classic The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies.

Director Landis went on to write and/or direct a couple more exploitation flicks aimed at the ozoners, Rat Fink and Jennie, Wife/Child among them. The sharp cinematography is courtesy Vilmos Zsigmond, who started his career working on small indie flicks before graduating to an illustrious big time, award-winning Hollywood career.

I’m happy The Sadist is part of the Pure Terror collection, as well as others, as it allows more fans easier access in discovering this tough little exploitation gem (It doesn’t hurt that there are 49 other titles along with it from which to pick a Friday night double feature. Might I suggest pairing this one with Anatomy of a Psycho or The Embalmer for a terrific double shot of 60’s psycho-drama.).

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