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DVD Review: The Sadist – Special Edition (1963)

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The Sadist is perhaps the most underrated psychological teenage thrill killer exploitation flick ever made. Decades ahead of its time, the ultramodern masterpiece was the work of a minor writer/director by the name of James Landis, who relates to us the horrific plight of three schoolteachers (who dress like Mormons) on their way to Los Angeles for a baseball game: the elder Carl (Don Russell), the macho Ed (Richard Alden), and the naïve Doris (Helen Hovey, in her only film role — ever).

Doris is your stereotypical '60s woman who doesn’t understand the concept of sports (blasphemer!) and, deep down, is probably under the delusion that every man is good at heart. Regrettably for her and her colleagues, she soon discovers that some people in the world are inherently evil by nature — and a stop at a salvage yard to replace their broken fuel pump lands them face to face with a giggling psychopath named Charlie (Arch Hall, Jr.) and his equally deranged (and for the most part, silent) young girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning).

If the storyline sounds a bit familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen many of the hundreds of similar movies that have hit the screens (small and big alike) since The Sadist first hit theaters back in 1963. The story was inspired by the real life killing spree of Charles Starkweather in the late '50s, and the tried-but-true tale of an American boy gone wrong has been retold in such theatrical and television films as Badlands, Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers, Murder In The Heartland, Starkweather, and still more. But no matter how often filmmakers revisit the story, very few movies come close to the impact that The Sadist holds.

While Arch Hall, Jr. may not have been the world's greatest actor (personally, I find him to be a B-movie icon), he nevertheless brings an ample amount of eeriness to his role — and scenes of him just sitting there, giggling at the good guys while holding them at gunpoint and downing one soda after another are enough to send chills up your spine. Of course, The Sadist doesn’t work for those of you who have little to no appreciation for vintage B-movies, and you directly file it under “cheesy” without giving it much though (as several of my significant others have done in the past) — but, lest ye judgeth, remember this: The Sadist did it all first, years before those “true romance” films you hold in such high regard now ever copied it. So there.

Aside from the fact that it is a true cult classic (it's right up there with Herk Harvey's immortal Carnival Of Souls as far as I'm concerned), The Sadist also benefits from its connections with B-movie legends Arch Hall, Sr. (whose studio, Fairway International, produced — the uncredited Arch, Sr. also provides several voiceovers throughout the film) and the late Ray Dennis Steckler (actor Don Russell played the part of Ortega in Ray’s memorable monster musical, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? and served as production manager on this film), who first directed the Arches in the equally wonderful Wild Guitar (the best rock-and-roll B-movie ever!). Writer/director James Landis had done a few pictures as well as television work prior to The Sadist and would return to direct the younger Arch’s next (and last) two flicks: The Nasty Rabbit (aka Spies-A-Go-Go) and Deadwood ‘76. It’s a shame that Landis never had the chance to do more (he seemed to have retired from filmmaking in 1968 and passed away in 1991) as The Sadist shows some truly serious signs of some truly serious talent.

Another highlight of The Sadist is the superb photography from none other than the award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who started work in Hollywood with the Arches (and Steckler) along with another then unknown László Kovács (who passed away in 2007). Considering The Sadist was Zsigmond’s first American credit as cinematographer (he had previously shot one short in his native Hungary and had done some second camera work for Wild Guitar), his keen eye for ensnaring viewers was already apparent. Even if you snub your nose towards B-movies, you can’t deny the lush camerawork evident in The Sadist.

Previously released on DVD by Image Entertainment (under the All Day Entertainment label) and several budget labels (including Alpha Video and Mill Creek), The Sadist is given another chance to terrorize the world via a new Special Edition from Johnny Legend’s Raunchy Tonk label. The new widescreen 1.66:1 ratio transfer is a joy to behold, sporting a new high-def master. There are a few instances of blemishes and scratches but, as any B-movie lover knows, that only adds to the charm.

For a long time, the previously mentioned Image/All Day DVD (which has long been out of print) was the collector’s preferred choice for viewing this classic… but Johnny Legend’s new release blows the others out of the water. This print is anamorphic; the video is much crisper and isn’t as fuzzy or shaky as the others; and the enhanced English Mono Stereo audio is fantastic when compared to any of the other releases.

While the Audio Commentary with Vilmos Zsigmond featured on the Image/All Day issue is a bit missed here, Johnny Legend has made it up to us by including the "Arch Hall, Jr. Interview" (12:33) filmed and conducted by Ray Dennis Steckler. Both the Archster (who looks damn good and is still playing gigs across the country) and the unseen Steckler reminisce about their work together, covering most of the Archography in general as well as The Sadist. Original trailers for several Arch Hall movies are interlaced throughout the interview.

Next on the special features roster is the "Arch Hall, Jr. Video Songbook" (20:54), highlighting some of Junior’s best works from the movies The Choppers, Eegah!, Wild Guitar, and Spies-A-Go-Go, many of which are also on the Norton Records release, Wild Guitar! (which is highly recommended in itself).

Lastly, there’s the "Epilogue To The Sadist By Johnny Legend" (10:35) in which the rockabilly/B-movie historian gives us some info on the film and his never-ending efforts to release the Arch Hall library (he first brought the Fairway International catalogue to Rhino Video back in the '80s). The featurette concludes with a live performance of Johnny singing “Night Of The Sadist” to a fascinated (and perhaps somewhat bewildered) audience. The disc’s colorful menus reflect the original purple, black, and yellow contrast of The Sadist’s poster art (complete with a perpetually looped track of the movie’s theme music) — and check out Johnny’s FBI warning at the beginning of the disc!  Wow!

So, while you may want to hold on (or at least rent) the older DVD release for the Vilmos Zsigmond commentary, The Sadist: Special Edition is a must have… and I’m anxiously awaiting Johnny Legend’s new high-def transfers of all of the other Arch Hall classics (oh, to see Eegah! and Deadwood ‘76 in widescreen!), which the good Mr. Legend has promised to bring us in the future (that's sainthood material there, folks — rock on, Johnny!).

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
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