Review by Brendon Bouzard
Posted on 31 July 2008
Source Alpha Video DVD
The 1958 killing spree perpetrated by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate has served as the basis for numerous films. Most pointedly, Badlands—but later, True Romance, Natural Born Killers, The Frighteners, two great Bruce Springsteen songs, and lesser-known works, including an ABC miniseries featuring Tim Roth and Fairuza Balk and a recent direct-to-video cheapie. The first film devised in response to the killings is The Sadist, a production of the independent Fairway International starring cult icon Arch Hall Jr. The son of Fairway’s owner, Hall is a performer sui generis. He offers a goony, cartoonish brand of line delivery that serves his neanderthalic features well—born two decades earlier, and he would have made a good noir baddie. The conundrum of Hall – the inability to marry his brutish, unlikable features with his father’s stated intention of producing of him a teen idol – finds its culmination in this film’s reading of Starkweather.
Unlike later works exploring the mythos of Starkweather and Fugate – Nebraska teens whose eleven-victim killing spree acted as the crossroads for 1950s discourses on juvenile delinquency and interstate travel – The Sadist offers its narrative from the perspective of its victims. A trio of schoolteachers, including Doris Page (Hall’s cousin Helen Hovey), are taken hostage by Charlie Tibbs (Hall) and his mute, gum-snapping girlfriend at an auto salvage yard in a rural box canyon. In real time, the trio makes attempts to escape, delay, alert authorities and convince Tibbs to spare them. This compellingly unique formal approach was born of the production’s low budget, but it works remarkably well. An exercise in simple additive plot construction: the dullness of real time – the lull as we watch one mildly tech-savvy teach fiddle around with his jalopy’s carburetor – becomes remarkably intense when a half-retarded rural teenager is brandishing a handgun and his giggly shit of a girlfriend is snapping her gum rhythmically. The economy of location and time forces the filmmakers to produce an increasingly graphic series of set pieces, which culminates in a chase sequence through a grassy, abandoned housing lot.
The film is not without its weaknesses: many of its performances are perfunctory at best, and though the cinematography, by a young Vilmos Zsigmond, is spectacular, too much of the action is handled clunkily by the inexperienced filmmakers. The dialogue, especially the affectedly distaff line-readings by the feminized schoolteachers, is often atrociously overwritten. Doris, responding to Tibbs’ unwillingness to share water with a man he’s pistol-whipped: “You’re no more than an animal—you keep your dirty hands off me!” This off-hand remark, one in a series of melodramatic pronouncements, carries a surprising amount of weight—the characters will return to its implications again and again over the course of the film, weighing the prejudices and class prerogatives its reveals, and nevertheless the filmmakers choose to indulge in and exploit them. Class and the urban/rural divide play a major role in The Sadist: these city-slicker teachers caught by dropout country bumpkins who grin and dance stupidly at hillbilly songs on the radio and speak in affected drawls. Tibbs’ girlfriend Judy doesn’t even speak—all of her communication comes from giggles and childishly overblown expressions, her best moment being a scene in which she combs through a stolen bag of makeup with wide-eyed abandon. The motif of wildness/animal nature plays throughout the film – one character meets his fate in a curiously-placed pit of hissing vipers, and the filmmakers make clear their sympathies lie with Doris – a series of shots of Tibbs and Judy are framed by a clearly in-focus sign advertising ‘wild animals’—a bit of circus detritus coloring the scrapyard. Blunt and heavy-handed, to be sure, but do you expect subtlety from low-budget genre trash?
To understand the uniquely heavy quality of this film, it’s important to recognize its cultural context. Charlie Starkweather – who famously idolized the beautiful agony of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – was for a time in the late 1950s the definitive emblem of America’s fear of the emerging teenage cult(ure)that emerged from postwar wealth and the availability of easy vehicular transport. His series of victims – Fugate’s family, a ‘model’ couple from the next town over, an established citizen and family in their elegant townhouse – seemed to escalate as a symbolic attack on the prevailing mores of conservative rural America. He transgressed moral law and physical space, using the anonymous national highway system to evade the massive manhunt out for him and to find victims. Discourse in newspapers focused on Starkweather’s connection to the moral panics of the time: comic books, rock and roll, obsessive car culture. Hall’s performance, which the actor modeled on Richard Widmark’s in Kiss of Death, is the perfect synthesis of noir’s tendency toward expressionistic performance and ‘50s iconography of juvenile delinquency. So much of the performance relies on Hall’s shape, the way his body and face contort as he plays at villainy, the class bully asked to play the villain in the school play and achieving, unintentionally, a shakingly self-revealing performance. The way he interacts with his instruments of deathis intensely observed— the gun he shakes playfully like a tambourine, the coke bottle he fetishistically sips bottom-up. When he moves, he is awkward and unsure, but framed by Zsigmond’s remarkably nimble camerawork, he’s always present as Tibbs, with brutish, gorilla-like squats, his mouth permanently etched in a porcine sneer, his nasally honk of a voice twisted into a retarded mewl. This isn’t the inauthentic posturing of low-budget drive-in problem films like High School Confidential, High School Caesar or Hall’s own The Choppers, which posit juvenile delinquency as a complex conspiracy of preternaturally intelligent diabolicals; this is unexpectedly weighty material. Like The Honeymoon Killers after it, here’s a film that refuses to romanticize or glamorize its banal, stupid killers (or valorize their wussy victims), turning what could be cheap provocation into a baroque ripped-from-the-headlines encapsulation of a culture’s underlying fears made manifest. And Hall – who, like Starkweather, was never going to approach the idol-making pansexual beauty of Dean – is the perfect avatar for this sort of narrative, of someone losing the plot of postwar conformity in a striking and dangerous way. Hall – the failed teen idol, too defiantly weird to sit comfortably in his own tailor-made vehicles – and Starkweather/Tibbs – the trash collector serial killer with the fourteen-year-old girlfriend – are both lost disciples of Dean. They’re Sal Mineo’s Plato all jacked up on steroids with no place to direct their anxieties except at the world around them.