The Edgar Wright and Eli Roth festivals at the New Beverly Cinema were
great in the way that watching favorite films with friends is great.
Few of the movies shown at those fests were discoveries to me (although
Phantom of the Paradise may have
changed my life), but rather mostly familiar classics revisited in
great company. Joe Dante’s festival, called Dante’s Inferno and happening now, is almost the exact
opposite: I haven’t even heard of some of these movies.
The first film was Hollywood Boulevard,
Dante’s first film (co-directed with Allan Arkush), which he shot while
cutting trailers for Roger Corman. After begging Corman for a chance at
making a film the cheapie movie mogul gave Dante and Arkush ten days
and a couple of grand; the resourceful directors used footage from
other Corman films (including Death Race 2000)
in their funny and often tasteless (TWO rape scenes played for laughs!)
film about a cheapie movie mogul and the big boobed babes who worked
for him. The movie’s scattershot approach makes up much of its charm,
as does the delightfully corny jokes.
I missed that night’s second feature, Truck Turner, but was back for the next duo. Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover was
a major disappointment to me; I love Cohen (who was there to ramble
about the movie to the fifteen people in attendance (it was one of the
off nights)), but this film is a turgid mess. Before that movie,
though, came a revelation: The Sadist.
Made a decade before Badlands, The Sadist is a Charles Starkweather-influenced movie starring an impossibly greasy Arch Hall, Jr. (yes, from Eegah) as a thrillkilling teen on a cross-country murder spree with his young girlfriend. Shot in real time, The Sadist begins
with three school teachers on their way to a Dodgers game when their
car breaks down. They come to a strangely empty junk yard and meet Hall
and his girlfriend – who have already killed the owners of the yard –
and the stand-off begins. Hall wants one of the teachers to fix his car
so he and the girl can take off, but the teachers know that as soon as
they’re done, Hall will kill them.
It’s a remarkably well-made and modern movie, especially considering it
was a 1963 drive-in toss off. A lot of what makes the film work is the
almost modern shooting style, courtesy of future Oscar winner Vilmos
Zsigmond (credited as William), doing his first work in America. The
compositions are often immaculate, and there’s lots of interesting POV
shots and small bits of camera work – a subtle pan here, an understated
glide there – that makes the film feel much bigger than it really was.
The Sadist is also often remarkably
taut and nihilistic; there’s a real feeling of danger in the air, even
as Arch Hall, Jr mugs for the camera like a constipated capuchin.
Watching The Sadist in 2008 I was
impressed by how rough it was willing to get – in 1963 it must have
been a mind-blower. This is very much like the torture porn of your
parent’s (or grandparent’s, you young bastards) generation. It isn’t that the film is graphic, it’s that the way Hall torments the teachers feels so personal and so cruel – one scene where he rips the female teacher’s dress and forces her to eat dirt carries as much weight as an explicit rape might have. The real
time element, which is integrated very subtly, helps to amp up the
movie’s already impressive almost claustrophobic dread.
It’s easy to give Hall shit, but his goofy overacting is part of what
makes the movie work today. If it didn’t have that over the top cheese
it would be a po-faced chore; no matter how modern the movie seems it
still suffers from the pacing of its time and origin. Hall brings big
laughs in many scenes that might have otherwise been static, but he’s
also surprisingly good in scenes that pack a punch almost fifty years
on. In one scene gun-wielding Hall has a teacher get on his knees and
tells him to talk as much as he likes – when Hall finishes his Nehi the
teacher won’t be talking anymore. As the man begs for his life the
killer drinks his soda; Zsigmond’s frame captures every element of the
terrible scene and Hall actually becomes chilling when he’s not mugging
at the camera.
The Sadist is available on DVD – you
can order it by clicking here. The film’s not a great movie or a lost
classic, but it’s a damn good effort, and it’s often effective and
unexpectedly mean-spirited. It’ll definitely change the way you watch Eegah from here on out.
Click here to see the list of all the films playing at Dante’s Inferno. Tonight’s screenings of The Sadist and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover will be introduced by Joe Dante and will feature Q&As with Vilmos Szigmond and Larry Cohen.