Friday, June 16, 2017

180. The Sadist

180. The Sadist (1963)
Director: James Landis
Writer: James Landis
From: Pure Terror
A trio of schoolteachers is menaced by a serial killer and his girlfriend at an isolated junkyard in the California desert.
There’s little to say plot-wise about this “edgy” Arch Hall Jr. vehicle. In his other films, he tends to play a gormless teenager despite being nearly 20 and looking older. And I don’t mean to bag on Hall Jr. here. He’s coming out of the age of elderly teens so it wasn’t uncommon to see people playing 15/16-year-olds after completing their Selective Service requirements or filing for their first mortgage. In this movie, though, he’s not playing the “aw shucks” goody-goody, he’s a sociopathic mass murderer. I guess his dad wanted to demonstrate Jr.’s range.

Oh yeah, if Arch Hall Jr. is in the film, Arch Hall Sr. is working as a producer if not also as co-writer and co-star. That may explain why, in a film like Wild Guitar, Sr. plays the villain, Jr. the childish Midwesterner come out to LA to make his fortune, and Jr. forgives Sr. for all his villainy at the end. I could complain about these movies being hacky and a hair’s breadth away from a vanity project, but Jr. isn’t terrible at it. He carries off the wide-eyed innocence pretty well and seems to convey real enthusiasm at the idea of being in a movie at all. I have a soft spot for movies where the overriding aesthetic is, “Golly! Movies are fun!” Miami Connection has that feeling and there’s a variation of it in 2011’s The Muppets.

So The Sadist. Arch Hall Jr., so good at playing wide-eyed innocents who are as excited as a puppy just brought home, is playing a sub-literate sociopath who delights in tormenting his victims. It’s a bit of an odd choice, but it also works. Jr. comes off as willfully immature in all his performances so playing a killer with the mental capacity of a child kind of works. He doesn’t come off as a calculating threat, he’s just a giggling idiot who’s found a gun and likes how it goes “boom.”

Anyway, the plot: a trio of teachers—the guy, the girl, and the elder—are driving to LA to catch a Dodgers game when their fuel pump goes out. They pull over at a junkyard/garage to get help, but no one seems to be there. As they try to get the part from a junked car, Jr. and his nigh-mute girlfriend appear with a gun, tell them to fix the car so the pair can get away, and harry the trio for the rest of the movie. In the end, everyone’s dead except the girl who has to walk back to the garage she’d just fled from to contact the police. THE END.

There’s certainly more incident than that, but that’s basically the film: Jr. has the gun, the guy is working on the car but keeps trying to think of a way to thwart Jr., and, towards the end, things start happening that may let them escape, but then don’t until the very end.

It’s an okay flick, but, then again, I don’t care much for so-called psychological thrillers where there isn’t any “psychology” at play. Jr. isn’t playing mind games with his victims, he’s just a sociopath. He has no sense of cause and effect or responsibility. He’s at the junkyard because his car broke down and, just for kicks, he killed the people who live there before they could fix his vehicle. He kills the elder teacher because the idea strikes him as funny at the moment.

The movie has curious narrative choices, though. The guy tries to challenge Jr. by accusing him of being the person who killed seven people in Arizona just a few days before, which, how does that help his situation? “Oh, you! You threatening me with that gun, saying you’re going to shoot me! I know who you are! You’re that person who has already killed seven people so you’ve demonstrated that you’re perfectly willing to follow through on your threat and now you know that I know this! So what are you gonna do? Huh? What are you gonna do?” Isn’t that supposed to work the other way around? The victims tell the killer they know who he is, but they tell him as though that gives them the upper hand. It’s another case of “stupid hero syndrome.” You can tell he’s the hero because his decisions are bad.

What strikes me as interesting about the movie is how horror movies are generally, in symbolic terms, supposed to work. The monster works as a manifestation of a cultural fear, but also serves as a cleansing force. The nightmare is made flesh, kill all who transgress or do not belong in the “us” of “them and us,” and then is destroyed by the symbol of righteousness, of purity, of order made manifest. So you have the trope of the final girl—virginal, white, and not quite hip to what’s going on—as a symbol of innocence triumphing over the threat, or the trope of the beaten-down cop—tired, hen-pecked, and constrained by Internal Affairs—tossing orders to the wind to “do what’s right” showing that unrestrained authority is what’s needed to save the day. In slasher movies, the audience is teenagers so the final girl is the dominant trope there. In serial killer movies, the audience is adults so you get the cop as synecdoche for authoritarianism.

There’s the other side of that, though, in the marking of victims. Scream articulated (but did not follow) the rules for who dies in a horror movie, but it’s a little bigger than that, more purging the culture of those who transgress. Of course there’s the sin element—drinking, screwing, committing a crime—that results in the monster operating as divine punishment. Slasher movies are curiously Old Testament for how violently they punish transgression, but “transgression” in these movies includes those who are “other,” those who are symbolically not part of the culture. So it’s easy to catalog the deadmeats in these movies—gay, black, disabled—anyone who has an identity in addition to or instead of straight white able-bodied American is going to get it. In fact, you can see the progression of acceptance within our culture by which groups stop being de facto deadmeats. In the 90’s, African-Americans started living through horror and sci-fi films when the trope had been the black guy gets it first. That happened both because filmmakers were aware of the trope and started trying to subvert it, but also because African-Americans, to a degree, became less othered, less cut out of the culture and less perceived as “Americans, but not quite.”

With that idea of purging in mind, the viewer’s supposed to take some pleasure in watching the victims die. Look at who dies in slasher movies—the cheerleader, the bully, the teacher, the cop—the popular kids who look down on the horror-fan burnouts and the authority figures who bully them. That the horror-fan stand-ins in these movies also die doesn’t matter because they usually transgress in some other way—being assholes, being stupid, being high—or you’re supposed to identify with them as victims, both of the bullying culture they’re in and of the monster.

In The Sadist, you have, ultimately, five potential victims of the killer (two cops show up and get killed). The teachers transgress in certain ways—the elder doesn’t recognize the threat and dies for it, the guy repeatedly demonstrates his cowardice so his death is deserved—but I think we’re supposed to initially be siding with Jr. and his partner. Jr. talks about how teachers always bullied his girlfriend, calling her stupid and sending her home crying. The teachers keep trying to assert their authority by leaning on their position as teachers even though they’re not in school, and that constantly backfires. The elder tries to talk Jr. out of murdering him by asking him to imagine someone doing this to his father which leads Jr. to note that both his and his girlfriend’s fathers were abusive drunks. The innocent is the “final girl” who is the only one to make any real effort to get away from Jr. and ultimately survives because he falls into a snake pit while chasing her.

I think the movie wants to tap into a latent resentment towards bad teachers so the audience gets a bit of a thrill watching them die, but we never see them as teachers and never really see them being jerks. The most we get is the very strange middle-class white entitlement at play. I mean, they show up at a garage that’s, as far as they can tell, closed for the weekend, and start demanding service. When no one appears to cater to them, they start wandering the grounds just stealing things. The elder actually walks into the house—into the home of the people who run the garage!—looking for someone to cater to them and walks through the whole place. Who are these people? The movie doesn’t want us to read that as problematic, though, it’s just my jaundiced perspective. Then again, as we all know, I’m of that entitled demo that’s eating too much avocado toast instead of acquiring equity.

So the movie falls a bit flat on that level. We don’t really sympathize with the victims, but we don’t get the vicarious thrill of seeing them laid low either. There’s also an alternative reading: that we’re supposed to side with the trio and the horror is people like Jr. and his girlfriend not knowing their place. In that sense, the movie becomes a justification of social class—you don’t want to fund schools and parks and libraries, you don’t want to give resources to the poors because they’re morally undeserving of it. Just look at this movie and see what happens when the wrong kind of person gains power.

This has been a long post and, frankly, little of it has been focused on the movie itself. Much of my take is likely informed by the currently on-going Trumpcare debate, but I’m not going to apologize for that. One of the reasons I’m going through the movies the way I am, one of the specific lens that I’m looking at them through, is that media reflects their moment, even when they seem to be ardently apolitical. So this is a review of a B-movie, but it’s being written at a specific time in a specific context, and that can’t be divorced from how the movie’s being understood.

Like I said, it’s an okay flick, it just lacks incident and makes some poor choices. I don’t mean that politically, despite all this verbiage. I mean, for example, after the trio has been told Jr. and his girlfriend are going to steal the car, Jr. tears up the trio’s baseball tickets. That’s played as a stunning act of cruelty, but they were never going to get to that game. Their car is being stolen right then. You could play it up as insult to injury, but it’s not the traumatic moment the movie seems to treat it as.

It’s all right. Check it out as a Saturday matinĂ©e or gather the beer and pretzels to watch with your riffing friends. It’s cheesy in the right ways and doesn’t offend, it just doesn’t do much else. To its credit, the movie is in the public domain. You can grab a copy from here.

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