Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Movies: "A human volcano of unpredictable terror!"

I suspect The Sadist, the James Landis helmed 1963 cheapie that features a trio stranded travelers in the clutches of two teenaged psychopaths, is actually more interesting now that it was when it was first released. Made to cash in on Psycho fueled mania for crazed killers, on it's release, the flick must have simply looked like another kooks on a rampage flick. Now, from a distance of more than 30 years, The Sadist stands out far more clearly as stumbling, but still strangely prophetic step down a path to a more purely American horror cinema: a cinematic vision of fear that stripped away the last vestiges of the European Gothic mode that dominated the imaginations of American horror filmmakers until the twilight of the 20th Century and rooted itself in the features of our distinct landscape.

In this respect, Psycho is a great liminal film. Hitchcock's masterpiece has one foot in new paradigm, with its distinctly modern landscapes of cities, empty highways, and seedy motels. It's a landscape of anonymous transience that mirrors the inner rootlessness of the film's protags and victims. But, true to his own Euro roots, Hitchcock never fully shook off the Gothic trappings that, for centuries, defined European horror. The film features a rotting family manse on the hill, a sickly Victorian vision of sexuality that is at once titillated and morally repulsed by deviancy, suggestions of family sins, and fluid sense of identity as a symptom of a world order in chaos. One can even read into the geography of the Bates homestead and business Hitchcock's judgment as to the value of the two paradigms: The Gothic mansion towers over the brutally characterless motel. Psycho belongs, along with American Notes for General Circulation and Lolita, in that genre of works by Europeans both in fascinated and sickened by the vibrant, uncultured barbarism of the Americans. In Hitch's case, he has the ghosts of the old world shred the avatars of the new. He even buries the poor saps in that most American of symbols: Norman puts the corpses in the trunk of a car. Then the car sinks in a swamp. A bunch of corpses in a car, sinking in a cesspool. There are few more pointed satires of American life than Psycho.

Many of the flicks that followed kept that weird split in their genetic make-up, though one imagines that American filmmakers viewed more as a formal and it lacked, for them, Hitchcock's energetic, visceral punch. Coppola's Dementia 13 features a return to an ancestral castle home as a major plot point. William Castle set his Homicidal in a rotting family mansion and tangled the plot up in an inheritance issue. Ancestral blood guilt, one of the pillars of Gothic horror, rears its head again in Taste of Fear, which features a young woman returning to her father's estate. It wasn't until The Sadist and Violent Midnight, the former beating the latter to the theater by just a month, that filmmakers injected a strain of American youth culture into their flicks and inoculated them against the influence. And of those two films, Midnight's visual language borrows so strongly from Psycho that it near fully breaks free from its influence. In contrast, The Sadist seems oddly fresh, both narratively and visually, even today.

The logline is spare and simple: Three travelers ended up stranded at decaying gas station in the California desert and find them selves at the mercy of a pair of Strakweather-inspired teen psychopaths. Watching it now, we can see the flick hit all the necessary marks: the travelers search the place, missing all the signs of trouble that the viewer catches; shots from the stalking killers' POV, including a gun hand shot that strangely presages the standard POV of first-person shooter games; police officers who represent the victims' best chance at freedom, but who turn out to be little more than killer fodder; and a final girl who, in her flight, stumbles across the killers' previous handiwork and is, Chain Saw Massacre-style, saved by a deus ex machina when the film gets fatigued by its own brutality. Oddly, its the very familiarity of these tropes that give them punch here. You don't expect to see this worn pattern played out against the backdrop of the early 1960s. Our male travelers (headed to a baseball game instead of rock concert or summer camp) are in white shirts and skinny ties. Their female companion wears dress and has her hair done-up. They're adult presences that fool you into believing that a certain moral order will prevail. But, as the grim pattern slowly falls into place, you recognize these three as doomed emissaries from a gentler time.

Visually, the film is noteworthy for its total rejection of the lingering Gothicism present in so many of its contemporaries. Gone are the shadow-drenched castles and mansions. The Sadist is set entirely in a sun-blasted service station and wrecking yard. Gone are the themes of blood guilt and family secrets, the backstories of the killers and the victims are almost entirely irrelevant: the film plays out their random, violent encounter in near real-time. The soundtrack mixes jazzy pop and hillbilly country music, often from diagetic sources. Landis's minimal approach was, no doubt, dictated by a nearly non-existent budget, but within those limitations, Landis found a stark and unrelenting style that matches the harsh simplicity of the story.

Though, already, I'm probably over-selling this thing. There's a giggle inducing intro of psychobabble. The acting is often wooden, sometimes to the point of comedy (though, on occasion, the inert face of the young female killer, the product of her inability to act, seems like the perfect expression of amoral soullessness). I personally enjoyed the over-the-top performance of Arch Hall Jr. as the male psycho; but he really chews the hell of what scenery there is and I expect viewers' milage will vary greatly. The pacing in the early stages of the flick drags some. Also, the flick's only available on pretty gnarly transfer, so viewers will have to put up with odd, random visual and audio artifacts throughout the film.

The Sadist would be worthy of recommendation if only for its status as a curious ancestor of the slasher cinema and torture porn that would follow decades later. Happily, it is much more than that. It's a snapshot of an under-discussed moment in American horror cinema, the transition to wholly native sources of fright. It's the moment cinema shook off the ghosts and specters of Europe, the contrived monsters of the mad science lab, and fanciful invaders from beyond, and instead took a long, hard-boiled look into the madness that Jim Thompson said was the birthright of all the pure products of America.

7 comments:

Paul said...

Nicely put. I would add Ray Dennis Steckler's shockingly effective The Thrill Killers to that short list, though made the following year - it has the same odd feeling of going too far , the chuckles die in your throat as it moves from camp to all-too-real terror against a recognisably real backdrop.

CRwM said...

Paul,

I'll have to check out The Thrill Killers. Off the title alone, I'm ashamed to have missed it somehow.

theverysmallarray said...

I read about "The Sadist" ages ago in "The Phantom's Ultimate Video Guide," and it made me think of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find." Then again, so does TCM, especially the part about the barbecue. I've often wondered if Hooper was inspired by O'Connor's story, because it has the same flavor (Yuk-Yuk).

dfordoom said...

I loved Arch Hall Jr. in this movie. But then I liked him in Wild Guitar and The Choppers as well! But in this movie he really does manage to come across (at times anyway) as genuinely scary and out-of-control.

Gene Phillips said...

CWRM--

Good essay. All I have is a side-observation that although Hitchcock was European, the guy whose book was the kernel of the movie wasn't. One might find some profitable comparisons in the way Robert Bloch's career progressed from old-timey horror to American Gothic.

There's a funny moment in the book that relates to the generational perception of architecture. I don't remember what style the book's motel is done in, though I want to say something other than what we call "Victorian." But whatever it is, when the sister of Mary/Marion Crane goes into the motel, she's aghast not at any mad killers, but at the horrible turn-of-the-century decor!!

CRwM said...

theverysmallarray,

I never considered a O'Connor connection. Worth digging out the Collected Works and taking a look.

CRwM said...

Gene,

I've never read the original novel, but what a great data point for the argument.