Originally released in 1963, The Sadist (other titles include Sweet Baby Charlie and Profile of Terror) was loosely inspired by the murders of one Charles Starkweather, a teenaged spree killer who was accompanied by his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Starkweather’s deeds also inspired films such as Badlands and Natural Born Killers.
Written and directed by James Landis, the movie opens with Charlie Tibbs (played to the hilt by Arch Hall Jr.) discussing why he does what he does. The sequence has an air of Psycho to it, only in reverse and with Hall being dementedly ambiguous. The story then has a proper opening, in which three high school teachers are driving through rural California to watch a Dodgers game in Los Angeles. The trio’s car breaks down (water pump), but they manage to pull into what appears to be a mix of a gas station, farmhouse, and junkyard. The trio represents facets of society at that time: Ed Stiles (a military vet with knowledge of cars; played by Richard Alden), Doris (an introverted but attractive woman; played by Helen Hovey), and Carl (a wise but weary family man; played by Don Russel).
The place seems abandoned, and as Ed works on the car, Doris and Carl look for the place’s owner. They find things are strange, particularly in the house, where it looks like a family has been interrupted while having a meal.
It turns out that the interruption is none other than Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall Jr.), who is armed with a pistol and a knife. Accompanied by his dim girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning), Charlie is an imposing figure, not only for his physical size but also because of his distinct personality, a combination of bumpkin, bully, sociopath, and (most dangerous of all) devious killer. During several tense hours (culled to about 95 minutes of film time), Charlie and Judy menace the trio, at length executing Carl. Charlie forces Ed to fix the car so that he and Judy can make their escape. At first Ed and Doris have hope that if they do as they are told Charlie may spare their lives. However, when Carl is murdered, they lose hope. Things get even worse when the couple hears radio broadcasts that state the Charlie has murdered before, making his way through Arizona using his charisma and bulk to seduce and then murder various victims.
Desperate, Ed and Doris plan an escape, but it falls apart when a couple of motorcycle cops stumble onto the scene. Charlie manages to overcome the officers, killing them both. He then recaptures the couple, demanding that Ed finish repairs on the car by a predetermined time or he will kill him. Ed and Doris cook up another plan, and the final reel of the flick has Ed finally standing up to Charlie (guess how that works out) and Doris running for her life.
Threadbare with respect to budget and script, The Sadist is a solid film because of the performances by all the actors. Arch Hall is menacing, creepy, and gleefully sadistic, and Marilyn Manning manages to evoke even more sadism without benefit of dialogue (she is the one who actually goads Charlie into action). As the film progresses, Hall reveals that he is in fact not stupid at all, thus ramping up the tension even more. On the other side are the restrained performances of the three teachers, all of whom have a deep desire to live but realize that their chances are slim.
Although exploitative in structure, The Sadist remains a compelling film, one filled with so much tension that the majority of viewers will by physically and mentally exhausted by the end of it all. Some may even find that The Sadist was perhaps the first in a long line of “killer thrillers” that would come later, with splinter cells deviating into splatter and even “serious” films centering on the sadistic personality (Silence of the Lambs, for example). For that alone, The Sadist is required viewing for fans of splatter, hardcore horror, and even crime thrillers.