1963 was such a productive year for horror/exploitation that even Arch Hall, Jr. was involved in a better than normal effort. The Sadist is the film Hall Jr. will most likely be remembered for (if he is remembered at all). Here, Junior pivots away from the low-rent Elvis Presley persona that daddy Arch Hall, Sr. was crafting for him to instead play a cartoon psychopath inspired by the real-life sadist Charles Starkweather (in the first of several films loosely based on Starkweather’s infamous 1958 killing spree—to make sure we get the reference, writer/director James Landis names the antagonist “Charlie”). The Sadist is easily the best film of both this actor and this director, which is not to say that it’s great cinema. Surprisingly, the best thing about it is Hall’s energetic performance. Away from daddy, Junior bounces through the entire film with a near-perfect trash performance.
While Landis wasn’t quite the hack that Hall, Sr. was, he still hampers the production with rusty pacing and ill-conceived narration (supplied by Hall, Sr). The headlines of murderous mayhem proved to be the inspiration for the Landis/Hall Jr. team. They worked together in two additional features: 1964’s The Nasty Rabbit, about Russian spies smuggling killer bunnies into the U.S.A., and 1965’s Deadwood 76, which features Junior as a singing Billy the Kid. Both were written by Daddy Hall and again reveal a lead who clearly wants to be elsewhere. Junior seemed to reserve all of his enthusiasm and hammy tricks for The Sadist. He giggles. He slaughters. Once The Sadist locates Hall as its steam, it transforms into a model of creaky relentlessness. The small cast is exceptional, with Helen Hovey memorable as Doris, who is pushed to the verge of victimization and fights back. Mother Nature serves Charlie his sentence.
At one end of the 1963 genre pendulum were productions from class directors, such as Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds) and Robert Wise (The Haunting). Francis Ford Coppola got his feet wet directing Dementia 13 for Roger Corman, and second-tier director Don Sharp helmed one of Hammer’s better non-Terence Fisher opuses, Kiss of the Vampire. At the opposite end of the taste and quality spectrum was Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast. Alternately (and arguably) dubbed the first splatter film and the first notable example of torture porn, Blood Feast catapulted horror into the art form for America’s white trash masses. Not surprisingly, John Waters is among the filmmakers who have canonized Lewis (Waters made a cameo in Lewis’ intentionally campy Blood Feast 2). Comparatively, Waters, for all his self-depreciation, is a strongly narrative filmmaker. This is not the case with Lewis. He got his start in skin flicks, but due to an overcrowded market, he transposed porn into gore, with his money shot being a bloody one. Of course, Busby Berkeley had a similar conception, with his ho-hum narratives constructed around a “money shot” of kaleidoscopic choreography for leggy dames, which explains why Waters also counts Berkeley as an influence. Later, the Godfather of Gore got more ambitious with his “Gone With the Wind of Gore,” A Taste of Blood (1967). Lewis’ notoriety peaked with his 70s arrest and brief imprisonment for performing illegal abortions.
Still, shorn of its hype and accusations of misogyny, Blood Feast literally has its foot-long tongue planted firmly in cheek (before being ripped out). Although his shrewd sense of marketing rendered Lewis a self-made millionaire, his aesthetic, especially in his early films, is folksy (in the dirtiest sense of the word) and, indeed the sheer incompetence of Blood Feast ventures into the realm of naive surrealism, climaxing with his own brand of “Beach Blanket Brains.” Lewis’ oeuvre could really be a textbook reference for schlock (with predictably varying results) which all began with Blood Feast.
Genre stars were abnormally productive as well in 1963. Vincent Price teamed with Lon Chaney, Jr. for Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre partnered for The Raven(Corman again), and Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and Lorre all appeared in Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors. Price also turned up in Corman’s Twice-Told Tales and in the superior Diary of a Madman (directed by Reginald Le Borg, of all people). The compelling Barbara Steele starred in Riccardo Freda’s The Ghost, a sequel to their previous The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock (1962). Karloff soloed for Corman (or was that Coppola as well?) in the slapdash The Terror. Karloff also had a starring role in Mario Bava‘s Black Sabbath, one of the best big screen horror anthologies that makes one wish the actor/director team could have worked together again. The late Christopher Lee made the execrable Katarsis (dir. Giuseppe Veggezzg) and the better Virgin Of Nuremberg (AKA Horror Castle, directed by Antonio Margheriti), but this actor also fared best with Bava for The Whip and the Body (AKA What!).
For many, Mario Bava is the quintessence of Italian giallo cinema, and for good reason. Although his output is uneven, Bava’s films are rarely less than beautiful, whether on a budget or not, and perhaps no one can make despair seem so chillingly sublime. Bava fans consider The Whip and the Body as among his best work. Like Lewis, Bava is not predominantly a narrative filmmaker (although he occasionally was blessed with good scripts); but, in sharp contrast, at their best Bava’s films are motion pictures, bejeweled with opulent set pieces, which is why his considerable fan base often approaches a cult.
Lee stars as the aristocratic Kurt, a prodigal son returning to his dying father, but daddy’s not so forgiving of his black sheep. Nor is the family maid, Georgia, who blames Kurt for the suicide of her daughter. Georgia keeps a dagger in glass behind a red curtain (symbolism) and vows revenge. The vengeance is carried out early and the ensuing murder mystery is standard stuff, partly because it’s window dressing. An excellently filmed beach encounter between Kurt and Nevenka (Dahlia Lavi) ends with a sadomasochistic whipping, which plays right into the lady’s desires and is the introductory meat of the film.
The main kinkiness, however, lies in Bava’s lustful camera and lush colors. Under the direction of a workman director, The Whip and the Body wouldn’t merit much attention. There’s fetishism aplenty, but it has little to do with a whip. Red, blues, purples, and greens are not mere meaningless samples on a color palette—they are visual cues to emotional motives contained within Bava’s bordello of Gothic castles, grand pianos, beach compositions, and forbidding entrances.
Of course, Lee could handle this material sleepwalking, but he invests a sense of dignified menace into the role, especially after his (thankfully unexplained) resurrection. Most fan’s praise has been reserved for Lee, which seriously short-shifts Lavi, who has often been dismissed as a lesser substitute for Barbara Steele. While Lavi lacks Steele’s star power and cult following, she turns in an intensely unconventional performance that is all her own and, in fact, carries the film. Kurt is a cadaverous phallus, serving Nevenka’s ultimate goal. Levi’s acting, along with the visuals, reaches a hysterical crescendo in this long underrated film. Memories of earlier, wretchedly dubbed and poorly edited versions have been gratefully whited out with Kino’s Blu-ray release, which features three dubbed versions, as well as the original Italian with subtitles. As usual, Kino has done a superb remastering, finally giving The Whip and the Body due recognition.