B&W, 1963, 91 mins. 53 secs. / 91 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by James Landis
Starring Arch Hall Jr., Richard Alden, Marilyn Manning, Don Russell, Helen Hovey
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), All Day Entertainment (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1)
Way before thrill kills became the regular subject of mainstream movies and almost constant news stories, this rough and very tense little drive-in offering provided a harrowing glimpse at some of the darker elements of the American heartland. Most widely shown as The Sadist, this nasty and shockingly well-crafted number even preceded the likes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in the violent desert psycho sweepstakes and earned its place in the history books as the first feature shot by the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond, who would team up again with this film's director, James Landis, for The Nasty Rabbit and the excellent Rat Fink before going on to glory shooting for Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and Robert Altman (including an Oscar win for Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
In real time, the audience bears witness to the harrowing ordeal of a trio of high school teachers -- Doris (Hovey), Ed (Alden), and Carl (Russell) -- whose trek across the California desert to a Dodgers game gets waylaid by car trouble. At a gas station they cross paths with maniacal, amoral criminals Charlie (Hall Jr.) and Judy (Manning), who plan on swiping the car once it's repaired and continuing their flight from the law. Soon the afternoon turns into a day from hell as Charlie keeps the innocents at gunpoint and inflicts a number of psychological and physical horrors upon them, ultimately leading to murder and a desperate fight for survival.
Anyone who wrote off Arch Hall Jr. (who made several projects with his filmmaker dad) will be surprised at how effective he is here, light years away from his work in Eegah and Wild Guitar. The hopeless, claustrophobic atmosphere is beautifully maintained throughout, with some truly startling moments of cruelty keeping the viewer on edge, and it still serves as a textbook example of how to spin a standard exploitation script into a potent piece of filmmaking on a shoestring budget.
Several video companies have taken a crack at this film over the years including VHS releases from Rhino, Something Weird, and Video Beat, following its theatrical runs from companies including Fairway International Pictures and a reissue via Cinemation. This became one of the first non-studio films out of the gate on DVD from David Kalat's All Day Entertainment in late 1997 (with very divisive cover art), featuring a non-anamorphic transfer that bested its predecessors at the time, a trailer for Eegah, and best of all, an excellent audio commentary with Zsigmond about his early days in the indie exploitation world and the challenges of mounting this film in the desert with minimal resources. Some negligible PD bargain releases followed from other labels (including Alpha Video), as well as a pricey BD-R/DVD-R combo taken from a good quality theatrical print and sold directly via Johnny Legend.
In 2017, Code Red issued the film for the first time transfered from an original negative (bearing the Cinemation logo), which obviously puts it several notches higher up in quality than anything we've had before and easily blowing away its home video competition. The source bears the alternate Sweet Baby Charlie title (the film was also issued as Profile of Terror), and both titles are options on the reversible cover art. Interestingly, this also represents an alternate, longer cut of the film. The 40-second tacked-on prologue from the Sadist prints isn't in this version (which had a voiceover explaining the main character's psychosis), but it's included as an extra; the main version of the film clocks in 14 seconds longer, but when you consider that the narration has been dropped, that means it has just over a minute of extra footage. The differences are minor with some differences between the two cuts in some establishing and reaction bits of footage, but it's fascinating that this variant exists. The DTS-HD MA English mono audio also sounds very healthy and more robust than past releases. In addition to that alternate opening, the disc also includes the Zsigmond commentary (making its first appearance on home video in twenty years) and a video interview with director Joe Dante (4m2s), in front of a Gizmo doll of course, chatting about the difficulty of seeing films like this back in the '60s and noting the rewards of uncovering films like this for dedicated movie hounds. Also included are bonus trailers for The Witchmaker, The Curious Female, Terror Circus, Street Law, and Brute Corps. The disc is sold domestically by Ronin Flix (as Sweet Baby Charlie) and internationally by Diabolik (as The Sadist).
CODE RED BLU-RAY
ALL DAY DVD
Reviewed on December 10, 2017.