Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
Cast: Oscar Homulka, Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Guy Rolfe
Director: William Castle
Nutshell: deliciously typical macabre fable from Castle’s impressive House of Horrors.
“Enjoyable” – Creature Features
“minor fare despite good ending” – Maltin’s
“Creepy, effective “Sleeper” – Blockbuster Video
William Castle emerges from a swirling blanket of typically thick old-fashioned London fog to read us the formal definition of the word ghoul; just to set the mood for what is to unfold in Mr. Sardonicus. It wasn’t unusual for Castle to begin his fairytale like horror hokum’s with an introduction to get the audience into the appropriate frame of mind. Here he begins the movie by warning us about ghoulish activity among other things. We are then taken back to 1880 fogbound London…to an imminent doctor’s surgery – Dr. Robert Carver – recently knighted for his miraculous work on paralysis and wasted limbs.
We watch in sheer admiration as the kindly Dr. heals a pretty young tot of her paralysis – indeed, this doctor is nothing short of a miracle man. A mysterious and rather bumptious character arrives at the surgery to deliver a note, imploring that “his master” insisted that he deliver it by hand to Dr. Carver. It is a letter of some urgency it seems and upon opening it, Dr. Carver is visibly concerned and cancels all his pending appointments in order to dash off to some godforsaken village in Central Europe. He finds the villagers recoiling in horror at the mere mention of his hosts name – something he doesn’t appear to be too disturbed about as he valiantly continues his quest to find Baron Sardonicus’s castle despite the apprehensions of the villagers who tell him “You would not understand; you are not old enough to have daughters!”
Finally, Carver arrives at the imposing castle like Manor of the hugely wealthy and oddly reclusive Baron Sardonicus where Krull, the same strange character who had earlier delivered the letter at the surgery in London, welcomes him. Having reacquainted himself with the Baron’s wife who was formerly his lover who left him to marry the wealthy Baron the Dr. is finally confronted by the mysterious Baron who arrives wearing a hideous white mask to hide the apparently even more unspeakably ghastly sight within. The Dr. also finds startling evidence of tortures and other bewildering happenings in his hosts home – first he finds the maid Anna being disgustingly tortured by Krull who unleashes tens of thirsty leeches on the poor woman’s face! He also senses that his ex-lover is under some severe threat in the environment even if she won’t let on.
Sardonicus appears to be an intelligent, cold, and incredibly cruel man who is obsessed only with finding a cure to his dreadful condition. One day he explains to the Dr. how he managed to end up as an unspeakably hideous monstrosity due to his previous wife’s constant goading and his own inability to control himself. He was once a poor peasant lad who worked long hours with little reward. He was stuck with a beautiful but nagging wife who was of the view that a life of five minutes of being wealthy was still better than years of being poor. Their father wins a lottery ticket but keels over soon after. When he is buried, the ticket goes along with him to his grave. Later Marek (The Baron) is persuaded by his wife to return to the grave to fish out the lottery ticket from his father’s waistcoat pocket. The moment Marek lays his eyes on the hideously twisted features of the rotting corpse of his father he is transformed into a creature with similarly contorted features – a man with a permanently fixed ghastly grin of death stretching monstrously from one side of the face to the other – “a gargoyle shunned by everyone.”
Though at first one can feel a touch of sympathy for Sardonicus, that soon evaporates as we are shown the ghastly leech tortures carried out at his behest and then learn of his single-minded obsession with his face and that he is ready and indeed willing to expend anyone and anything in order to regain what was a pretty naff face to begin with, if not quite the monstrosity he has been cursed with for his ghoulish endeavors. It soon transpires that Sardonicus will stop at nothing – blackmail, murder, and torture in order to regain his place amidst fellow mortals. A chilling sign of his madness is that he plans to carve up his beautiful wife’s face to resemble his own so that they can at least then she won’t shun him. Though William Castle has inevitably hit the spot with his wickedly cheerful “horror” films (The Tingler, Homicidal, House on Haunted Hill etc.) this time he really has come up trumps with a macabre fable that suits his style of filmmaking to a tee. Sardonicus is shot very much like a traditional Dracula film and indeed follows much of the same path as the vampire story with a city man from England being summoned from Central Europe for an urgent job in the castle of a dreaded and despised mysterious Baron. Though the film is clearly cheaply made it has been beautifully shot and the swirling fog (even inside the house!) is lovingly captured. The story is a fable; a man’s greed evoking a terrible curse that is seemingly cured, but not quite.
The acting is impressive all around with Guy Rolfe excelling as Sardonicus and Oscar Homulka doing a brilliantly zany turn as Krull, the one eyed faithful servant. This is classic Castle on a par if not better than anything else he turned his considerable talents to. This time around the Master Showman of Horror provided viewers with what was probably the first interactive movie in that before the conclusion the film breaks for a bit and Castle reappears asking viewers to cast their vote with a thumbs up or a thumbs down in the cinema after which the film will be altered according to the way the viewers voted! A typically madcap and inventive stunt by Castle who had actually only shot one ending – so it was really nothing more than a gimmick after all. Hats off to Castle for being the wonderful opportunist that he was, faking his way through a Hollywood career on false credentials, he did in the end manage to deliver some wonderfully cheesy, good natured vintage horror stuff and even ended up producing one of the modern horror classics in Rosemary’s Baby. There can be little doubt that William Castle more than deserves his spot on Horror’s Hall of Fame.