Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
Dir. William Castle
Written by Ray Russell
Starring Ronald Lewis, Guy Rolfe, Audrey Dalton, Oskcar Homolka
When London doctor Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis, A TASTE OF FEAR) visits the reclusive Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe, DOLLS) at the request of the his old flame --and the current Mrs. Baron Sardonicus-- (Audrey Dalton, THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD), he finds a situation which could safely be called unexpected. Seems that the cruel Baron --who lives in an menacing gothic castle and casually tortures his servants-- is the victim of a bizarre medical condition: years ago, while digging up his father’s corpse to retrieve a winning lottery ticket (long story), he became so overcome by terror that his face froze in a horrific contorted mask. He demands Cargrave cure his condition, or else risk brutal punishment for Mrs. Sardonicus! That’s right, Fix my face or I’ll kill my own wife! This guy’s got some bold new villainous ideas.
What we have here, then, is a curious mix of classic horror and asynchronous 1960’s modernity. In the classic horror corner, we got a looming gothic castle, a dry-ice-drenched grave-robbing flashback, and a medieval torture room headed by a guy named “Krull” (Oskar Homolka, Oscar-nominated for 1948’s I REMEMBER MAMA and clearly fallen on hard times since then). But we also have some startling modern detritus; winning lottery tickets (the proceeds from which bought the “Baron” his castle and title, a weirdly comic detail that the movie doesn’t seem to find odd), medical specialization, and corny pop psychology. And of course, it’s Wiliam Castle (THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL), so there’s gonna be a gimmick, oh my yes.
|This movie is set in 1961, by the way.|
It doesn’t feel haphazard or fragmented, though, it just feels transitional: a particular tendril in the evolutionary tree of modern horror which was still trying to recontextualize its classic tropes into a world increasingly alien to them. There is no particular reason for there to be a gothic castle or a Baron of any kind in here, except that in 1961 horror movies had either gothic castles or rubbery monsters, and this one doesn’t have any rubber monsters. It was a solidly old-fashioned movie even at the time (PSYCHO and PEEPING TOM had both come out the previous year, effectively inaugurating the modern period of horror cinema) but gothic horror was by no means dead yet, and, following on the heels of the “nuclear monster” films of the 1950s and The Twilight Zone (which had begun two years prior in 1959), allegorical horror was still very much in vogue. And MR. SARDONICUS has a little bit of all those elements in there. There’s a hint of the early psychoanalytic fetishization which would play into PYSCHO, some hoary gothic flourishes, and a lot of stagey morality play.
“Stagey morality play” sounds like death on celluloid, but the movie has enough fun to stay light on its feet. It’s a solid, old-fashioned fable with a small but potent surfeit of great details, mostly in “Sardonicus’s” fucking terrifying, incredibly painful-looking face and only slightly less terrifying mask. (The mask was necessary because, as you can plainly see from just looking at it, the prosthetic makeup actor Guy Rolfe had to wear was so painful he could not physically stand to wear it for more than an hour at a time.) It’s very simple but surprisingly effective, with solid performances (at least by B-move standards) and an elegantly unencumbered story structure which gradually doles out both conflict and explanation. It also looks quite nice (in its cheap, soundstagey sort of way) courtesy of two-time Academy Award winner Burnett Guffey (FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, BONNIE AND CLYDE). And of course, it sports the requisite darkly ironic ending which is absolutely crucial for this sort of affair.
But ah, that’s where Castle’s trademark gimmick comes into play, and of course we simply must talk about that. His gimmicks ranged from “free toy!” giveaways (the glow-in-the-dark “magic” coins from ZOTZ!) to chintzy carnie hokum (the pop-up skeleton in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL) to the ambitiously elaborate and inventive (the vibrating audience seats in THE TINGLER, which must have been absolute hell to pull off). MR. SARDONICUS, though, has one of his more interesting parlor tricks, and it’s probably the thing which is most remembered about the film, other than Sardonicus’s disturbing visage. Castle himself appears at the beginning of the film and near the end in something of a Rod Serling capacity, acting as host and narrator. His second appearance, though, is unique in cinema history, because he pauses the action right after the climax of the film, and directly asks the audience to decide Sardonicus’s fate. Should he be punished for his cruelty, or has he suffered enough to deserve mercy? Audiences were given a glow-in-the-dark (of course) card with a hand on it, with which they could show “thumbs up” or thumbs down.”
Gee, I wonder what a horror audience is going to do with that? The “verdict” is such a foregone conclusion that apparently only one ending was ever filmed, and I’ll give you two guesses which one. Castle went to his grave swearing there was an alternate ending which was, in his words “rarely, if ever, used,” but given that not one scrap of physical evidence has ever come to light to support this claim, the consensus seems to be that he’s full of it. (And would you want him to be anything else?)
|Supposedly, this is the actual voting card.|
Being a total lie doesn’t make it less of a fun gimmick, but the movie is actually good enough that it doesn’t need it. Arguably, Castle ought to have trusted the premise and the excellent makeup design to get the audience where he wanted them. But I guess he wouldn’t be William Castle if he had. It’s actually a pretty dark ironic punishment (which implies, SPOILER, a slow and horrible death for Sardonicus that could be easily avoided if only he hadn’t been such a prick) but Castle’s intrusion kinda breaks up the film’s momentum and the “punishment” has only about 3 minutes of screen time to pick up steam again before the film ends. Despite the exotic strangeness of the “punishment poll” (even more pointless at home than it was in the theater), it can’t really recover its impetus after the interruption, and lurches unsteadily across the finish line. Part of the problem is that the “poll” occurs only after the real conflict in the film has already been decisively resolved, and only requires the audience to choose their preferred coda. The good guys have already won, the only question is what happens to the now-defeated villain. That’s interesting, but maybe not very satisfying; if you’re going to involve people in the plot, it would probably work better to have them make more impactful choices. It’s like if AMERICAN GRAFFITI ended and you got a choice of whether or not you wanted Terry “the Toad” to die in Vietnam in a text-only epilogue (for the record: I would vote against it). It might work if it were a more over-the-top, active revenge, but instead it’s intrinsically passive, about not saying something. It’s the ending of the original short story by Ray Russell (from which he adapted the screenplay) but although I’ve never read the story I suspect there’s no “choose your own adventure” option, and that probably works better. Amusing as Castle is, the film would be stronger without the gimmick, or at least with the ending changed to something corny enough to work with the added lowbrow fun of a “punishment poll.”
Even so, it’s not disruptive enough to kill the movie’s charm, and it’s not like the movie is otherwise some unimpeachable classic which got tarnished at the last minute by some hustling showman. It’s silly and stagey and dated, like most of Castle’s pictures, and even if the gimmick is a bit narratively disruptive, it adds a little exotic oddness to something which otherwise might feel a little too much like an unnecessarily extended Twilight Zone episode. Still, there’s something that fundamentally works about the story which needs no flashy trappings. If it’s stagey and silly, it is so in a way which feels appropriately mythic, and it has enough macabre instincts to maintain its gleefully morbid tone throughout an unhurried 89 minutes. I always got the sense that Castle, like his huckster successors monsieurs Golan and Globus, liked being a filmmaker more than he actually liked making films, but this one is a testament to his ability to make a film which is borderline worthy of his genius as a marketing impresario.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
One of the most accurate taglines I've ever had the honor to read.
Actually it’s Baron Sardonicus. He didn’t spend all that lotto money on a fancy title to be called Mister.
Yes, from writer Russell’s short story of the same name.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Uhhh… Ironic morality play? I guess Body Horror, to a certain extent? I dunno, there’s nothing else really like it.
Oskar Homolka had been nominated for Best Supporting actor in 1948, and is actually first billed here despite the fact that he’s playing a pretty small role as Sardonicus’s main henchman. But A-list? You don’t end up in a William Castle film if you’re A-list.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
William Castle. Guy Rolfe?
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
No, although some dogs die
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Creepy mask, but no dolls
Sardonicus’ condition, we hear, is the result of shock, not medical trauma. So in that sense, sure, but by the time we meet him he seems pretty with it.
Normal to Sardonicus
MORAL OF THE STORY
Never dig up your father’s corpse to retrieve a winning lottery ticket. Or, I guess, don’t be such a dick afterwards if you absolutely must.