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Many consider William Castle to be a sort of used car salesman turned film-maker. Admittedly, he relies heavily on hype, and admittedly his hype has worn a little thin over the years, but Bill Castle has been involved with some memorable movies over the years. The Tingler, Rosemary's Baby, Strait Jacket, and Mr. Sardonicus are his most entertaining ventures. No doubt, Mr. Sardonicus will seem awfully tame to younger audiences seeking shock value and graphic gore, but to those who enjoy a more old fashioned style of horror film, Sardonicus has a definite appeal. The story line is very unique, the acting is good (especially by Guy Rolfe playing the title character), and the ending is great. Rolfe is great as the kindly, respectful peasant turned nasty, unfeeling aristocrat. Sure, the special effects are a little long in the tooth, but sit a young child down in front of this movie and watch his/her reaction when Sardonicus reveals his condition. I remember being scared witless watching this as a youth. Actually, I wouldn't recommend this movie for the very young, but it's a lot of fun for the young at heart. If you enjoy 1950s horror films, check out this little-known gem.
William Castle usually marketed his movies with gimmicks, and for MR.
SARDONICUS the gimmick was "the punishment poll." When the film played
in theatrical release, audience members were issued a voting card, and
near the movie's conclusion Castle himself appeared on the screen and
asked the audience to vote: show the card thumbs up to show mercy,
thumbs down for none. Now, in theory, there were two different endings,
and the ending shown depended on the audience vote--but no one ever saw
the "show mercy" ending and it seems unlikely that it ever existed at
all. And you certainly won't find it here: Sardonicus is punished every
For once Castle should have left well enough alone. The Punishment Poll is the only seriously weak thing in the entire film, which has a considerably better script and over-all better cast than most Castle outings. The story, which shows influences from everything from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to Dracula to THE MAN THAT LAUGHED, concerns a grotesquely disfigured man who uses his wife to lure a noted specialist to his castle in the wilds of "Gorslavia"--and who then proceeds to make every one's life as miserable as possible, and that's throwing roses at it. Young women are molested, hung from the ceiling, nibbled on by leeches, and threatened with surgery designed to make them look as hideous as Sardonicus himself.
The cast is quite good, with Oskar Homolka a standout as Krull, Sardonicus' equally depraved servant. The lovely Audrey Dalton is also memorable as Sardonicus' unwilling wife. But the real star of the film is the make-up, which was quite famous in its day and is still capable of giving you a jolt. And along the way we're treated to a number of campy Castle flourishes that add to the fun. But MR. SARDONICUS is surprisingly cohesive for a Castle movie, and it moves along at a smart pace and has an interestingly atmospheric look. Most Castle films appeal almost exclusively to fans of cult and B-movies, but just about every one will find this one entertaining. Lots of silly Gothic fun! Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
I saw this in the "show" when I was about 10, and seriously, I have never forgotten it. About 20 years ago, I noticed that it was on a station out of Toledo in the middle of the night, and even though I had to get up in the morning, and they had commercials every 10 minutes, I stayed up (after setting the alarm to GET UP) and watched the whole movie... I guess I am a William Castle fan, I have to admit it. (One other that still kills me is Homicidal, and woo hoo Richard Rust is in it, too, my favorite!) I play the lottery every day now, too, and that storyline about the ticket in the grave just GETS ME!! This is one odd film, like everything Castle does, but ya gotta love it!! It sticks with you, once you've seen it, you are hooked forever.
No less a writer than Stephen King has called the novella "Sardonicus" perhaps "finest example of modern gothic horror ever written." I have delighted and relished the novella and the movie all my life, and I saw and read these when they first came out (1961). YES, the movie is "hokie". Yes, the movie is directed at the juvenile set, as all of William Castle's pictures were. But for those of us who were around in the William Castle era, the entertainment provided by his movies was supreme (consider the homage, "Matinee"), Everything anyone could want in a 19th century gothic horror appears in Sardonicus--including villains, heroes, beautiful virtuous maidens, Transylvania, leeches, hypo-dermic needles (my hyphen), and even a deformed Igor-type (herein called Krull), played to PERFECTION, PERFECTION, PERFECTION by the late great Oscar Homolka. This movie was thought of so highly by the writers of "Wiseguy" the TV series, that they used it as a sub-plot for a multi-episode "mini-series" within the series.
more comments on this film.
I recall this film from my early youth on WGN's Creature Features. Sardonicus' father reminded me of my own grandfather (a German immigrant) and his evilness was unique. When I got older, I saw this again and got some of the more subtle character interactions.
This was, of course, the product of William Castle, the Gimmick King. His gimmick this time was that he allegedly shot two endings, and gave audiences the option of voting on which ending they wanted by holding up a glow-in-the-dark ballot. (The Creature Features version skipped the polling part.) Most movie sources say that there was only one ending ever shot, but modern versions have the "polling" scene anyway.
Personally, I think the film works better without the gimmick. Of course, Sardonicus is evil, ungrateful and cruel and he deserves the betrayal at the end of the film he gets.
In some ways, it was getting around the Hayes code, since the wife wants to cheat on her husband her loveless marriage. Overall, it's quite the Gothic horror film and is highly underrated.
Of the great William Castle's classic gimmick films, this is generally regarded as one of the lesser ones. It should be seen for the amusing period piece that it is, and for the hilarious concept of the "Punishment Poll" with which it was originally exhibited. Upon its original release, viewers were allowed to vote "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" for the fate of the title character. In actuality, there is only one ending, but it's a pretty good one. The actors in this film are all good, with Oscar Homolka being the highlight as the sinister assistant. There is good atmosphere, with plenty of fog and shadows, and the story is intriguing, if not entertaining. The music by Von Dexter, who worked on several other Castle films, is also notable. Definitely a fun film for those who like the old-time horror films which sacrifice gore for suspense, and a must-see for fans of William Castle.
Of the William Castle films with which I'm familiar, "Sardonicus" is
definitely the best. If you strip away some of the schlocky "padding"
(the maid with the leeches, the "beauty contest" in the cellar, etc)
you have a remarkably effective and entertaining film. Ray Russell's
plotting and dialog are pretty high quality stuff, and some of the
conversations have an almost poetic quality, especially in the scenes
between Guy Rolfe and Ronald Lewis.
Of course, the dialog is all the more effective when delivered by a fine cast, and the stately, urbane Rolfe, the amiable and stalwart Lewis and the delightfully quirky and sinister Oscar Holmolka elevate this film FAR above its low-budget liabilities. Castle's direction is more than competent, my only complaint being the overly bright lighting throughout the castle interior, which robs many scenes of their creepy potential.
THEN THERE IS THE GRAVEYARD SCENE----a masterpiece of its type in the annals of horror films. Acting, direction, cinematography, etc ALL rise to the occasion, with the shocking revelation within the coffin and the psychological dimension of its effect on Marek/Sardonicus producing a scene which is as horrifying and disturbing as it is memorable; it's impossible to describe--you simply have to see it yourself. And the trauma continues as Guy Rolfe stumbles home in the dark, sobbing pathetically, where his wife (and we the viewer) first discovers his hideous deformity. I initially saw this film on TV when I was 20 years old and it STILL scared the crap out of me! Thank God I didn't see it when it was first released.
HERE'S A THOUGHT--- the shot of Sardonicus' father's corpse is so profoundly upsetting (to US as viewers as well as Guy Rolfe in the film)that I don't believe it was designed and created by Castle and his team; I bet anything that they "FARMED OUT" this shot to an effects team in Mexico--where the horror effects artists were FAR better at creating visuals of this sort. The final shot of the coffin lid opening (all the more creepy since it appears to open BY ITSELF)is interesting; if you look closely, you will notice that this is a DIFFERENT coffin lid than the one in the previous shots; the pattern of dirt and mold is different, as are the seams between the wooden planks. When the father's remains turn up later in the shocking padlocked-room scene, it's clear that the quality of workmanship is nowhere near as good as the coffin figure, instead appearing to be the sort of effect that Castle's production team would have created from their modest budget. I imagine that it's impossible to ever know whether or not my idea is correct, since too much time has passed since the film was made.
Many people make a big deal about the "Punishment Poll" gimmick for the film, but it's really just a distraction for any serious viewer; too bad that Castle's 11th-hour on-screen appearance breaks the mood just prior to the classically understated irony of the final scene.
William Castle had cemented his reputation as a director of fun,
gimmicky horror films by 1961, but for this one he's (almost!) dropped
the fun feel and replaced it with a more serious tone; and in doing so
has gone and created his best film! The film opens with an introduction
from the director (I said he'd ALMOST dropped the fun feel), and from
there we move onto a macabre tale of greed, curses, grave robbing and
disfigurement. Based on a novella by Ray Russell, the film takes
obvious influence from George Franju's masterpiece 'Eyes without a
Face' in that it follows the horrifying idea of someone having their
face scarred beyond belief. The tale puts greed at its centre, and it
is that deadly sin which is to blame for the title character's
affliction. We follow a prominent English doctor who is called to
Europe on the request of his ex-lover. While there, he meets the cruel
and sinister Baron Sardonicus; a man who is forced to wear a mask as
his face is too hideous to look at. It's not long thereafter that we
learn the reason for this facial deformity, as the man retells the tale
of how he robbed his father's grave for a winning lottery ticket.
William Castle may not be the greatest director of all time, but here he creates just the right tone for the story to flourish in. The Gothic locations, sinister score and foreboding mood combine to ensure that the story is both gripping and as hideous as its central protagonist. This is helped along by the fact that the central characters are well fleshed out, and all of their motives make sense. Mr Sardonicus himself verges on comic book villainy at times, and as the plot is fairly ludicrous, this isn't always the easiest film to swallow. However, Castle ensures that the action always makes sense, and it has to be said that the tale has been given as good handling as it could afford. Castle's love for showboating shows through towards the end, however, when he tries one of his 'interactive cinema' tricks regarding the fate of Mr Sardonicus. It is these sort of things that make William Castle films what they are, and it fits films like The Tingler; but here Castle's segment feels out of place, given that the tone of the movie is largely serious. However, it's not enough to spoil what is a great Gothic horror story and overall I highly recommend this film to horror fanatics!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For my second film in my review of films set in Transylvania, I felt
that after reviewing the(somewhat rightfully)obscure 'She Beast' that
in order not to alienate anyone(Kidding, alienating people is my hobby,
offending is my lifeblood) that I would review a more traditional story
set in Transylvania, one that everybody knows and loves:
It's about a young Englishman who is summoned to a foreboding castle in Eastern Europe where he is welcomed by an outwardly charming and polite host who is actually a fiendish ghoul who seeks to make others share the same fate as himself and soon endangers our hero's love interest, only faith in Jeebus and early 19th century science can save the day!!
The film I'm talking about is 1961's 'Mr. Sardonicus'.
What? You thought I was talking about Dracula? Pbbbttt.
Bram Stoker's tried and true story wishes it was as wild as this. The term 'Ghoul' is merely metaphorical, and actually is somewhat harshly self-imposed by the film's titular character(Guy Rolfe), and while he himself can be a nasty piece of work at times, he's actually a rather tragic and sympathetic victim of circumstance rather than a genuine villain like Dracula. I also have to admit I'm sort-of cheating by including this film in my marathon since it's not set in Transylvania, but rather a fictitious country called Gorslava; but the connection is clear enough for me to include it(I like to imagine that Gorslava is located somewhere between the Hollywood version of Transylvania bordering Vasaria, located west of Karlstaad, East of Latveria and located South of Pottsylvania, and that most of the fish is imported from Innsmouth), and I can review whatever the hell I want.
Seems Mr. S has the stifling social problem of having a hideously disfigured face(Why else does he wear a mask?); more specifically, his face is contorted into hideous grin that would make both Gwynplaine and the Joker cringe(How he got his mug is ingeniously explained in a flashback sequence that's so eerie I won't spoil it). The flashback scene where his face is revealed by a swinging light in a dark room is incredibly creepy despite some amazingly fake makeup; it may be my favorite scene where a disfigured face is revealed in a horror film ever. Mr. S. wants the film's protagonist; a doctor, to cure him. At first it simply seems that Sardonicus is more unhinged and bitter than anything, but it soon becomes clear that Sardonicus doesn't intend simply to refuse to pay the doctor's bills if he fails, oh no, he intends to PUNISH him, and as we've seen from the way Mr. S has his one-eyed assistant Krull(former comedian Oscar Homolka)torture young girls with leeches and knives, as well as the not-so-subtle implication that Mr. S was himself responsible for Krull's missing eye, it's more than likely that the Doc's punishment won't just be being blackballed in the medical union.....
'Mr. Sardonicus' was Castle's only period-piece; say what you will about his film-making skills and derivativeness, but the man certainly set himself apart from Hammer & AIP; who kept grinding out nothing but period pieces, this was a departure for Castle, but it's handled amazingly well in spite of some cheap sets. The acting is great, Guy Rolfe is alternately regal, courteous, charming, other times truly frightening and psychotic, and ultimately; very sympathetic, even in scenes where he threatens to mutilate the heroine's face(Lifted directly by Chris Nolan for 'The Dark Knight') and abuses his underlings; I still wanted to him have a happy ending, or maybe he could have met the similarly-masked Christine from the french horror classic 'Les Yeux Sans Visage'(1960). Rolfe effectively uses body language to make up for spending almost the entire role in a mask. The romantic leads are much less interesting, but at least they aren't annoying. Oscar Homolka steals the show as Krull; in fact, he may be my favorite henchman after Dwight Frye as Renfield. The foggy atmosphere is excellent. What finally happens to Good 'ol Mr. S is both simultaneously sad, horrifying, and pants crappingly hilarious. I'm not saying any more.
John Waters once said he would rather sit on William Castle's lap than Santa Claus's, and I imagine that when he first saw this film that he felt he couldn't have gotten a better Christmas present. And I wouldn't blame him, this is probably Castle's best film next to 'Homicidal' and 'House on Haunted Hill'.
This is one horror film that'll leave a smile on your face....I just hope that unlike it's titular character that you can get it off, I better, or I'll have to cancel my trip to Romania to stock up on some leeches and knives.~
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Castle's career began with some excellent low budget noirs (The Whistler'
and Mark of the Whistler' both 1944, are standouts) and his eventual tally
as director stood at a more than respectable fifty four before he died in
the mid-seventies. Active to the end, he acquired the rights to Rosemary's
Baby' but was not allowed by Paramount to direct it. But it is as the
originator of a series of grotesque shockers, each one stamped with a unique
gimmick, that he is remembered. Thus, The House on Haunted Hill' (1959)
featured Emergo (a luminiscent skeleton hung over the head of the audience).
13 Ghosts' had Illusion-O (a pair of tinted sunglasses making on screen
phantoms invisible). Homicidal' (1960) featured a much vaunted Fright
Break. His most famous film The Tingler' (1959) had Percepto (electric
buzzers under the seats) and so on.
In Mr. Sardonicus' he introduced the Punishment Poll in which, at the climax of the film the audience are asked to vote on whether Sardonicus should be shown mercy or given `more punishment'. The strong suspicion is that Castle only filmed one ending, as every print I have seen ends in the same way.
In many ways this film represents the zenith of Castle's showmanship and flair as an exploitation film maker. Homicidal' may be more successful as an exercise in terror, and The Tingler' may have a bigger cult following but, in the present film, all the elements which make viewing his films still so entertaining today are in evidence. Castle of course, was not only a cinematic showman, but deliberately a very visible one, exceeding Hitchcock in self promotion. His auteur presence is so strong in his best loved films that one no doubt felt that it was the director himself pulling the strings jerking skeletons over their heads or buzzing their seats when the original gimmicks where in place. In none of his films is his presence so pronounced as here, where the gimmick does not rely on long- gone props. Castle introduces the film, with a brief discussion on the precise interpretation of ghoul', and then later reappears to take the `vote' on Sardonicus' fate from the cinema audience. Although it is unlikely we hold the necessary voting cards, the enjoyment of the procedure remains the same. Demanding our direct involvement, Castle's face fills the screen without introduction, and his devilish smirk and quibbling no doubt excited the worst anticipations of his contemporary audience. The impudence of this self-projection still makes us smile today.
Influenced by The Phantom of The Opera' in the utilisation of a bland mask covering disfigurement, and also borrowing heavily from The Man Who Laughs' (1928) Castle's film is more original than a bald statement of the plot suggests. Even in these jaded times when colour and special effects have immured audiences to excess, some scenes in Castle's 1961 grotesque show can still raise a frisson. For instance when the baron's servant Krull (`I do as he commands me no matter what it is') hangs the serving girl by her thumbs and lasciviously applies leeches to her wriggling ankles. The baron's final fate, or the first appearance of his fixed grin, exposed by lantern light, after he stumbles back home whining from the just desecrated churchyard.
Of course Castle's love of the baroque and the grotesque is always just a short step away from being tongue in cheek, and it is this knowingness that makes his films so accessible to fans today. Like Raimi, Craven and other modern horror film makers, it is obvious to the audience it is obvious that Castle knows the rules' of the genre. Unlike the somewhat smug sophistication of Scream' and its ilk, he does not insist on parading them but plays the genre familiarity to the edge of self parody, with no suggestion of strain.
Mr Sardonicus' benefits from a better script than many of Castle's other films and is further notable for being one of his rare period outings. The character of the baron, his shunned chateaux and his cruel treatment of serving girls would soon become hallmarks of the Hammer cycle in the UK. While Sardonicus himself remains cold and aloof behind his mask, much of his dirty work is ably carried out by Krull (the excellent Oskar Homolka, perhaps a face most familiar from Hitchcock's Sabotage'), whose own maimed face and toadish malevolence adds considerably to the general feeling of unease. It is his application of the leeches, his expected torture of Maude in the dungeon and, not least, his final scene with the agonised baron that gives the film an unexpected edge of cruelty.
What are we to make of the end of Sardonicus? Castle's mocking vote' aside, in which he assumes a thumbs down from the audience each time the film is shown, the conclusion is notable for being both quiet and horribly insidious. There is no painful death to behold for the aristocratic monster who has seduced servant girls, robbed graves and so tormented his wife. Krull delivers his fatal message, sits, devours his food hungrily, while his master - whose mouth has set rigid after Sir Robert's treatment - faces a slow death through thirst and starvation. This end scene is like the slow turn of a screw, effective though lack of explicit closure. The director sends us off contemplating prolonged agony. The baron's own grimace may have vanished, but the peculiar smile on Castle's face is with us, through the end and beyond.
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