Mr. Sardonicus (1961) Poster

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I'm surprised there aren't ...
JoeB13115 June 2009
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.
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Best ever of the genre; an absolute delight.
Len Helfgott16 January 1999
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.
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a "ghoulish delight"
laffinsal12 October 2000
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.
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Silly Gothic Fun
gftbiloxi24 April 2005
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 time.

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
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Surprsingly literate and effective shocker
lrrap13 April 2009
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.
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Classic William Castle
mr. sardonicus5 September 2000
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.
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Disturbing but memorable!
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.
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Something else money can't buy you; a nice face!
The_Void20 April 2006
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!
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The Lottery Ticket
Claudio Carvalho9 August 2017
In the Nineteenth Century, in London, the prominent medical doctor Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) receives a letter from his former sweetheart Baroness Maude Sardonicus (Audrey Dalton) with the invitation to visit her husband Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) and her at his castle in Gorslava. Soon Sir Robert learns that the notorious Baron is an appalling man that frightens the local population. On the arrival in the castle Sir Roberts sees Sardonicus's servant Krull (Oscar Homolka) torturing a maid with leeches in a weird experiment. He meets Maude and her husband that wears a mask covering his face. Sir Robert has a private conversation with Sardonicus and he learns that the Baron was the peasant Marek Toleslawski that lived in a poor house with his wife Elenka Toleslawski (Erika Peters) and his father Henryk Toleslawski (Vladimir Sokoloff), who gives a lottery ticket as a gift to Elenka and dies. Months later, Marek and Elenka learn that they have won the lottery; however the ticket was buried with Henryk. Marek decides to retrieve the ticket in his father's grave and when he sees the face of Henryk, he freezes his face with a horrible grimace. Sardonicus wants Robert to recover his face; otherwise he will destroy Maude's face. Will Sir Robert succeed?

"Mr. Sardonicus" is a creepy horror film directed by William Castle. The story is a sort of combination of the story lines of "Nosferatu" (or "Dracula"), "The Man Who Laughs" and "Les Yeux Sans Visage" among others. William Castle plays with the audiences asking for the fate of Sardonicus. The make-up of Sardonicus is impressive. My vote is seven.

Title (Brazil): "A Máscara do Horror" ("The Mask of the Horror")
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Okay when I was young I saw this movie
smidget284 November 2000
And it scared the hell out of me.

The face is just too smiley for even the cheeriest of folks.

I was scared out of my wits by this black and white movie...most adults would probably find funny. So, decide for yourself.
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Mr. Sardonicas
Scarecrow-8820 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Deliciously macabre delight from the great William Castle stars Guy Rolfe as a sadistic baron who demands a renowned knighted English expert massage therapist, Sir Robert Cargrave(Ronald Lewis) whose knowledge of muscles has brought him much fame and fortune, to "fix" his deformed face, a ghastly grin misshapen upon his face forcing him to wear a mask in order to not repulse those around him. Baron Sardonicas' soul is black as the darkest night and he threatens to cause surgical facial damage to unhappy wife Maude(Audrey Dalton)if Sir Robert doesn't treat him of his hideous visage. Oskar Homolka has a gem of a role as the baron's scar-eyed manservant, Krull, who operates at his will, including the torture of maid, Anna(Lorna Hanson)using leeches! Sir Robert, the kind of gent who cares for his patients' well being, at first refuses to use a dangerous technique involving a poisonous plant, until the baron rejects no for an answer, warning him that Krull would be ordered to damage Maude's pretty face..Sir Robert and Maude were once an item and his whole reason for being in the baron's mansion to begin with was at her request.

Castle's introduction and involvement at the conclusion are a pleasure if you love the guy, others might find him bothersome. The baron's sickening face will surely leave quite an impression, certainly a horrifying sight. Castle really understood how to layer his movies with a really weird vibe and Mr Sardonicas has a really disturbing undercurrent if one dwells on the activities that had occurred long before Sir Robert entered the baron's (not so)humble abode. Like most of Castle's horror tales, there's an underlying mystery which slowly unravels with characters hiding secrets which will soon be revealed. The fate of Sardonicas is sure to please since he's such a fiend. Amazingly, despite being hid behind the mask(..or that repellent make-up job), Rolfe somehow successfully manufactures a rather effective menace, using his voice and tormented eyes. Lewis, as the hero, is reserved and calm, despite his character's being boxed in a corner, he conveys a confidence and intelligence, quite realistic in my mind since as a doctor he encounters troubled souls "in need of fixing" all the time when patients arrive at his office. The mansion itself is quite an impressive set and remains the setting for almost the entire running time. The plot is wonderfully diabolical, shot in the usual straight manner as only Castle could do.
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Imaginative story and creepy atmosphere make for effective Gothic chiller
mlraymond7 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This is probably William Castle's least gimmicky, and most straight forward terror flick. For a low budget film, it has very good acting, an intelligent script, and a nicely done Victorian era feel to it. Guy Rolfe does an excellent job at making Sardonicus a fairly sympathetic character, whose darker, twisted side doesn't really emerge until near the end. Ronald Lewis is very good as the stalwart English hero. Oscar Homolka manages to give his sinister servant role some extra shadings that raise the character to a believable person, and not just the standard " Ygor" role.Audrey Dalton is effective in the role of the Baron's long-suffering wife.

I had not seen this movie for a few years and I was really struck by how closely the opening sequences compare to the 1931 Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, with Bela Lugosi. We have the English visitor to a remote Central European country, the minor official ( innkeeper, railway employee) who asks what private carriage is coming to collect the visitor, and is terrified to learn that it will come from a local nobleman with a fearful reputation, the disbelieving, amused reaction from the English traveler when informed of local superstitions concerning the castle and its owner, the carriage ride to the old castle, the delayed introduction of the villain until suspense has been built up. There's even a line by Sardonicus that is taken directly from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, where Count Dracula informs his guest that " I have already dined".

This movie is quite suspenseful and is bound to delight anyone who appreciates classic horror movies in the old style.
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William Castle + Gothic horror= Pure entertainment
TheFinalAlias3 October 2009
Warning: 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.~
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Excellent Castle cult classic
FilmFlaneur28 January 2002
Warning: 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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" In a loveless marriage, few would ever blame her if she left him "
thinker169122 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Back in the 1960's, monster movies were all the rage. There were good ones, like the ones created by the Hammer group. Here is an unusual one which was created by gimmick King William castle. The movie is called " Mr. Sardonicus. " It is the quaint story of a man who's father wins a lottery and the family stands to become very rich. Unfortunately the son (Guy Rolfe), Baron Sardonicus allows his father to be buried with the winning ticket. Soon realizing he must retrieve the ticket, he exhumes the body as the ticket is in his father's vest pocket. Urged on by his greedy wife to recover the ticket, the young man digs up the coffin and looks inside. Viewing the ghastly face of his father, the young baron's own face is stricken with the same hideous features. From then on he must wear a mask, is shunned by villagers and taken care of by his manservant, Krull (Oscar Homolka). Sir Robert Cargraves (Ronald Lewis) a famous doctor arrives at the bidding of Maude Sardonicus (Audrey Dalton) the baron's wife. Together they must find a cure for the evil baron or face death. For its day, this was a frightening film with an elaborate gag at the end. Today, you'll find it in the pages of horror magazines. ***
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Ghoulish fun.
Scott LeBrun8 October 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Ronald Lewis stars as Sir Robert Cargrave, a highly esteemed doctor / surgeon sought out by the Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe). The Baron had, once upon a time, given in to greed and robbed a grave, and he therefore met a nasty fate: his face froze into a hideous, toothy grin. Usually keeping his visage hidden under a mask, The Baron indulges in some cruel practices that upset the good doctor. He's prepared to follow through on various threats that he makes, should Cargrave refuse to come to his aid or not succeed in the attempt.

The legendary schlockmeister William Castle was a man who truly understood the value of showmanship. Here he once again utilizes a gimmick, albeit one that he saves for the final few minutes of the picture. This one is called the "punishment poll", wherein audience members could vote on whether our villain had received enough payback for his misdeeds. As one can see, the gimmick is nothing more than a joke.

Another good thing that could be said about Castle was his penchant for giving his fright flicks a respectable fun factor. "Mr. Sardonicus" is heavy on story (and back story) for a while, but it kicks into another gear whenever The Baron is at his cruelest and most sadistic. One unfortunate servant girl must endure leeches on her face for no good reason.

Rolfe is delicious in the title role, and is a good sport considering that he must wear the mask most of the time. (The reveal of his affliction is a memorable one indeed.) Lewis is passable as our protagonist, as is the beautiful Audrey Dalton as Maude, the woman Cargrave loves who had married The Baron to appease her father. Oscar Homolka is great as the one eyed henchman Krull, who tries to be loyal to The Baron but is taken aback at one point by what he's being asked to do.

Lovers of more contemporary horror may scoff at the makeup, but the effects do have an irresistible old fashioned, low budget charm to them.

Seven out of 10.
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"My name was not always Sardonicus and I did not always wear a mask."
utgard1417 June 2014
An English surgeon is summoned to a European village by a former love, who is now married to a mask-wearing baron. Turns out the baron's face is horribly disfigured and he wishes the surgeon to try and fix it. If he refuses...well, he doesn't want to tick off Baron Sardonicus! A fun Gothic horror film from William Castle. The last of his gimmick films. The gimmick here is that the audience was given cards with a thumbs up or down. When prompted, they would hold them up to decide the fate of the title character. In truth, there was only one ending but Castle knew his audience -- they would only have wanted this to end one way. This is not one of Castle's best movies, though it is enjoyable. The cast is good but the movie lacks a standout presence. I can't help but wonder if Vincent Price in the title role, with his distinct voice and manner, might have helped some. Still, it's a good watch that fans of Castle or classic horror films in general should enjoy.
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Vastly Underrated Castle Film, Worth Watching and Loving
gavin694221 February 2010
London physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) has come to visit Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) in Gorslava at the request of Maude (Audrey Dalton), the Baron's wife. Sir Robert becomes apprehensive when his inquiries about Sardonicus are met with fear. When Sir Robert arrives at Castle Sardonicus, his fears are quickly justified: one of his first sights is that of Sadonicus' servant Krull (Oskar Homolka) torturing one of the Baron's servants by placing leeches on her face. Sardonicus asks Cargrave to help cure him of a terrible condition... will he?

Ronald Lewis, a Welsh actor from many other films I've never seen, is a great leading man, and I'm sorry he was not employed more by Castle or other directors. He really pulls off the distinguished doctor character, and it doesn't hurt that he's got that British accent. The Irish Audrey Dalton is likewise very good. And the English Guy Rolfe I believe to be wonderful, but it is hard to tell when he is behind a mask for the bulk of his performance.

The film is excellent in its storytelling, and it is not unlike the tales of Poe. Torture, a fiendish creature, a doctor with a special cure... brilliance. And combined with Castle's fun approach, and his injection of himself for the "mercy poll"... a perfect mix. We have to give credit to Ray Russell, who first wrote this story and had it published in "Playboy".

You also have to give the film credit for its use of leeches and the term "ghoul". The leeches are just nasty and clearly real, making them particularly nasty. And the "ghoul"? The term is defined not once but twice as a creature that robs graves and feasts on corpses... how this plays into the story you'll just have to watch to see.

While the known Castle films are "13 Ghosts" and "The Tingler", among others, more attention should be paid to "Mr. Sardonicus". It is a wonderful film, beginning to end, and could compete with the Poe stories starring Vincent Price. The only thing missing is star power, and that's not needed here.
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Surprisingly effective Gothic silliness
minamurray8 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
London, 1880. Young doctor is called to country called Gorslava, Gothic place of mist, handsomely dressed castles, evil aristocrats and endangered young women. Masked and disfigured Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) has prettily dressed wife (Audrey Dalton) whose greedy blonde predecessor has killed herself and now he uses her wife to get the young doctor to help him... Although the Baron is more cruel and depraved than insane, the film lacks the modern sleaze-tinged approach to the suffering of sympathetic, tortured maids - so all you perverts there, this may bore you to death! Gothic atmosphere is quite effective, script by Ray Russell (based on his own short story) quite good and black-and-white photography pristine. This is definitely best film from director/producer William Castle.
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One of William Castle's most creepy and enjoyable horror films
Woodyanders24 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
1880. The sadistic Baron Sardonicus (superbly essayed with wonderfully wicked aplomb by Guy Rolfe) suffers from a rare and bizarre malady: he has a hideously grotesque grin permanently plastered on his face as a direct result of having desecrated his own father's grave in order to obtain a fortune in lottery money. Sardonicus enlists the aid of noted neurosurgeon Sir Robert Cargrave (a fine performance by Ronald Lewis) to rid himself of his ghastly disfigurement. Director William Castle, working from a smart and intriguing script by Ray Russell, does an expert job of creating and maintaining a supremely spooky, misty and unnerving Gothic atmosphere. This film further benefits from a surprisingly nasty and upsetting edginess, with the Baron's cruel penchant for torturing and tormenting lovely young ladies proving to be an especially potent source of shocks. The uniformly sound acting from the excellent cast rates as another major asset: Oscar Homolka as the Baron's loyal, sinister one-eyed servant Krull, Audrey Dalton as the Baron's fetching, devoted second wife Maude, Lorna Hansen as scared, much abused maid Anna, Erika Peters as the Baron's feisty first wife Elenka, and Vladimir Sokoloff as the Baron's wise, kindly father Henryk Toleslawski. Burnett Guffey's crisp black and white cinematography, the flavorsome 19th century period setting, Von Dextor's robust shivery score, and the deliciously dark ironic ending all add to overall solid quality of this nifty horror winner.
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Sardonicus - still remembered 40 years later!
sue-payne28 March 2006
My younger sister and I saw this film when we were children and it terrified us - we still mention Sardonicus all these years later when looking for a word to describe a shocked reaction. My sister has just sent me a jokey text message in response to an insult I sent her, saying that she's so shocked that her mouth is in a "fixed Sardonicus grimace of shock" - this made me laugh so much I decided to look up info on the film and here I am!

The film would seem tame to my own teenage son now, but it has obviously had a lasting affect on my sister and me and it would be great to see it again on TV.
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Minor classic from William Castle
Craig Burkhart11 October 2003
This film, for me, marks the beginning of the decline for the great director/promoter William Castle. It is still among his better works overall. After this movie, however, his output becomes less and less interesting, in my opinion. He was the producer for "Rosemary's Baby" but I'm speaking specifically about his work as a director.

The film itself deals with a disfigured man who attempted to retrieve something (a lottery ticket) from a grave. The definition of a "ghoul" is given at the beginning and throughout the film as "one who opens graves and feeds on corpses." It features the typical young couple in distress and the evil henchman, played here by Oskar Homolka, who also appeared notably in the early Hitchcock film "Sabotage" with Sylvia Sidney. All Castle films have a sideshow sort of gimmick to hook the audience into paying attention. In this one, it is a "choice" of endings. I won't spoil the end by discussing the choice or the outcome, but it is obviously a promotional attempt by Castle and not the most inventive. He did much better with the shock effects in "The Tingler" and the glasses in the original "13 Ghosts." Those were truly classic examples of Castle's showmanship and use of gimmickry. Here, the ruse doesn't work quite as well.

Subsequent Castle films, which used the ultimate modern-day gimmick of putting a star in the movie, weren't as effective. Interestingly, today's films seem to be promoted entirely based on who is involved in the film, as actor, director, etc. So in that sense Castle would continue to point us toward the future of filmmaking. Perhaps with the advent of interactive moviemaking, this film will one day also be considered waay ahead of it's time. For now, however, it remains a good but not great entry from a most memorable director and promoter.
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While not a particularly great film, like so many of Castle's films it's a lot of fun
MartinHafer1 November 2008
This film never had a chance of winning any awards or high praise from the critics and this is no surprise. Like many of William Castle's films, this isn't high art and it was meant to be very broad horror that would appeal to the common man and woman in the audience. In many places the plot seemed silly and tough to believe but because of Castle's style, it was still a lot of fun to watch--particularly the silly voting segment and subsequent evil ending of the film.

As for the unbelievable plot, a famous doctor is called by an old sweetheart to travel across Europe to help her. However, when he arrives, she behaves like there is nothing the matter! However, it soon becomes obvious that her husband is having major issues, as he walks everywhere with a mask over his face. It turns out that a great scare years earlier permanently contorted his face into a silly and unrealistic looking grimace and the doctor is threatened into treating the crazy afflicted man.

Throughout all this, there are tons of unnecessary but cool torture and mayhem--such as seeing the maid hung by her thumbs and having leeches pasted all over her face. Sardonicus is a jerk in this film and it's really hard to care about his facial anomaly.

By the way, IMDb doesn't mention this, but the mask that Sardonicus wears looks an awful lot like William Castle's face and I am sure that with the director's quirky sense of humor that this was intentional.
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Highly underrated effort
slayrrr6661 November 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"Mr. Sardonicus" is a highly impressive and enjoyable horror film.


Justified of his new procedure, English doctor Sir Robert Cargrave, (Ronald Lewis) regales in the benefits of the experimental operation, using exact amounts of deadly poisons injected by hypodermic needles. When he is summoned away to Eastern Europe, he finds the townspeople there afraid of Baron Sardonicus, (Guy Rolfe) who had sent away for him, and meets up with former girlfriend Maude, (Audrey Dalton) who is now his wife. Informed of the reason why he has been summoned, to lift a curse brought upon him rendering his face into a permanent, deathly smile that repulses those who gaze upon it, he refuses only to be put under the threat of torture to perform a method to remove it, and relents, going about the deadly procedure to restore his face to it's original look.

The Good News: This was a fairly pleasant and enjoyable surprise. The main factor here is in the rather nice Gothic atmosphere on display here. The early scenes in London are of the typical heavy-fog rolling in on the landscape variety that creates a memorable impression all the way to the incredibly chilling moments in the graveyard later on during the flashback, which redeems the segment drastically by looking incredibly tense and creepy, the actions being done during give off a great vibe and there's a fantastic shock within when it gets to the casket revelation that it's perfectly deserving of the condition it causes and is a terrific jolt on it's own. The torture chamber scenes are just plain creepy, taking place in a stone cavern within the building that manages to produce a mood of utter despair and dread, the perfect setting to cast instruments of terror. There's even a nightmare sequence that's played up even more, despite the talking-heads muttering, due to the fact that the room seems to be in on it as well and does whatever it can to enhance the terror with the flowing drapes and screaming wind. Shorter scenes, like the carriage ride to the castle through the countryside or a walk through a dead garden while the story of the past is being recounted do offer up a few more nice moments. The torture methods on display aren't that bad either, as the first instance, of a close-up of a face covered in leeches as well as their application to another victim later on are both pretty chilling, and the methods for forcing the operation to go on are pretty nice indeed. The scenes of the experiments to restore the face are nicely done and really serve to get across the condition and the need to fix it is handled well, getting a little discomforting as time goes on. The best part of the film, though, is the eerie and just-plain-creepy smile that is plastered on the face. It isn't overused to the point of cheesiness, it's shown only when needed to be in a few shots altogether and is a powerful repulsion device, made all the more so with the creepy-looking mask that is worn to mingle among society. It looks creepy with the blank, expression-less features that accompany it, especially while talking since the lips don't move at all and it makes for a creepy character that fits in here perfectly. These here are the film's good points.

The Bad News: There wasn't a whole lot here that didn't work. The main one here is that the film decides to act out the back-story rather than just say it out. This is especially true of the beginning half of it, which could've been recounted by story rather than the rather grating manner it does so in here, by being about the family history and the local superstitions. These scenes last a fairly decent amount of time that tells the same story a conversation would've done in more time the other way around, and it does make these scenes drag a little. The other flaw here is in not showing any real sort of graphic torture at all, as it includes several scenes within a torture chamber and there's always a threat of it, but yet nothing much comes of it, as a wasted opportunity. These here, though, are the film's main flaws.

The Final Verdict: With a lot to like about it and only a minor flaw that does hold it back slightly, there's not a lot out there who won't enjoy this one. Highly recommended for those who enjoy these kinds of classic horror or are in need of an enjoyable classic horror entry, otherwise heed caution with it.

Today's Rating-PG: Mild Violence
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The legend of the ghoul is born
Johan Louwet4 June 2015
Warning: Spoilers
The most interesting thing about this movie was the whole back story of how Marek became Mr. Sardonicus. I had heard about ghouls before but I thought they were some undead creatures like zombies. I don't know if zombie movies got their inspiration from this movie or legend but I certainly loved the idea of the punishment he got for digging his father's grave just because his former wife wanted that winning lottery ticket so badly and be wealthy. With all this wealth though he couldn't get a cure. The ghoul face of Sardonicus is splendid and really creepy, his mannerisms and actions deliciously cruel what you expect from a man that has become a monster. The actions undertaken on the poor maid and almost ton his own wife by Krull are proof how devilish he has become. Strong performances from Guy Rolfe as Mr. Sardonicus, Oskar Homolka as Krull, Ronald Lewis as Dr. Robert and Lorna Hanson as the maid Anna. The ending might seem typical for the period of time, but I loved it a lot.
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