Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The odd man out of William Castle horrors, Mr. Sardonicus is a somewhat lumpy gothic tale
that builds slowly to one scary jolt that colors the whole film. An uneven screenplay and
poor production values prevent its good performances from adding up to much, and it finally
becomes less than satisfying. But save yourself for that one big scare, and it may be one
you'll never forget.
Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) orders his bride, Maude (Audrey Dalton) to entreat
the famous doctor Sir Robert (Ronald Lewis) to come to Moldavia to cure him of a horrible malady.
Sir Robert arrives at the Baron's castle to find that Sardonicus wears a mask to hide his disfigured
face. Krull, the sinister butler (Oscar Homolka) skulks around torturing the chambermaid with leeches.
Sardonicus bitterly relates the story of how his
face came to be so distorted: years back, he realized that his recently-deceased father was
buried with a winning lottery ticket in his coat pocket ...
Ray Russell's original Playboy short story was an exercise in stuffy gothic mood, a kind of
ribald tale where cruelty substituted for sex. Russell purposely affected his prose to make it
seem as if it had been written in 1900. Without that sensibility, the film's story points play like
1930s movie clichés. Any film adaptation requires a fine visual edge to create the right
mood, a vital factor which William Castle's meagre budget doesn't even attempt to provide.
Shot back-to back with Homicidal,
Mr. Sardonicus is constructed by the numbers and very, very cheaply. Of
Castle's later horror tales, this is his first period piece, and the under-produced sets look more
like Gower Gulch than Moldavian baroque. The walls are blank and the lighting is flat. Exteriors
have the look of sagebrush piled up against a badly painted sky backdrop. Stockshots are used to
The actors compensate to a degree. Guy Rolfe (Ivanhoe, The Stranglers of Bombay)
makes good use of his voice. Audrey Dalton (The Monster that Challenged the World,
Titanic) is betrayed
by a script that gives her no worthwhile dialogue. She's made to treat the hero, an old flame,
lovingly, and then play remote and mysterious the next. Ronald Lewis
(Scream of Fear) does a good job of not appearing too unflappably dull. The script is
an obvious stack of stock situations and conventions without much depth or point.
Top-billed Oscar Homolka's Krull is at least a character with some potential surprises, gleefully
sticking leeches onto Lorna Hanson's face. The torture scenes are a little silly, with Krull a closet
De Sade who enjoys verbally tormenting his victim. His dialogue crudely implies that he'll attach
the bloodsuckers to Hanson's various private parts, a detail that adds an infantile sickness to
the whole irrelevant subplot.
As in The Fly, the hero spends a lot of boring screen time waiting patiently to hear the
story behind Sardonicus' mask. When the flashback comes, it's so welcome that it plays better
than it should. It at least has some mist in the air and dark scenes to keep one on
edge. The young Sardonicus, then a peasant named Malik, unearths his father's grave, only to ....
well, it's almost worthy of a classic horror film.
There's a reveal in the flashback of the villain's terrifying face, that scared the living
hell out of Savant when he first saw it on television in 1967 or so. I'd actually been traumatized by
it long before, staring at a photo in Famous Monsters Magazine. I won't describe his face for
fear of spoilers, but the rather impossible makeup is truly shocking at first glance. Like the whole
story, it's a variation on the classic historical horror The Man Who Laughs, which was
done as a silent film by Paul Leni with the great Conrad Veidt.
At the end, Mr. Sardonicus falls short for very basic story reasons. The Baron is given all
kinds of nasty activities to convince us of his 'evil', but his character never makes much sense.
Poor Malik was the victim of a shrewish wife, plain and simple, but he seemed far too gentle to become
a heartless monster. The story takes this for granted and never persuades us to feel one way or
another. After the reveal of his face, interest goes downhill rapidly.
Why be so hard on Mr. Sardonicus? We fall all over ourselves praising its European
contemporaries, like Mill of the Stone Women and
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, and
scripts are just as hokey. The answer is that the European films carried on a Horror tradition that
American movies by and large abandoned in the 1950s - visual style. Classic horror is about mood
and ambience, and the better EuroHorrors earned their chills through creative use of the camera.
Hichcock is soaked in the morbid feeling of funerals and autopsy rooms. Stone Women
uses soft pastel colors to make us think of Flemish painters, and then tells a creepy tale of a
woman in an old mill full of mummified corpses. Dub Mr. Sardonicus into Italian and you'd
still have a dull picture. Most of it looks like an episode of Leave it to Beaver, and
it relies on its marketable details - the face, the leeches - to generate word of mouth and bring
in the kiddies.
The William Castle gimmick this time around is something called The Punishment Poll, where audience
members vote to decide whether Sardonicus will suffer at the end or go free. It probably worked
nicely in first-run theaters, but like all the other gimmicks (except
13 Ghosts, for which Columbia
with the ghost viewers), we kids in the sticks felt slighted because nobody had given us the
little voting cards. 1
Savant's guess is that the cost and grief of coordinating the ghost viewers had sorely griped the
Columbia front office, which responded to Castle's unique showmanship by clipping his wings. They
probably made Castle do these two
1961 quickies for half the cost, with gags that could be more easily ignored in regular release.
The next time out Castle's horror gimmick would be the flesh'n blood kind - Joan Crawford.
Unfortunately, even with his Punishment Poll, William Castle's story has nowhere to go once
the story's central mystery is revealed. With these shock scenes the only real reason for the
movie to exist, and the overall pace so slow, the show doesn't invite multiple viewings, as do
The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill. Not only are they superior movies, but they
revel in a sense of fun lacking in Mr. Sardonicus and
Homicidal. The trick with
Sardonicus is to see it once under good circumstances to find out if you're susceptible to
its creepy central film-within a film.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Mr. Sardonicus is their reliable solid transfer that renders
Burnett Guffey's B&W photography in the best possible light. It has 16:9 enhancement, something
we fear may become more rare at Columbia TriStar.
The extras are from producer Jeffrey Schwarz,
a confirmed William Castle adept. His docu celebrates Castle's showmanship and draws attention to
the best aspects of the film, like the detail of a grinning face in the decor that Savant had never
noticed. The affectionate piece presents a Columbia executive as an 'authority', and latterday
fan personalities as on-camera witnesses who can attest to little more than their
own enthusiasm for the films when they were children. Typical of their non-academic stumbling is
pointing out Oskar Homolka's overemphasized pawing of his mutilated eye, as a 'subtle gesture'.
As the very well-produced docu reveals all of the shock imagery, it's a potential
Pit of Spoilers. Savant is grateful that the film's terror makeup is NOT used on the packaging
or in the menu art.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mr. Sardonicus rates:
Movie: Fair +
Supplements: Docu: "Taking the Punishment Poll"
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 30, 2002
1. There's a dubbed line in Castle's opening Punishment Poll speech -
he says, "I hope your nightmares are nice ones", to cover something else. Does anyone, perhaps a
lip-reader, know what he might have said originally? It took some work to obliterate the original
line, and anything
that takes more than a minute of production time in a Castle film must have been important.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson