Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mr. Sardonicus: The Look of (Not) Love

This unusual foray into Gothic horror is one of William Castle's strangest films--and that's saying a lot. Typically, the gimmicky Castle focused on contemporary plots, enhanced with offbeat humor, aimed at teen audiences. Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is so different that one might suspect it wasn't a William Castle film...except that the producer-director appears on-screen at the beginning and end. And yes, he somehow manages to incorporate one of his famous audience gimmicks.

Ronald Lewis as Sir Robert.
Mr. Sardonicus opens in London in 1880 with Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) "curing" a crippled girl at Queens College Hospital. Sir Robert is more than a gifted physician; he is a renowned pioneer in the field of medicine. Still, he quickly cancels all appointments when he receives a letter from Maude (Audrey Dalton), an old flame who has married a baron. Obviously, his love still burns strongly for her, for he hops aboard a train to Gorslava at her first sign of distress.

Remember how villagers treat strangers when they learn folks are traveling to Castle Dracula? That's the same kind of response that Sir Robert gets when he arrives in Gorslava and mentions Baron Sardonicus. Fortunately, Krull (Oscar Homolka), one of the Baron's servants, is at the train station to drive Sir Robert to the castle.

The Baron wearing his mask.
Things are revealed to be a bit odd at the spooky mansion. Sir Robert rescues a servant girl who has been covered in leeches as part of an "experiment." Maude acts initially like nothing is wrong. And Baron Sardonicus arrives at dinner wearing a full facial mask because he has been horribly disfigured. The Baron wants Sir Robert to cure him--which leads to a lengthy flashback that reveals how the Baron became the man he is today.

Up to this point, Mr. Sardonicus is an atmospheric, engrossing, well-acted tale. Unfortunately, the Baron's bizarre flashback answers the central question that propelled the film. Once we know what happened to Sardonicus, it's like director Castle let out all the air of the film and it deflates quickly.

Homolka as Krull.
The cast is one of Castle's best, with Ronald Lewis exhibiting the kind of commanding presence that made me wonder why he didn't have a better career. He did appear in a nifty Hammer thriller called Taste of Fear (1961) and in the big budgeted Billy Budd (1962). Other acting honors go to the always-reliable Oscar Homolka, whose Krull proves to be scarier than Sardonicus, and Erika Peters in a small role as Sardonicus' first wife. Sadly, the talented Audrey Dalton has little to do as Maude and isn't in much of the film. (When I interviewed Ms. Dalton earlier this year, she did say it was one of her most enjoyable films to make.)

Castle explaining how to vote in the poll.
As for the gimmick, Castle appears near the end of the film to introduce a "Punishment Poll" in which audience members are supposedly given the opportunity to vote on the fate of Baron Sardonicus. There have been periodic discussions over the years as to whether Castle actually shot two endings for the film. But, to date, no one has found the footage of a second ending.

For the record, I think the make-up for the Baron's skull-like smile was inspired by the 1960 Twilight Zone episode "The Eye of the Beholder." You be the judge below:

Well, the noses are similar!

Finally, Mr. Sardonicus played a key role in a storyline on the 1987-90 critically acclaimed TV series Wiseguy, in which a character was obsessed with the film. That reminds me that the title is really one calls him Mister Sardonicus...because he's a baron!


  1. Ever since I saw Matinee, the Joe Dante movie that was basically an homage to William Castle, I have sought out Castle movies. This is one I still haven't found, but I've heard about it from different sources. The story I read was there was NO second ending, that Castle intentionally made Sardonicus so bad that people would only vote one way. But I do wonder what would have happened if he had screened this in an insane asylum.

  2. Of course there's no other ending. Castle knew his bloodthirsty little matinee-ites wouldn't stand for a happy ending. And neither would the Production Code. And who's gonna bother counting? The projectionist? The manager?

    It may not have seemed that risky a genre, what with Corman just starting his Poe cycle. That's why I always wished Castle had directed as well as produced Rosemary's Baby - Devil's Horns for the males, witch's hats for the females...

  3. I never forgot Mr. Sardonicus, and he scared me silly when I was a kid. Once we started having the ability to watch on tapes and stop and stare at practically subliminal images, he has lost some of his fearfulness, but when you just saw for brief shots, it was nightmare time. Love this movie, Rick. I did love watching the wonderful Krull stuff his face like Henry VIII in front of Sardonicus at the end. Love this theme, Rick!

  4. Conrad Veidt. The Man Who Laughs (1927 I think).

  5. I loved this review of "Mr. Sardonicus"! Gorslava and the Baron's manor are two places I do not wish to visit, except theatrically. Castle does a great job evoking a chilling, uninviting atmosphere. The black and white cinematography add to the mystery. I thought your comparison of photos from the Twilight Zone episode and the big reveal of the Baron's face was inspired, too.

  6. Can't seem to find the answer anywhere -- how did Maude meet Marek/Sardonicus in the first place? Why did she agree to marry him? Is this another version of the greed-will-be-punished theme?