|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 March 2002|
William Castle worked busily in Hollywood from the late 30s to the end of his life, mostly directing negligible B movies, medium-budget Westerns, and the like. He worked with Orson Welles on "The Lady from Shanghai," but that's one of his few titles most film fans today would recognize. That is, until the late 1950s. Like others, he took close notice of the sudden revival of popularity of horror movies, and decided to try his hand.
His "Macabre" was a dull, ponderous little film that Castle turned into an unexpected -- by him, even -- hit when he learned that the famous Lloyd's of London would ensure everyone who saw it for death by fright, not that that was remotely likely. Somehow, this appealed to the public, and he was quickly signed by Columbia for a series of low-budget films. At first, he held onto gimmicks firmly -- the floating skeleton that accompanied showings of "House on Haunted Hill," the joy-buzzer-like devices that rattled asses with "The Tingler" -- but he then switched to gimmicks contained within the films (the gadgetry was expensive). For "Mr. Sardonicus," he had a "Punishment Poll" involving little cards with a luminous hand. To let Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) live, you pointed the thumb up (and were supposed to leave the theater); to give him his just desserts, you pointed the thumb down (and sat through the rest of the film). The print here includes the "Punishment Poll" footage, hosted by a chortling Castle himself.
The gimmick is the most interesting thing about "Mr. Sardonicus," a cheap-looking, trivial film. The script -- better than the direction by Castle -- was by Ray Russell, for years a fiction editor at "Playboy," where the story first appeared. In the late 19th century, Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is summoned to the Balkan mansion of Baron Sardonicus, where he's surprised to learn the woman he expected to be his wife, Maude (Audrey Dalton), is married to the nobleman, who always wears an inexpressive mask of his own face. He's forever torturing his servants, usually assigning his servant Krull (Oscar Homolka) to this task, which is fine with Krull -- who's undergone some torture by Sardonicus himself.
Sardonicus explains that years before, to recover a winning lottery ticket from the clothes on the body of his late father, he dug up the old man's corpse -- and was so horrified by its skeletal grin that his own face immediately froze into a similar grimace. He hasn't been able to move his face ever since, and expects Cargrave to help him, threatening Maude as an inducement.
That's really all there is to the story; it's talky, slow-paced and not very frightening. Sardonicus' grin, which we see only a couple of times, is disturbing but not scary; it's more depressing than anything else. Homolka, Rolfe and Lewis are good, and the ending is nicely ironic, but it takes time to get there. If this hadn't been directed by William Castle, it would barely be remembered today.
But it was a Castle film. Columbia has issued this and two other Castle movies -- complete with the silhouette of Castle in a director's chair that he began using as an emblem part-way through his Columbia career -- in well-produced but, appropriately, cheap DVDs. Each includes a brief documentary with horror movie experts including Donald F. Glut, director Fred Olen Ray and David DelValle being interviewed about each of the films. There's also archive footage of Castle and the like; they should have been longer, with additional interview subjects, but low-budget movies like these don't get this kind of treatment very often.
The prints are in excellent shape, but nothing special has been done with the sound, nor is there any reason it should have been. The movies were shot mono, and are presented that way.
"Mr. Sardonicus" is recommended only to historians, William Castle fans and the indefatigably curious; the other two titles, "Homicidal" and "Strait-Jacket," are much better.