Although atmospheric and at times theatrical, a piece of Hollywood gothic from the early 1960s is missing a moment which arguably should have been a crucial element of the film’s premise. Mark Fraser looks at how this omission impacts the final outcome.
When seen through the eyes of a child – as was the case with this reviewer around 46 years ago – William Castle’s 1961 black and white horror yarn Mr Sardonicus can be quite frightening.
Indeed, it was so unsettling for the younger version of myself that, after watching it at a drive-in as a nine year-old, I completely forgot about the director’s gimmicks at the start and finish of the movie as I lay alone in the dark later that night, terrified some hideously grinning madman would suddenly appear outside of my bedroom window.
Had I remembered Castle’s narrative bookends – during which he introduces the movie standing against a phony London backdrop and, later, asks his audience to choose the film’s ending (as part of the so-called Punishment Poll) – I would have realised the whole thing was being played for laughs.
Furthermore, had my young and impressionable brain not been so easily fooled into thinking it was watching something scary, I may have appreciated the fact that Mr Sardonicus is a pretty garrulous movie – a virtual chat fest that is punctuated with the odd shock.
This is not to say the film lacks atmosphere, because it is chock full of cheesy visual ambience. But when one of its best moments – a mild nightmare sequence involving the sleeping Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) and the floating heads of the movie’s other characters as they repeat key lines of hitherto spoken dialogue – is more clever than jolting, it’s easy to see just how firmly Castle had his tongue in his cheek while making this.
Although the rest of the film doesn’t always maintain this level of nifty craftsmanship, Mr Sardonicus still works as a modest horror yarn, albeit one which is now more interesting when viewed as a homage to gothic Hollywood cinema than as a stand-alone genre piece.
In some ways the story, which is scripted by Ray Russell (writer of the original novella on which the whole thing is based), starts off in the same vein as Bram Stoker’s Dracula*. Following Castle’s opening shenanigans, it begins in earnest when Cargrave – a London-based pioneering English physician – is asked by the erstwhile love of his life Maude (Audrey Dalton) to visit her and her husband, the disfigured Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), at their isolated rural estate near the central European town/rail stop of Gorslava.
Upon arriving, the good doctor is given a brief by his masked host (who, from a distance, looks a little like English actor Robert Powell), that being to rid his face of the monstrous grin which has afflicted him since robbing his father’s grave some years before.
At first Cargrave agrees, but his first round of treatment is unsuccessful. Just as he is about to throw in the towel, though, Sardonicus convinces him to continue his work by threatening Maude with facial disfigurement – an offer the Queens College Hospital MD simply can’t refuse.
While unashamedly derivative, this is in no way an unreasonable premise for a horror film. But, as mentioned above, the viewer is forced to endure quite a bit of talk before the narrative arrives at this point.
During the film’s first third, Rolfe and his Sardonicus alter ego seem to be looking for a Shakespearean play to step into – firstly at the dinner table after Cargrave’s arrival and, later, in a rundown part of the estate’s overgrown grounds, where the host tells his guest the macabre story behind his disfigurement.
Oddly, it’s during these moments of talk that some finer elements of the plot get a little confused. For instance, the baron – for some inexplicable reason – refers to himself as a ghoul, despite the fact he’s technically not one.**
“A ghoul, as I’m sure you know, is a disgusting creature who opens graves and feeds on corpses,” Sardonicus dramatically declares while dining with the newly-arrived Cargrave and an uncomfortable-looking Maude.
He then adds with some flourish: “And of course the English do not believe in ghouls, do they Sir Robert? No, of course not. But in my country we do believe. In fact Sir Robert, in fact I have known a ghoul!”
Yet when Sardonicus – in his previous life as Marek Toleslawski, a farmer with a nagging wife (Erika Peters) – digs up his father Henryk’s (Vladimir Sokoloff) grave to retrieve a lottery ticket from the corpse’s suit pocket, he isn’t exactly being a ghoul; rather he is claiming something that is rightfully his and which, realistically, his old man would have wanted him to retrieve.
Further confusion occurs when, after revealing his past to Cargrave during the movie’s big flashback, Sardonicus rationalises his condition with such clear-headedness that there appears to be no place in his story for real ghouls.
“At first”, he says, “my superstitious peasant mind believed that heaven had placed a curse upon me to punish me for violating my father’s rest, or that some devilish force from beyond the grave had reached out to stamp my face.”
“But at length I began to believe it was the massive shock that forced my face to this state.
“Shock and guilt – strong powers, not from God above nor the fiend below, but from within my own heart, my own brain, my own soul!”
Given Sardonicus is this rational, why would he keep implying that he feeds off the dead when all he did was commit the lesser crime of grave robbery (or, more to the point, grave retrieval)?
In fact this outcast baron is so switched on that, after adjusting to his “blighted condition”, he read a great deal regarding the “medical arts”, during which he came across the Latin term for (in Cargrave’s words) “the grimace on the faces of lockjaw victims – resus sardonicus” (or rictus grin).
“The bitter irony of it appealed to me and I took Sardonicus as my name,” he tells the Englishman.
Taking this board, one can only wonder how many other struggling peasant farmers from Gorslava view the world with such an ironic disposition.
Another major problem with Russell’s script is its failure to explain exactly why Toleslawski became such a vicious bastard after donning his Sardonicus mask.
During the flashback he is a decent, honest, hard-working, salt-of-the-Earth type of guy struggling to make ends meet. Yet, after the big face change and buying his way into baronhood and the landed gentry, he becomes sadistically mean.
In addition to torturing and tormenting young women in his home dungeon on a regular basis while Maude sits alone upstairs enduring their screams, Sardonicus rules his household with a punishing fist; aside from having poked his head servant Krull’s (Oscar Homolka) eye out in anger, he allows the maid Anna (Lorna Hanson) to be subjected to ongoing leech “experiments” as he seeks a cure for his horrid grin.
The fact he threatens to decimate his wife’s pretty face with the help of a scalpel (and Krull) while blackmailing Cargrave is also a good indication of how depraved this man really has become.
Indeed, he is so evil and dastardly that the outcome of Castle’s Punishment Poll is pretty much a foregone conclusion when it is presented to the viewer during another of the director’s fourth wall infringements.
Nevertheless, there’s still a crucial scene missing from Mr Sardonicus, that being when Toleslawski becomes a monster in the spiritual sense – the moment the title of ghoul (or something similar) might truly befit him.
By omitting it, the only clear moral of the story is that wealth corrupts, a message which could also quite easily go over the empty head of any average nine year-old.
*This is in no way an original observation – English author/actor Jonathan Rigby raises the same point in one of the extras which comes with the Powerhouse Films Ltd Blu-ray release of the movie.
**Castle doesn’t help this situation when, during his appearance at the start of the film, he misleadingly tells the audience that the story is full of “gallantry, graciousness and ghouls”. Needless to say, it is pretty much bereft of any of this.
Words by Mark Fraser
Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Man With A Movie Camera” Transcends Propaganda | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness
Mr Sardonicus was released as part of Indicator’s William Castle Blu-ray box set on October 22.