Mr. Sardonicus (1961) **½
Mr. Sardonicus. “Mr. Sneeringly Derisive.” What a great name. And given my personality and Señora El Santo’s curious affection for Latinizing nicknames, one that will surely be applied to me if ever she learns that this movie exists. I tell you, William Castle was a strange, strange man, and this, his follow-up to Homicidal (made later the same year), is a strange, strange movie. It’s very much a film in the antique style: lots of dialogue, not much action, a villain who mostly just talks about all the evil things he’s going to do instead of just doing them, one curiously effective if clumsily executed shock visual that it uses again and again whenever it seems like the audience is likely to be getting bored. But it also has an off-kilter craziness to it that does much to make up for its shortcomings.
As I said, there isn’t much action, so the story is a bit difficult to synopsize, but here goes. One day in 1880, a famous doctor named Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis, from Scream of Fear) receives a letter from a strange-looking man with one eye (Oskar Homolka). The letter was written by a woman named Maude (Audrey Dalton of The Monster that Challenged the World), who was Sir Robert’s girlfriend in his youth, and for whom he still carries the torch. Maude was prevented from marrying Sir Robert (who in those days had no “Sir” attached to his name) by her father, who believed that the boy would never amount to anything. Instead, she was married off to a central European nobleman called Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe, from And Now the Screaming Starts!), who had apparently already amounted to much. Now this Baron Sardonicus greatly desires to see Sir Robert, and according to her letter, “it is vitally urgent to [Maude’s] well-being” that he does. Sir Robert is understandably shaken by the tone of the letter, and immediately arranges to travel to Sardonicus’s home in Gorslava (wherever that is-- somewhere between Transylvania and Visaria is my guess…).
Upon his arrival in Gorslava, Sir Robert immediately begins to see signs that Sardonicus is Bad News. His castle is so far out in the wilderness that there are scarcely any roads leading in its direction, and no public coach service at all. Not only that, it is quite clear that the locals are all desperately afraid of the man; the luggage porter at the train station practically shits his pants in panic when Sir Robert says he is in town to visit the baron, and when asked why, mumbles something about Sir Robert being unable to understand because he is young and has no daughters. Uh-oh. So it is hardly a shock when the private coachman who comes to pick Sir Robert up at the station turns out to be Krall, the one-eyed courier from the previous scene.
Sardonicus’s house is just as creepy as his reputation (or his name, for that matter). There are no mirrors anywhere (though it is clear that there used to be). Neither are there any paintings on the walls-- just empty frames. (Krall explains that such frames would normally hold portraits of one’s ancestors, and that by hanging the frames empty, Sardonicus “has disowned his forefathers with one magnificent gesture.”) Worse still, the first thing Sir Robert sees when he enters the place is a pretty young girl, tied to a chair, her face covered in leeches. When he asks Krall what is going on, the man explains to Sir Robert that the application of leeches is a local folk remedy for certain afflictions. So what is the girl’s affliction? She has none; as Krall asks, “Do you not, in your country, make use of what are called ‘guinea pigs?’” And just wait ‘til you see the baron himself. He is a tall, slender, well-dressed man, whose face is at all times covered by the most alarming wax mask. It’s not that the mask depicts anything horrible-- just an expressionless, but basically handsome male face-- it’s simply the fact that Sardonicus would wear it at all. You just know he’s got to have a hardcore case of Phantom of the Opera disease to do something like that.
And that is absolutely the case. Sardonicus, as a matter of fact, has hired Sir Robert to help him do something about his face, which has been permanently frozen in the most hideous parody of a smile ever since his late first wife put him up to he grisly task of digging up his dead father to get at the winning lottery ticket in the pocket of the vest he was buried in (don’t ask). The makeup effect for Sardonicus’s face is really amazing-- I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so fake-looking that was simultaneously so creepy. The baron chose Sir Robert, you see, because the doctor is a sort of proto-physical therapist, specializing in restoring mobility to paralyzed and atrophied muscles. He is also supposed to be the best in the world, and Sardonicus has high hopes for him and his treatments. The baron also has his own unique way of spurring Sir Robert on to success. If he fails, Sardonicus will have Krall disfigure Maude’s face so that she looks just like her husband. (I’ll let Krall speak for himself: “I am a man of all works. When my master says ‘Krall, do this thing for me,’ I do the thing-- whatever it may be.”) The rest of the movie concerns Sir Robert’s search for the cure, juxtaposed against Sardonicus’s diminishing patience.
But we really don’t care about the story, here, do we? Of course not-- this is a William Castle film. What we care about is the gimmick! Mr. Sardonicus’s gimmick may not have the inventiveness of Percepto, the slapdash audacity of Emergo, or the show-stopping lunacy of the Fright Break, but it’s still a damn lot of fun. When the movie played in theaters, each member of the audience was handed a large, white card, emblazoned with a drawing of a fisted hand with the thumb extended. As Castle himself explains when he appears onscreen after the movie seems to end, these cards are ballots, which the audience shall cast to determine the final resolution of the movie. If the audience would have mercy on Baron Sardonicus, it should hold up its cards with the thumb pointing up. If it would rather see the baron suffer more profoundly for his misdeeds, it should hold them up in the opposite orientation. Castle then pretends to count the cards and tally the audience’s verdict (presumably we’re meant to believe that there was also somebody standing just out of view at the front of the theater making a real count). Depending on the outcome of this vote, the projectionist would then play one of two different ending reels, one merciful, one vindictive. Or such, at any rate, was the “official” story. It now appears that in actual fact, there was but one ending-- and do you even need to be told which one it was? I mean, come on! We’re talking, for the most part, about crowds of unruly pre-teen boys here. The audiences would almost never have voted for mercy, so what point would there have been in spending the money on a second ending? Even if the voting hadn’t been rigged, there’s every chance that after the first few showings, the projectionists wouldn’t even have bothered to unpack the mercy ending from its canister. Columbia’s marketing department did an extremely thorough job of concealing Castle’s subterfuge, however, and even as recently as 2000, it was frequently reported that the mercy ending had indeed existed, but was now lost. Now there’s an outfit that could teach a few present-day national intelligence services a thing or two about keeping a secret!