Written by Ray Russell, based on his own short story.
Directed by William Castle
A Columbia Picture
Starring Ronald Lewis (Sir Robert Cargrave); Audrey Dalton (Lady Maude Sardonicus); Guy Rolfe (Marek Toleslawski/Baron Sardonicus); Oskar Homolka (Krull); Lorna Hanson (Anna); Vladimir Sokoloff (Henryk Toleslawski) and Erika Peters (Elenka).
The world of horror films would be a far less fun place to live in if it weren’t for William Castle, the King of Gimmicks. He might have been a schlock-master, but his films were fun and all of them had imagination. And of course, there were all those gimmicks: fright insurance policies, nurses on duty, ghost viewers, flying skeletons and even electric buzzers in the seats to “tingle” the patrons. With all of these gimmicks, modern audiences tend to forget that the films themselves were often professionally made and even boasted a story with a scare or two.
By 1961, Castle may have felt that the gimmicks were threatening to take over the whole show and commenced production on Mr. Sardonicus. Although the film has a gimmick (a “punishment poll” which we’ll get to later), the film’s strengths lie with its script and the obvious care that went into the production. Castle’s previous films feel as if the cast were having a lark on the set while the cameras rolled; here, we are presented with a cast that feels restrained and classically trained, with only Oskar Homolka being allowed to ham it up in classic Castle style. Despite the strange plot and the makeup that strains credibility (and Castle’s own light-hearted appearances), Mr. Sardonicus feels like Castle’s first tentative bid at being taken seriously.
Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), a brilliant doctor, travels to Eastern Europe at the behest of his former lover, Maude (Audrey Dalton), now the wife of the mysterious Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe). Everything about Castle Sardonicus makes Sir Robert ill at ease, from the one-eyed servant, Krull (Oscar Homolka) who experiments with leeches on the chambermaid to the absence of mirrors in the castle. Even stranger is Sardonicus himself, who arrives at dinner wearing a mask and refuses to eat. Then he excuses himself and makes himself available to certain young ladies of the nearby village; the lucky ones leave with a gold coin their hands while the one whom Sardonicus chooses gets a peek under his mask. Soon, Sir Robert learns the Baron’s story: he was once a peasant who accidently buried a winning lottery ticket with his father’s body. When he exhumed the coffin, the shock of seeing his father’s dead face twisted his own face into that of a permanent sardonic smile. The Baron wants Sir Robert to cure him, but he doesn’t tell the good doctor what will happen to Maude if he fails.
Instead of hiring a name lead like Vincent Price for the role of either Sir Robert or Sardonicus (and who probably would’ve played the role with an American accent as he did so many other European roles), Castle chose to cast lesser-known actors who could inhabit their roles more convincingly. Ronald Lewis as Sir Robert embodies all that is good as much as Guy Rolfe (as the Baron) embodies all that is evil (Lewis would get his own shot at embodying evil later that year with his role in Seth Holt’s Taste Of Fear). Even though Homolka chews merrily away at the scenery whenever he enters frame, his ham-fisted performance is perfectly balanced by the rest of the cast and he seems to have the time of his life saying lines like, “When my master says to me, ‘Krull, do this thing,’ I do the thing… whatever it may be.”
The things that the Baron asks Krull to do are extraordinary to say the least. When Sir Robert first arrives he finds that Krull has garnished a servant girl’s (Lorna Hanson) face with leeches (and then applies the leeches to her feet in a later scene). He gathers up girls from the village for his master to pick from (and we never really find out what happens to the chosen girl after she screams at the sight of the Baron) and rounds out his villainy by restraining Maude in the torture chamber. True, he balks at mutilating Maude’s face, but only briefly. It is these moments that the viewer remembers at the end of the film when Krull returns to the castle, without Sir Robert, and makes a decision concerning the Baron’s fate.
One of the things that makes the film worth watching is the fact that, although Sardonicus is meant to be an embodiment of evil (and worthy of a “No Mercy” vote from Castle’s Punishment Poll), the script endeavors to humanize this darkest of villains by giving us his back-story and evoking some degree of sympathy for his predicament (as Sir Robert feels for him… until he realizes his cruelty towards Maude). It seems that once upon a time, the mighty Baron was once a poor peasant who was cursed with a greedy shrew of a wife (Erika Peters) who forced him to do the unthinkable: desecrate the grave of his own father to obtain a winning lottery ticket. It’s worth noting that Marek, the future Baron, is quite a nice and soft-spoken fellow whom we quite like and sympathize with for ending up with such a frivolous and bad-tempered wench. He’s a simple man who loves both his father and wife equally and finds himself in an impossible situation when Elenka goads him into digging up his father’s grave. One might say that it is his basic decency that paralyses his face into his ghoulish smile when it is horrified at what he has been forced to do. It seems difficult to square the cold and articulate voice that emanates from behind Sardonicus’s mask with the warm tones that Guy Rolfe uses during the flashback. All of this is the key to what makes this low budget film from the King of cinematic cheese interesting.
For a film released in 1961, there are even a few shocks. The Baron’s first look at his father’s dead face, the jaws locked in a death-smile and shot in dim moonlight, is certainly sickening (especially given the kind face of Vladimir Sokoloff, who plays the character prior to his death) and the mummified skeleton that Sardonicus springs on Maude is just as hair-raising. Even the makeup that turns Guy Rolfe’s face into that of the smiling ghoul is shocking at its first viewing. True, the effect doesn’t hold up later in the picture when we are given longer looks of the Baron’s face (Rolfe removes his mask at the peril of audience chuckles) but it is a great and imaginative face all the same, even with the light reflecting off its shiny surface.
The thing that makes this film stand out amongst all of Castle’s other endeavors is its earnestness: unlike his earlier films (and unlike so many of Roger Corman’s films), this film strives to be believable to its time period of 1880. The entire cast (yes, even Homolka) are well locked into their period, something that the script continually stresses with talks of newly-designed hypodermic needles and Conan Doyle’s stories in the Strand. Likewise, Sardonicus’s coldness is a product of a new-found intelligence that both his disfigurement and his wealth has brought him (he says that at first his peasant intellect caused him to believe that he was cursed, until he sought out professional help and learned that there was more to the world than regional folklore), and what else is the Victorian era known for than a time when the western world was taking that great step into what would be the modern age. But it is also worth noticing that Sardonicus’s eventual cure has nothing to do with the advances of modern medicine but more to Sir Robert’s understanding of the maze of neurosis of the human mind, a condition that has existed since the beginning of time and that has yet to be effectively cured (and is the one ailment that Sardonicus is unable to free himself from, to his destruction). In fact, the only aspect of the film that doesn’t ring true to its period is Castle himself, to who turns up to open the film with a monolog that does little to set the tone, his crass American accent contrasting with the London fog. In this respect, the only real detriment to Mr. Sardonicus (along with the aforementioned makeup of the sardonicus smile) is the man of the hour himself, William Castle.
As for the Castle gimmick, it rears its head in the last five minutes (almost as an afterthought) as a “Punishment Poll.” The audience is encouraged by Castle (over-acting even more than Homolka) to vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether Mr. Sardonicus should be subject to “further punishment.” Castle makes a big show of apparently counting the votes in the audience before happily announcing a vote of “No Mercy.” He orders the projectionist to thread up the proper ending (actually the only ending ever shot) and reveals Krull deliberately lying to the Baron and allowing him to starve to death from being unable to open his mouth (which Sir Robert said was merely a psychosomatic side-effect of the cure). The music swells as the Baron tries and fails to stuff food past his lips and the audience can sit back and smirk as Krull devours the meal himself. It is a fitting ending to a fitting screen villain (provided you disregard his tortured past, but Castle didn’t seem to care so why should you?).
At its heart, Mr. Sardonicus is a film about guilt hidden behind masks; the type of guilt that even Baron Sardonicus’s money cannot ever hope to expunge. He claims that he has advanced beyond his peasant mentality, but that knowledge hasn’t cured his face and it doesn’t help him in the final minutes when he can’t manage to get a morsel beyond his deadlocked lips. It’s odd to think that, despite opulent surroundings and a feast fit for a king laid out in front of him, Baron Sardonicus is nothing more than Marek Toleslawski, a sheep in wolf’s clothing that has never really advanced beyond that night when he rolled open his father’s grave and saw that horrible face smiling back at him. It would have been better for Marek if he had never left his simple farm and to continue suffering under Elenka’s horrible tongue; money and title brought him no happiness, as is so often true in life. The only thing that inspires real sympathy for Marek is that he wasn’t shooting for opulence for his own sake but because he wasn’t strong enough to resist the will of someone he thought he loved, but who was really both Eve and the serpent to his Adam. Ultimately, Baron Sardonicus was once a happy man called Marek who let himself be pushed into blasphemy and has been trying to find the Marek underneath the title of Baron Sardonicus ever since. He fails because his cynicism forbids him to return to that simple time when his father’s wisdom could keep him happy and the only thing to avoid were the fairytales of peasant life. When Marek took his first step to becoming Baron Sardonicus, he killed himself for eternity.