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This is a really fun movie to watch, but because of the sheer oddity of it. I guess the moral of the story is a good one, but not to most relevant to the majority of viewers. Sardonicus' facial deformity is quite a fun sight though and makes up for some of the low points.
Okay, I am a William Castle fan--Gimmicks and all. The movie is based on a short story by ray Russell and published in playboy. the make-up (face of Sardonicus) and krull (servant not the movie) steal this one. It wanders in some areas, and is cheeky-cheesy. but for me, it is worth the wade through the movie to get to the unmasking.
OK, it's on the cheesy side in the execution, but its good points are a rather good Eastern European folk tale about desecrating a grave not seen before (think The Body Snatchers." The idea of a risa sardonicus on a corpse is the kind of macabre 'm looking for. William Castle's best film, I'd say (that doesn't mean it's James Whale quality).
The premise: A man buys a winning lottery ticket but dies shortly before the number is revealed. His son and wife discover the ticket was buried with him so they exhume the body. What follows is a rather grisly curse which, in turn, results in a series of cruel acts. The premise and makeup are worth it but the supporting cast and the dialogue are very much in line with Bela Lugosi movies.
a surprisingly good classic horror flick.
NEED TO EDIT MY NOTES
Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is a horror film produced and directed by William Castle. It tells the story of Sardonicus, a man whose face becomes frozen in a horrifying grin while robbing his father's grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket.
Mr. Sardonicus oozes classic stylings. There's the foggy streets; the dark, dense, foreboding foliage; big screams; and "shocking" reveals. It's a film with some legitimately creepy moments, albeit moments that come too few and too infrequent. Nevertheless, the slower pace doesn't always hurt the movie; on the contrary, it allows for some solid character development and a deeper understanding of the world around Sardonicus, both his past and present. The perspective -- through the eyes of the good Dr. Robert -- feels a little unimaginative, but it's the best style for a movie of this sort, Cargrave kind of like the Jonathan Harker of the story, the outsider coming into a frightening new central European world. Indeed, the movie does have its moments when it feels like little more than a relaxed and, admittedly, drastically re-imagined Dracula, but basic pieces certainly favor the comparison. The picture's simple premise is just good enough to drag the movie along comfortably enough, dotted with a little bit of intrigue here and there -- what's so urgent that a doctor of Robert's caliber must travel so far, what's under Sardonicus' mask, why does he wear the mask, and can Robert's techniques save him -- that does keep the audience guessing all the way through to the rather anticlimactic conclusion.
Of course, the film plods along through some unintentionally humorous bits, some overacting, a few spot where it stretches credibility even under the guidelines of the absurd premise. The picture languishes in basic dialogue and suffers through some terribly stilted moments, such as when Sardonicus defines and defends the severity of the word "ghoul," making use -- verbatim -- of the same dictionary definition Director William Castle uses in his opening audience-directed monologue. The film uses the bulk of its middle stretch to fill in Sardonicus' backstory with an extended flashback sequence that's in many ways neither here nor there, particularly considering the dissatisfying conclusion, or at least the first conclusion prior to the "thumbs up/thumbs down" audience poll gimmick (and there's only one result).
As with most William Castle movies this one has a "gimick" as well. At the end of the movie the audience is given the opportunity to decide Sardonicus' fate via a "Punishment Poll". If they voted thumbs down then it would be for the worst. Of course, almost everyone would vote thumbs down on this despicable character.
The gimmick this time around is the Punishment Poll, which gave the audience a false feeling of participation
Ronald Lewis and Guy Rolfe deliver satisfying performances, certainly a little stiff and formal to be sure but they work in tandem to give the movie another layer of unease in the sometimes nonchalant way they go about their business, Lewis in his coping with the realities of life at the Sardonicus estate, application of massage therapy to his disfigured captor, and work in cutting-edge medicine and Rolfe in his abilities as gracious host, demanding patient, and morally dubious warden.
Also, if I did not know this was a Castle film, I'd swear it was a Hammer Production, as it has all the key elements of their gothic movies. While actor Guy Rolfe is great as Sardonicus, the big scene stealer is character actor Oskar Homolka as his servant, Krull. There is such unrestrained glee as he tortures a maid with big black leeches.
Guy Rolfe does a fine job with a difficult part, showing seething emotion from behind an expressionless mask. However, it is Oscar Homolka who runs away with the picture, the real star of this show. He's so incredibly gleeful in his torture, as well as completely determined to fulfill his obligations to the Baron, that one can't help but relish the performance. His accent and use of slightly broken English gives the character a certain amount of ironic expression that is simply delicious. The heroic leads are, as usual, tedious and far too stiff to excite any interest in the viewer.
The cast is not exactly packed with well-known actors. Best known is Oscar Homolka who turns in a fine performance as Krull-a worthy counterpart to various Igors we have known and loved in countless Frankenstein films. Homolka apparently commented in later years that interviewers seldom asked him about his collaborations with Hitchcock and other name directors, it was always about his work in this film for William Castle. Guy Rolfe who plays Baron Sardonicus gives his role a touch of class due to his patrician looks and the injection of a hint of sadness to balance the madness that his condition has caused. Rolfe was a British leading man and later character actor who probably had no other role that brought him more attention than this one. The obligatory damsel in distress is played capably by Audrey Dalton, a sort of Anne Francis clone. Ronald Lewis makes for a rather bland Robert Cargrave
.Oskar Homolka steals the film as the Baron's loyal, long-suffering servant Krull, who wields surgical knives and slimy leeches in his reign of torture.
Mr. Sardonicus is actually a rather diverting gothic horror film much in the tradition of Universal's horror films of the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately, its mood is affected adversely by Castle's appearance at the beginning and near the end to introduce his stupid Punishment Poll gimmick. The idea was that upon entering the theatre, each ticket buyer received a card that could be raised in a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" position when Castle appeared on the screen to conduct the poll. The majority would determine whether or not Baron Sardonicus suffered further for his actions. Of course, only one ending was ever filmed so the poll really meant nothing; it was simply expected that most people would vote for more punishment and that's the way Castle scripted his poll segment and consequently the film's ending.
The plot is a tad slow and full of holes, but in general the film is enjoyable. It also culminates in another delightful Castle gimmick: glow-in-the-dark "Punishment Poll" cards the audience would hold up to decide whether or not to show Sardonicus any mercy. There's only one ending, of course (who's gonna let the bad guy off the hook?) but Castle's obvious glee in the pretense is a joy
Although Castle builds up the suspense to Sardonicus' unmasking in beautiful textbook manner, unfortunately, the makeup job lets him down. The deformity looks ridiculous rather than terrifying, and the clarity of DVD reveals the prosthetic lines of demarcation all too well.
One can't help but compare Mr. Sardonicus to an extended episode of the original Twilight Zone. Castle directly copies Rod Serling's manner of introducing and capping off the story, directly addressing the audience. Mr. Sardonicus might have actually made a very good episode of the classic show, if the script had been pared down in length. The acting performances are strong all across the board. If you are a big fan of William Castle's work, this is another fine effort.
Mr. Sardonicus hails from a simpler time for Horror, a time when slow reveals, thick atmospheres, cheesy dialogue, and over-the-top performances dominated the landscape, not simple blood and guts but real, genuine terror. At least most of the time. Mr. Sardonicus isn't really all that terrifying, largely because it's wholly unbelievable. There's no real catch, few scenes of any real urgency, and a resolution that's a little too cleverly simple for its own good. Yet it's absolutely a product of its era, complete with silly Twilight Zone-inspired narrated bookends and a "punishment poll" at the end in which Director William Castle pretends to scan the audience, totaling the number of "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" votes to either show the villain mercy or throw him to the proverbial wolves. It's a movie in rather good taste considering its genre, offering mostly clean fun, and it probably worked a little better back in the day when audiences (and reviewers) weren't so desensitized to cinema terror.
Mr. Sardonicus cannot claim to be the best, most frightening film of its era, but it's most certainly a fun, albeit at times a bit stiff, Horror/Thriller. It lacks the grisly scares of today but focuses more on character and plot than gore and atmosphere, a winning combination that makes even a film such as this that stretches genre credibility a fair, sometimes even fun, little excursion
William Castle cheapie horror film is okay story about a count who's face beocmes frozen in a ghastly smile after robbing his father's grade for a winning lottery ticket. He then wears a creep mask to cover his horrifying face. The film mostly takes place years later as the count seeks to have his face fixed surgically. It's all very silly and features weird torture chamber antics. "Hostle" or "Saw" it is not, but those did look like real leeches being applied to one hapless victem. But the best part of the film was Castle's gimick, the "Punishment Poll," where the audience voted to pardon or punish the title character. The funny part is that Castle only filmed the punishment ending of the film, knowing that audiences would never pardon the evil character.
this would have worked better with say vincent price in the cast.
A rich baron has his faced permanently in a horrifying grimace, so he sends for a renowned doctor. The doctor refuses to cure him, which results in all sorts of problems. Probably the best of the few William Castle films I have seen (the others being House on Haunted Hill, Rosemary's Baby, and Old Dark House) probably because of the much better character development here.
A Ghoulish Delight!!