Saturday 1 November 2008

Mr Sardonicus (1961)

William Castle was born in the Big Apple in 1914, but here he is in the fog shrouded London of 1880 introducing this Ray Russell story about ghouls. He even gives us a dictionary definition of them so we know what we're in for, in the salacious Castle manner of course. A ghoul is a creature 'who robs graves and feasts on corpses.' Charming material, naturally, but we wouldn't have it any other way. I've seen and enjoyed some of Castle's non-horror films, his entries in series featuring detectives like the Whistler or the Crime Doctor or completely separate movies like The Houston Story, but he's remembered for horror for a reason.

This film may be titled Mr Sardonicus, but we follow the adventures of Sir Robert Cargrave, a doctor with talent and vision. We first meet him treating a young girl and apparently working something pretty close to miraculous, then he explains to one of his students the medical potential for a new invention he's just received from Scotland: a hypodermic needle. Playing Cargrave is Welsh actor Ronald Lewis, who from the front looks like Anthony LaPaglia, Jack from Without a Trace, and from the side and back like a bizarre cross between David Hasselhoff and Jack Palance.

He's a rugged romantic lead and sure enough he quickly leaves all his success in London behind on a romantic quest to aid the love of his life, the former Maude Randall, portrayed by the lovely Audrey Dalton. Instead of marrying Cargrave for love, she became the Baroness Sardonicus, wife of an Eastern European nobleman, in order to save her father from being exposed as an embezzler. However life as a baroness may be privileged but she fears for her life, and Cargrave's haste is prompted by a letter she sends him from the continent, delivered by a man with henchman written all over his face.

This man is Krull, the diminutive sort of cross between sidekick, servant and slave who only ever populates horror movies, complete with the expected anatomical abnormalities: this time a missing eye. Actor Oskar Homolka, who gets top billing, obviously paid a lot of attention to Bela Lugosi films in preparation for his role: Lugosi would have been a natural for the part. Of course he died in 1956, so the only way he could have played the part is if Ed Wood had directed instead of William Castle. He'd have found a way...

So Cargrave, in true Jonathan Harker fashion, finds his way to the remote European town of Gorslava to meet the Baron Sardonicus. He lives in a remote castle, naturally, complete with padlocked doors, empty portrait frames hanging on the wall and a complete absence of mirrors. Sardonicus is played by Guy Rolfe, who looks like Dick Miller would after a few turns on the rack, but we'd hardly know that, because he constantly wears a mask akin to that of the Phantom of the Opera that hides both his features and the secret that prompts natives of Gorslava to cringe in horror at the sheer mention of his name.

Apparently, as a younger man he was married before, to a shrew of a wife called Elenka, who did nothing except pester him for money and complain that he didn't have any. Luck comes in the form of a lottery ticket that finally brings a big win for his father after many years of trying. However he dies peacefully in his sleep that night and nobody's the wiser. Only months later do they hear the news and realise that the ticket is in his best waistcoat, the one he was buried in. The young Sardonicus, before he traded in the name of Toleslawski for such a descriptive name, is forced by his greedy wife to profane the sanctuary of the dead, dig up his father's grave and retrieve the ticket. And in doing so, his face is contorted into an immobile rictus grin, mirroring that of his father's corpse.

This is a solid horror film from Castle, one that wears its many influences on its sleeve. There's plenty of opportunity for gothic grandeur and grand guignol sadism. Cargrave may be a world renowned doctor working in the field of paralysis and so a natural candidate to assist him, but Sardonicus can't resist using his own wife, Cargrave's former lover, as a grisly incentive. Krull always does what his master wishes, whether that be delivering letters to London or stringing up the maid by her thumbs to torture with leeches, and his master is quite happy for him to perform debilitative surgery on young Maude if it will only convince Cargrave to try out experimental treatments that he otherwise wouldn't dare.

No, Sardonicus is not a nice man, not that you ever expected him to be anywhere close to one, and William Castle, being William Castle, is happy to play on that fact. His horror films tended to have a memorable gimmick and this one is no exception. Apparently after screening Mr Sardonicus for the studio executives at Columbia, they demanded a happy ending, so Castle got around that by inserting himself into the end of the film, right before the finale. He distributed what he called a punishment poll ballot to theatregoers and paused the film to ask them to vote on whether Sardonicus deserved mercy or not. In true Roman fashion, thumbs up meant mercy for the baron and thumbs down meant nothing of the kind.

Naturally this was mere theatrics and nobody ever saw a happy ending for Sardonicus, whether they voted that way or not. I doubt anyone ever did unless someone went back again and again and persuaded people to vote for mercy just so he could see the happy ending, but I think any such outcome would have been gleefully ignored anyway and I'm not going to argue with that. I'll vote thumbs down for the baron but thumbs up for William Castle; for Ray Russell; for Lewis, Dalton and Rolfe; and especially for Oscar Homolka, fairly top billed even as a henchman.

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