[31 Days of Horror: Resurrection] Day 30 – Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Director: William Castle
Cast: Oscar Homolka, Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Guy Rolfe, Vladimir Sokoloff, Erika Peters, Lorna Hanson
Screenplay: Ray Russell
89 mins. Approved.

Sing it with me! SARDONICUS 6-5000!

(Seriously, it fits with the song so well I can’t stop singing it)

I can’t believe we’ve never covered William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler) on 31 Days of Halloween before! Sure, we’ve done a few remakes of his work, but nothing official. What’s wrong with me?

London physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis, Taste of Fear, Billy Budd) has arrived in Gorslava at the request of his former flame, Maude (Audrey Dalton, Separate Tables, Titanic), who has now married to Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe, Dolls, Odd Man Out). The locals of Gorslava fear the baron, and Robert becomes concerned when he meets the disturbing assistant Krull (Oscar Homolka, The Seven Year Itch, Sabotage), who carries out the Baron’s every wishes. When Robert finally discovers the horrific reason for his arrival in Gorslava, it will leave you smiling, whether you want or not.

Based on a story by screenwriter Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Premature Burial), published in Playboy magazine, Sardonicus is classic William Castle. It’s full of low-budget thrills, unusual plot points, showing little but working well enough, and even a gimmick (we’ll get to it, don’t worry).

The biggest strength of Mr. Sardonicus is the two lead villain performances. Guy Rolfe, who would later become iconic in the Puppet Master series, is Sardonicus, and he has to do a lot with his voice. For most of the film, he has a face mask, which is creepy, but restricts a lot of facial acting. When the mask isn’t on (Rolfe could only work with the makeup for an hour at a time due to the extensive prosthetics), he has to work with makeup effects that also restrict some of his facial performance, and yet, he comes off as genuinely chilling. Homolka’s Krull is equally unnerving, though he has more to work with. He’s able to work as an extension of Sardonicus and elevate both performances.

I’m also a sucker for a good William Castle gimmick. I recently discussed Popcorn on Kyle & Nick on Film, a love letter for the Castle gimmick, and it’s one of the main strengths of that film. Mr. Sardonicus features an ending where Castle himself comes onscreen to ask the audience what ending the film deserves. He offers up two options to the audience and asks them to hold up a corresponding thumbs up card for one option, or hold it upside-down as a thumbs down for the other ending. Now, be aware that there’s only one actual ending (though a rumor has persisted for decades that another ending was scripted and shot but that’s never been made official), and I only saw one, but Castle plays up that the audience always votes for the one ending, and some theaters even had staff come in and vote that way to convince that it was not set up to only be one. Either way, it’s a fun little idea that allows the audience to breathe and have fun, and we even printed off the corresponding cards for our own home screening. Even though it’s not a real choice, I love this idea and it works really well to get me back invested in where the ending goes (this is how you do it, not like Blood Dolls).

Mr. Sardonicus is a goofy, silly time, and I had a lot of fun with its admittedly low-budget nature. It’s more fun than actually scary, and if you don’t care for Castle and his gimmicks, this one won’t sway you, but I quite enjoyed it. Give it a watch, and bring your voting cards.

-Kyle A. Goethe

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