Monday, July 9, 2012

Movie Monday: Mr. Sardonicus

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1961 horror thriller Mr. Sardonicus!

I had never seen Mr. Sardonicus, but the one-sheet, with that ominous, shadowy figure, was always one of my favorites when I would see it in various movie poster books. So I figured it was long past due to finally give it a look!
Mr. Sardonicus was produced by William Castle, a schlockmeister who prided himself on his gimmicks--rigging seats with electrical charges for The Tingler, flying a glow-in-the-dark skeleton over the audience during The House on Haunted Hill, a "Fright Break" for the timid during Homicidal. I guess he saw himself as another Alfred Hitchcock, establishing an identity with an audience, something still pretty rare today but almost unheard of back then.

Anyway, the film opens with Castle "on the streets" of London, circa 1860. He tells us what we're about to see, warning us of the shocks and horror to come. We then meet the eminent physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), who we see is a talented and kind man. He receives a message from a former flame named Maude (Audrey Dalton), asking him to come to Gorslava (good luck finding that on a map) to examine her husband, Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe).
Everything seems to suggest that something is very, very wrong with Sardonicus. Everyone he asks about the Baron seems to be stricken with terror at the very mention of his name; nevertheless, Cargrave forges ahead.

The first person he meets at the Baron's castle is the Igor-like Krull (Oskar Homolka), who is busy applying leeches to one of the other servants--not a good first impression. Cargrave is of course horrified, and defies Krull by yanking them off the poor girl. Krull himself has suffered from Sardonicus' cruelty; he's missing an eye, with the empty socket hastily and sloppily patched up.

That night, Cargrave gets to meet the man himself, who unusual host, to say the least:
Sardonicus explains, via extended flashback, how he got this way: he lived a humble life with his father, a farmer, and his wife Elenka (Erika Peters). The father, dreaming of a better life like his daughter-in-law, buys a lottery ticket. A few days later, the father dies in his sleep, and is summarily buried. Elenka realizes that the lottery ticket was a winner, and that it was buried with the father!

Elenka strong-arms Sardonicus into digging up the body to retrieve it. He does, but it horrified when he sees the dessicated face of his dead father (the film's first real shock moment). But Sardonicus trudges on, retrieving the ticket. When he returns home, he starts feeling odd, then he realizes he can't speak. Hours pass, and Elenka shrieks in terror when she sees that her husband's face has morphed into the same horrible rictus that his father had!

Elenka commits suicide, leaving Sardonicus with the riches to build himself a castle, hire servants, and spend a lifetime pursuing different cures for his condition, all to no avail. When Maude mentioned that Cargrave is an expert surgeon specializing in paralysis, he had her ask Cargrave to come and try and cure him.

Cargrave tries his best, but it doesn't work. When Sardonicus demands he try more experimental procedures, Cargrave refuses. Sardonicus ups the ante by threatening to turn Maude's face into the same nightmarish visage he has:
Cargrave relents, and sends away for an extract that comes from a rare plant. Using the corpse of Sardonicus' father(!) to replicate the events, Cargrave injects Sardonicus with the extract.

I won't say any more about what happens, lest I spoil the "twist ending" that Castle was so proud of. It's at around this point that the man re-enters the movie, withis is latest gimmick: a "punishment poll":
Castle asks the audience to vote with the punishment cards they were handed when they entered the theater: should Sardonicus be spared a horrible fate, or punished more? The count, of course, went for the latter (indeed, most film historians believe Castle never even shot the alternate, since the footage has never been found), and we see what happened to Sardonicus. It's not pretty, in more ways than one.

Mr. Sardonicus suffers from the same affliction I feel most of Castle's films do: great set-up, great concept, weak follow-through. There's basically two or three moments of genuine shock or horror in this movie, spread out over a 90-minute running time. In between its a lot of talk talk talk, with none of the actors ever really achieving anything other than being adequate in their roles (Audrey Dalton's Maude is so dull and passionless I can't see how she inspires such devotion in Cargrave, who takes enormous risks for her).

While it's the gimmicks of course that made Castle as famous as he was (Joe Dante paid homage to him in his great, underrated film Matinee), they always seem like an unwanted interruption; just at the point where the movie should be building up a head of steam, here's William Castle again reminding us all this is pretty much just one big gag: he's undercutting his own stories. (On a side note: Castle clearly loved how masks looked in movies; he used a similar gag in 1964's Strait-Jacket) At the same time, maybe without the gimmicks all of Castle's films would be completely forgotten, along with the hundreds (thousands?) of other B anc C-level genre cheapies that played in drive-ins across America.

Aside from the Punishment Poll, Mr. Sardonicus isn't all that bad; yeah, it's too talky, too long, and doesn't have enough scares, but the actual look of the man (which we get to see, but I'm not spoiling here) is pretty icky, and the ending has healthy dose of dark, dark humor that I enjoyed. This movie is actually a great choice for a remake; take the good parts, tighten everything up a bit, and there you go!

Fun Fact: This movie was the basis for a story arc of the TV series Wiseguy, of all things, where a rich factory owner, stuck with the same type of emotional problems, becomes obsessed with the film. Who knew?

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