Oct 29, 2014

Review: Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Another entry in the gimmicky William Castle schlockfests, Mr. Sardonicus required audience participation to further the story. In order to decide the fate of a certain character, audience members were asked to relay their opinion with glow-in-the-dark cards. With a thumbs up or a thumbs down, the ending would apparently vary depending on what the audience would vote.

According to the "legends," only one ending was ever shown. However, it would appear that William Castle never shot another ending at all and it was all just a marketing ploy to attract people to check out the movie. The technology to "choose" an ending in theatres didn't exist at the time anyway, so it's all pretty amusing to think about now.


Genre: drama, horror, mystery
Directed by: William Castle
Produced by: William Castle, Dona Holloway
Written by: Ray Russell
Music by: Von Dexter
Running time: 89 minutes
Production company: William Castle Productions
Distributed by: Columbia Pictures, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Columbia Film, etc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: N/A
Box office: N/A

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Guy Rolfe, Oskar Homolka, Vladimir Sokoloff, Erika Peters, Lorna Hanson



The year is 1880 and famed physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is invited to the estate of Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) in Gorslava. This is at the behest of an ex-lover of his, Maude (Audrey Dalton) who is now the Baron's wife. The Baron appears to have a bit of a bad reputation judging from a fearful stationmaster and a maid working for the Baron who had leeches forcefully placed on her face in an experiment. All is made clear though once the Baron reveals his origins and his intentions.


Mr. Sardonicus may be the most William Castle-ish movie William Castle has ever made. At least in terms of what I've seen so far which isn't very much. It opens with Castle as himself wanting to tell a story about ghouls and such. It's a great little introduction, as if Castle is some kind of crypt keeper of creepy stories. He of course comes back later on for the famous audience polling portion before the end of the movie.

Besides the introduction with William Castle, Mr. Sardonicus sets itself up with B-movie expertise. The trip to Baron Sardonicus takes Robert Cargrave across desolate and lonely terrain. Once arrived, the Baron's castle is menacing, cold and holds a lot mysteries. In terms of setting and atmosphere, this is good stuff. It's well established that the Baron is not going to be a very pleasant man, building up anticipation for the first time we see him.

I can't overstate just how awesome Oskar Homolka is as Sardonicus' servant Krull. With his thick accent, bushy eyebrows and a missing eye, Krull guards his masters secrets very closely and he does whatever is required of him. Homolka is crazy fun to watch just as Guy Rolfe is as his master.

Despite the mask that Rolfe wears for the majority of the movie, he too gives a great performance. He looks freakishly tall and skinny, towering over the other characters. Hearing him talk without seeing a mouth moving is also pretty unsettling. Without giving anything away, let's just say that the reveal of his face is extremely well executed and the makeup is phenomenal. Pro-tip: do not go on the Wikipedia page for Mr. Sardonicus. Unless you want the surprise ruined that is. 

There is a lot of mystery and intrigue to be unraveled in Mr. Sardonicus and it does it all with good pacing. Ray Russell's script is well written in that sense and it's pretty impressive for what is just a B-movie if you ask me. There were also a couple of scenes that had me jump in surprise even. Although it's not a terribly frightening movie, the imagery in Mr. Sardonicus is quite memorable and even chilling at times.

What Mr. Sardonicus ends up being is simply a good time. As a B-movie, there's a lot of like about it. Everything from the acting to the mise-en-scène contributes to a schlocky but effective horror/mystery. It's the kind of movie that just can't be dismissed despite its humble origins. Even without the William Castle gimmickry, Mr. Sardonicus is enough of an event on its own. 



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