“When my master says, ‘Krull, do this thing,’ I do the thing, whatever it may be.”
Producer-director William Castle was best known as a purveyor of gimmicky horror films in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He often introduced his films on camera himself and sometimes returned at their end to provide an epilogue. These brief clips were usually intended to allow him to explain the gimmick (a giveaway insurance policy, a tingling seat, or special viewing glasses, for example) that was associated with the current film. One of his offerings in 1961 was Mr. Sardonicus and the gimmick was a “Punishment Poll” which purported to offer the audience the choice of selecting the nature of the ending of the film.
Columbia has now made Mr. Sardonicus available on DVD as part of a continuing series of William Castle film releases. Other titles available include 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, and Strait-Jacket.
Noted neurosurgeon Sir Robert Cargrave is summoned by his former lover Maude to her home in Gorslava — a castle where she lives with her husband Baron Sardonicus. The baron suffers from a terrible deformation of his face and covers it with a mask whenever he comes out of his room. The deformation was the result of a horrific act he performed as a younger man. Assisted by his faithful servant Krull, Sardonicus forces Cargrave to treat him with an untested procedure that Cargrave has been investigating. The results at first appear to be successful, but it soon becomes apparent that all is not well.
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.
But to return to the film itself, it contains all the trappings of the traditional atmospheric horror movie: a mist-enshrouded castle in a remote eastern Europe-sounding locale; the mysterious owner of the castle with his deformed assistant; a beautiful woman in peril; fearful local townsfolk; and mysterious goings-on involving cemeteries, dead bodies, and torture. All this is presented seriously and some real uncertainty and even shock is generated effectively. The film, however, fails to take best advantage of its elements by virtue of a plot structure that reveals Sardonicus’s secret too early in the story. The ending, while rebuilding some tension, is less satisfying than the better horror films as a result, and then Castle’s poll interrupts and completely spoils any atmosphere of unease that has managed to redevelop.
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.
Columbia provides us with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer for this black and white film. The results are not bad. The image seems rather dark for the first third of the film, with attendant loss of shadow detail, but it improves thereafter with solid blacks and a good range of grays. Age-related speckling is present, but it is not a major distraction. Edge enhancement is not a concern. This transfer is average overall for DVDs of this vintage of production.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio track provides a generally pleasing experience. Dialogue is clear; there’s some decent base evident; and the screams are effectively blood-curdling. Minor hiss is evident from time to time. English and French sub-titles are provided.
Columbia has prepared a short making-of featurette called “Taking the Punishment Poll.” It runs a mere seven minutes and features comments from film historians and Columbia repertory staff. You learn a little about William Castle’s approach to his films as well as some background on the cast. There’s no particular depth to the piece, but a new seven minute making-of featurette is a lot more than many studios deliver for minor catalogue releases like this one. Three theatrical trailers for William Castle films round out the disc: Mr. Sardonicus, 13 Ghosts, and Strait-Jacket.
Mr. Sardonicus is a neat little gothic horror film that effectively evokes the memory of the fine Universal horror efforts made 15 to 30 years previously. The story is interesting and compactly told, and benefits from a competent cast anchored by a juicy performance by Oscar Homolka. Unfortunately the film’s atmosphere is marred by cheap theatricals by producer/director William Castle. Columbia’s DVD transfer is a workmanlike effort although the company deserves credit for the short making-of featurette made for the DVD release.