Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
A top London surgeon (Ronald Lewis) is persuaded to travel to Gorslava, an obscure east European
province, at the urgent request of an old flame. Here he finds her baron husband, (Guy Rolfe) masked,
deranged, and demanding treatment. Following a grave robbing incident, we discover, the cruel and
wealthy baron's face has thereafter been fixed in a wide hideous grin. After the threat of torture to
his beloved, the doctor agrees to operate using a new and untried technique...
Castle's career began with some excellent low budget noirs (The Whistler and Mark Of The Whistler, both 1944, are standouts) and his eventual tally as director stood at a more than respectable 54 before he died in 1977. Active to the end, he acquired the rights to Rosemary's Baby but was not allowed by Paramount to direct it. But it is as the originator of a series of grotesque shockers, each one stamped with a unique gimmick, that he is remembered. Thus, The House On Haunted Hill (1959) featured Emergo (a luminescent skeleton hung over the head of the audience). 13 Ghosts had Illusion-O (a pair of tinted sunglasses making on screen phantoms invisible). Homicidal (1960) featured a much-vaunted Fright Break. His most famous film The Tingler (1959) had Percepto (electric buzzers under the seats), and so on.
In Mr Sardonicus he introduced the Punishment Poll - in which, at the climax of the film, the audience are asked to decide whether Sardonicus should be shown mercy or not. Having been given vote cards they held them up for 'counting'. The strong suspicion is that Castle only filmed one ending, as every print I have seen ends in the same way.
In many ways this film represents the zenith of Castle's showmanship and flair as an exploitation filmmaker. Homicidal may be more successful as an exercise in terror, and The Tingler may have a bigger cult following but, Mr Sardonicus assembles all the usual elements into a particularly satisfying whole. Castle of course was not only a cinematic showman but also deliberately a very visible one, exceeding Hitchcock in self-promotion. His auteur presence is so strong that one no doubt felt that it was the director himself jerking skeletons over their heads, or buzzing their seats, when the original gimmicks were in place. In none of his films is his presence so pronounced as here, as Castle introduces the film and concludes in cameo, with a brief discussion on the precise interpretation of the word 'ghoul'.
Influenced by The Phantom Of The Opera in the utilisation of a bland mask covering facial disfigurement, also borrowing heavily from The Man Who Laughs (1928), Castle's film is more original than any bald statement of the plot suggests. Even in these jaded times, when colour and special effects have deadened audiences to excess, some scenes in Castle's 1961 grotesque show can raise a frisson. For instance when the baron's servant Krull ("I do as he commands me - no matter what it is") hangs the serving girl by her thumbs before lasciviously applying leeches to her wriggling ankles. The baron's final fate, or the first appearance of his fixed grin, exposed by lantern light after he stumbles back home whining from the just desecrated churchyard, are also memorable in a genre which can easily prove jaded.
Of course, Castle's love of the baroque and the grotesque is always just a short step away from being tongue in cheek, and it is this knowingness that makes his films so accessible to fans today. Like Raimi, Craven and other modern horror filmmakers, it is obvious to the audience it is obvious that Castle knows the rules of the genre. Unlike the somewhat smug sophistication of Scream and its ilk however, he does not insist on parading them, but plays the genre familiarity to the edge of self-parody with no suggestion of strain.
Mr Sardonicus benefits from a better script than many of Castle's other films and is further notable for being one of his rare period outings. The character of the baron, his shunned chateaux and his cruel treatment of serving girls would soon become hallmarks of the Hammer cycle in the UK. While Sardonicus himself, remains cold and aloof behind his mask much of his dirty work is ably carried out by Krull (the excellent Oskar Homolka, perhaps a face most familiar from Hitchcock's Sabotage), whose own maimed face and toadyish malevolence adds considerably to the general feeling of unease. It is his application of the leeches, his expected torture of Maude in the dungeon and, not least, his final scene with the agonised baron that gives the film an unexpected edge of cruelty.
What are we to make of the end of Mr Sardonicus? Castle's mocking 'vote' aside, in which he assumes a thumbs down from the audience each time the film is shown, the conclusion is notable for being both quiet and horribly insidious. There is no painful death to behold for the aristocratic monster that has seduced servant girls, robbed graves and so tormented his wife. Krull delivers his fatal message, sits and devours his food hungrily, while his master - whose mouth has set rigid after Sir Robert's treatment - faces a slow death through thirst and starvation. This end scene is like the slow turn of a screw, effective though lack of explicit closure. The director sends us off contemplating prolonged agony. The baron's own grimace may have vanished, but the peculiar smile on Castle's face remains with us to the end and beyond.