by Steve Habrat
Horror legend William Castle will be forever remembered as the king of gimmicks. He had a skeleton dangle over his audience in perhaps his most well known film, House on Haunted Hill, and he slapped buzzers on various seats and had Vincent Price encourage viewers to scream bloody murder during screenings of cult favorite The Tingler. Another one of Castle’s elaborate gimmicks came with Mr. Sardonicus, his chilling 1961 answer to the gothic horror offerings from Hammer Studios. Lacking the color cinematography Hammer was noted for but certainly not shorting the audience on macabre visuals, talk of ghouls, grave robbers, disfigurement, and leeches, Mr. Sardonicus is an atmospheric tale that cleverly allowed the audience to pick how they wanted to bring this underrated effort to a close. Mr. Sardonicus has sadly never enjoyed the success that some of Castle’s other work has, but don’t be fooled, this film is actually one of Castle’s better horror outings. The film features a solid build up, marvelous set design, eerie exterior shots that look like they were lifted right out of Hammer’s Horror of Dracula or The Curse of Frankenstein, and make-up effects that are guaranteed to have you fighting to keep down your lunch. And to think this movie is based around a short story by Ray Russell that appeared in Playboy!
Mr. Sardonicus begins in 1880, with renowned physician Sir Robert Cargrave (played by Ronald Lewis) being urgently summoned by his past lover, Maude (played by Audrey Dalton), to her secluded new castle that she shares with her mysterious husband, Baron Sardonicus (played by Guy Rolfe). Shortly after arriving, Robert is met by Baron Sardonicus’ fiercely loyal servant, Krull (played Oskar Homolka), who is in the process of torturing a terrified servant girl by sticking leeches on her face. Robert is reunited with Maude and is introduced to Sardonicus, who hides his face behind an expressionless mask. Despite Maude’s warnings of awful things taking place in the castle and muffled screams in the night, Robert stays to protect his lost love. The next morning, Sardonicus meets with Robert and reveals that he wears a mask to conceal a grotesque grimace that has been frozen to his face. Sardonicus explains that he has tried everything to attempt to fix his disfigurement but nothing seems to work. Robert agrees to try to help Sardonicus but after his efforts fail, Sardonicus demands that Robert resort to life threatening experimental procedures to try to fix his face and if Robert resists or fails again, he will torture Maude.
While there is plenty of lurid subject matter throughout Mr. Sardonicus, the film would be nothing without its sinister gothic atmosphere, something that makes the film a perfect fit for a chilly October evening. There are castles hidden by twisted trees, graveyards nestled inside dead gardens, heavy shadows cast over the characters, and thick sheets of fog that hang heavy in the air and coil around like ghostly specters. Castle’s finishing touch is the rotten corpse that leers out from its open grave, a visual jolt that hits the viewer like a strong cup of coffee. There is no doubt that the people over at Hammer Studios were most likely smiling over what Castle achieved here. This atmosphere gives Mr. Sardonicus plenty of personality and on its own, it is enough to give the viewer goosebumps, but the make-up effects really make this picture a macabre affair. The loyal servant Krull is missing an eye and Mr. Sardonicus’ mask is eerily blank for the rolling menace that booms from behind the pencil-thin lips. Then there are the effects on Mr. Sardonicus himself, which are hideous enough to cause one character to commit suicide after laying unsuspecting eyes on his hellish grin. The sight really is startling and grotesque, elaborate to the point that it was very difficult for Rolfe to keep the make-up on for a long period of time.
In addition to the strong atmosphere and chilling set design, Mr. Sardonicus also features some seriously noteworthy and graceful performances from its leads. Lewis is absolutely superb as the strong and whip-smart hero Robert, a man who isn’t shaken in the least by the horror unfolding around him. He’s levelheaded when forced to confront a nasty situation and calculated in the way he battles back against the menacing Sardonicus. Rolfe, meanwhile, plays Sardonicus as a surprisingly sympathetic monster with a tragic past. He certainly can back us up against the wall when he peels off that terrible mask to reveal an even more terrifying grimace, but there is an aura of sadness surrounding him, something that you would have seen in one of Universal’s early monster offerings. Much like Claude Rains’ performance in the 1933 film The Invisible Man, Rolfe is asked to bring heaping amounts of intimidation and emotion to a role that conceals his face and I must admit that he rises to the challenge. Dalton does get reduced to the whimpering damsel in distress during certain moments but the way she composes herself when her commanding husband slinks into the room is certainly something to admire. Homolka nearly steals the show as the disfigured servant Krull, a gravelly minion who assures Robert that he will do anything that Sardonicus orders him to do and he means ANYTHING. Just wait until you get a load of him sticking leeches to one poor girl’s face.
Considering that Mr. Sardonicus is a Castle product, the film naturally has a nifty little gimmick attached to it. This time around, Castle passed out glow-in-the-dark cards that had a thumbs up and thumbs down printed on it to the audience. Near the end of the film, Castle appears on the screen and speaks directly to the audience about picking the fate of the monster. He cheerfully encourages them to not be sheepish and to have absolutely no mercy for the nasty Sardonicus as he supposedly counts votes. It has been said that Castle shot two endings for Mr. Sardonicus, the one that we get to see and one that spares the grinning ghoul, but the softer ending has never been shown. What is interesting about Mr. Sardonicus is that its gimmick gets to live on and it wasn’t limited to a theater gag like The Tingler’s seat buzzers or House on Haunted Hill’s soaring skeleton. We actually get to a chance to experience the gimmick rather than having to simply hear about it from our parents or grandparents. Overall, ripe with a gothic atmosphere and brimming with Castle’s fiendish frights, Mr. Sardonicus is a patient and morbid horror story that deserves way more attention than it receives. Fans of Hammer Studios will be especially pleased with what Castle gives them, but all horror fans are guaranteed to walk away with a Sardonicus style grimace plastered on their mugs.
Mr. Sardonicus is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Below are a few little bonus items that I thought were cool to include in this review.
And here is the trailer for Mr. Sardonicus:
This review has been a part of…
by Steve Habrat
While he may not be as popular as Dracula, Frankenstein, or the Mummy, the Invisible Man is still a pretty scary guy. I mean, you can’t see him and he could attack you at anytime! THAT, boys and ghouls, is pretty scary if you ask me. Rooted more in science fiction than straight horror, The Invisible Man is actually one of the best films in the Universal Monster collection. While the sequels didn’t stick as closely to the science fiction/horror mash-up as the original film did, they still managed to remain above average and impressive with their special effects. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s review of the original The Invisible Man, click here. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews for the sequels to The Invisible Man. Read on if you dare…
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe (Played by Vincent Price) has just been sentenced to death for the murder of his brother, a crime that he did not commit. While on death row, Radcliffe is visited by Dr. Frank Griffith (Played by John Sutton), the original Invisible Man’s brother, who injects Radcliffe with the infamous invisibility formula. Radcliffe proceeds to escape from prison and sets out to prove his innocence but along the way, he begins to slip into insanity, a horrific side effect of the invisibility formula.
Never as mischievous as the original 1933 The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man Returns doesn’t shy away from causing plenty of mayhem. Not nearly as heavy on the horror and leaning more towards a mixture of science fiction and murder mystery, The Invisible Man Returns is still given an aura of menace with the presence of Vincent Price, a legend that is mostly heard and only briefly seen. With his gentlemanly coos aimed at his fiancé, Helen Manson (Played by Nan Grey), and his sinister guffaws, Price’s Radcliffe is one unpredictable madman who will prove his innocence at any cost, even if that means killing a few people in the process. As the whodunit slowly unravels for the big reveal, we can’t help but wonder if Radcliffe is really any better than the individuals that he is trying to track down. Price has some great chemistry with Grey, but she isn’t really given much to do other than look worried about Radcliffe’s safety. Cecil Kellaway, another familiar Universal face, also shows up as Inspector Sampson, who pieces together Radcliffe’s disappearance.
Much like the original film, The Invisible Man Returns has some jaw dropping special effects, especially incredible for the time in which the film was made. The effects ended up nabbing an Oscar nomination but it sadly didn’t take the award home. Yet director Joe May doesn’t lean on the impressive special effects even though he very well could and no one would blame him. The film, which is based once again on the story by H.G. Wells, doesn’t find the original invisible man, Jack Griffith (Played brilliantly by Claude Rains), rising from the dead to continue his rampage. The film wisely elaborates and continues the story in a clever and respectable fashion. The Invisible Man Returns also runs a full eighty-one minutes, which allows the storyline to fully develop. Overall, it could have been scarier but there are still plenty of extraordinary shocks and thrills throughout The Invisible Man Returns to keep the story engrossing. Plus, it has Vincent Price and how can you argue with that?! Grade: B+
The Invisible Woman (1940)
Feisty model Kitty Caroll (Played by Virginia Bruce) is tired of being pushed around at her job by her insufferable boss. On a whim, she answers a newspaper add posted by the eccentric Professor Gibbs (Played by John Barrymore), an ad that asks for human guinea pigs for his invisibility machine. Professor Gibbs is on the verge of loosing funding from the wealthy playboy Dick Russell (Played by John Howard) but when the invisibility machine works successfully, he launches a campaign to convince Dick that the machine is fully operational. However, the real challenge comes from trying to contain the mischievous Kitty and fighting off local thugs who want to steal the machine.
What little traces of horror you could find in The Invisible Man Returns disappears completely in The Invisible Woman, which was released the same year as the Vincent Price thriller. A cheeky screwball comedy that is more of a wild party, The Invisible Woman is quite a bit of fun if you are in the market for a whole bunch of laughs, but if it is horror you are after, it is best you look elsewhere. It is a bit odd that this film gets lumped in with the Universal Movie Monsters but the film is still a pretty solid watch on its own terms. It is very difficult not to like Bruce as the playful Kitty, who enjoys getting some hilarious revenge on her snippy boss Growley (Played by Charles Lane). The second half of the film morphs into more of a romantic comedy, with Howard’s playboy Dick falling for the leggy Kitty. The budding romance is sweetly written and delivered by the actors, making it an easy pill to swallow. There is also plenty of silliness thrown in from Barrymore’s Professor Gibbs, who acts as a strict father figure for both Dick and Kitty. There is also plenty of physical comedy from Dick’s butler, George (Played by Charles Ruggles), who is constantly mortified or taking a nasty tumble.
The Invisible Woman’s overall quality is done in by the unnecessary addition of the gangster side plot, which finds sinister thug Blackie (Played by Oskar Homolka), trying to steal the invisibility machine. The only good thing that can be said about this side plot is that it gives Ruggles a break from the physical comedy and places it on the shoulders of a slew of extras. Many of the delivered jokes fall flat, mostly because Homolka just isn’t that funny as the jumpy gangster. Even if it technically isn’t a horror film, The Invisible Woman still applies the invisibility aspect smartly and there are plenty of sly remarks made over the fact that Kitty is nude the entire time. There was quite a bit of controversy surrounding this aspect but by today’s standards, it is rather tame. Overall, The Invisible Woman is a sweet little romantic romp that fits nicely in the romantic comedy genre but trips over a pointless gangster subplot that should have been left out completely. Grade: B
Invisible Agent (1942)
The Invisible Man’s grandson, Frank Raymond (Played by Jon Hall), has been trying to live a quiet and normal life in Manhattan. It turns out that Frank still possesses a small amount of the invisibility formula that drove his grandfather insane. Frank soon finds himself approach by secret agents from the Axis powers, who are determined to get their hands on the formula. Frank refuses and makes a narrow escape with the formula in hand. America is soon dragged into World War II and Frank decides to make a deal with the Army—use the invisibility formula to spy on Nazi Germany. The army agrees and Frank is sent behind enemy lines where he does battle with a slew of S.S. buffoons and falls in love with Maria Sorenson (Played by Ilona Massey), a British secret agent.
Stripping away the romantic comedy and acting as part of a war time propaganda movement to boost American morale, Invisible Agent is much more a thriller with some chuckle worthy aspects. Just as it was in The Invisible Woman, the invisibility is often times played for laughs rather than scares. The comedy really takes flight during a scene in which Frank terrorizes a pudgy S.S. officer who lusts after Maria. When Frank isn’t invisible, he is a fairly forgettable character and he even remains a bit dry when he has injected the formula into his bloodstream (shockingly). Massey is certainly the life of the party but her character often times seems too eager to fall in love rather than do anything constructive. Cedric Hardwicke shows up as Conrad Stauffer, an S.S. officer doing anything he can do get his hands on the invisibility formula. Peter Lorre is handed the job of playing Baron Ikito, a Japanese officer with a thing for amputation (just wait for THAT scene). There is no question that Lorre is the most colorful one in Invisible Agent but his character is so obviously American that it is almost hard to take.
Invisible Agent does have plenty of action to thrill us throughout its eighty-one minute run time. The film has lots of impressive aerial battles that find Frank trying to sneak out of Germany with Hitler’s plot to attack New York City. There are plenty of fiery explosions and narrow escapes to have you on the edge of your seat. The downside is that Frank is such a bland hero that it is hard to really care if he makes it out alive. Invisible Agent also boasts some of the most impressive special effects of the series yet, some of them mind-boggling for the time. Overall, as an action thriller, Invisible Agent executes the mission with ease but you will find yourself starting to long for the science fiction chills of the Claude Rains original. Grade: B-
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
Robert Griffith (Played by Jon Hall) escapes from prison and makes his way to London to find Jasper and Irene Herrick (Played by Lester Matthews and Gale Sonergaard), a wealthy couple that Robert believes cheated him out of a small fortune years earlier. When the Herricks turn him away, Robert seeks out Dr. Peter Drury (Played by John Carradine), who has created a formula that can turn a man invisible. After demanding that Dr. Drury test the formula on him, the newly invisible Robert sets out to get revenge on the Herricks.
The Invisible Man’s Revenge finds the Invisible Man series moving away from the comedy that The Invisible Woman and Invisible Agent were so fond of and returning to the horror that kicked the franchise off. Not nearly as absorbing as The Invisible Man or The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Man’s Revenge does wrap up the series in a fairly respectable manner even if the story is starting to fade right before our eyes. The real downside to the film is the fact that there is no sympathetic monster at the heart of the terror. The Universal horror films were notorious for including monsters that we actually felt bad for. The Invisible Man’s Revenge serves up a psychotic villain right from the start and refuses to make him a multifarious character. Claude Rains earned our sympathy through the fact that he was desperately trying to outrun madness but in the end he slipped into it. In The Invisible Man Returns, Vincent Price was a man framed for a crime he didn’t commit and his quest for the truth was causing his sanity to deteriorate.
Then we have Jon Hall, who picks up where Rains and Price left off. Hall, who also appeared in Invisible Agent, does a passable job with the role of Robert but he lacks the unruly insanity of Rains or the creeping terror of Price. Still, Hall manages to outshine everyone else in the film, as the rest of the characters seem to disappear from memory when the credits roll. Universal regular Carradine steps in as the gentle doctor who comes face to face with pure evil. Carradine is forced to take a stale role, one that completely takes away from his always-welcome presence. The effects here are just as solid as they were in the other films but near the end, it seems like some of the effects were getting sloppy. Overall, The Invisible Man’s Revenge is running on empty but director Ford Beebe still manages to send the character off on a dark and ominous note. Grade: B-
The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge are all available on DVD.