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
Why horror fans and critics don’t make a bigger deal over Lamberto Bava’s fantasy-becomes-nightmare horror romp Demons beats the hell out of me! I haven’t had this much fun watching an 80’s gore flick in quite a while and Demons matched the gruesome insanity of Evil Dead every step of the way. Demons is shamelessly loaded with plot holes, something that actually adds to the fun that you will have while watching this thing. Produced by Dario Argento and directed by Mario Bava’s son, Demons is never just coasting along. It isn’t particularly concerned with establishing much of a plot or any real underlying meaning; it’s just out to have a head banging good time. If you don’t find yourself possessed by the madness here, you are way too uptight.
Demons picks up in a Berlin subway where a college student named Cheryl (Played by Natasha Hovey) bumps into a mysterious masked man who resembles Kano from Mortal Kombat. The man hands her two movie tickets to a recently renovated movie palace and then disappears. Cheryl decides to attend the movie that evening, bringing along her friend Kathy (Played by Paola Cozzo) who complains that the movie that is showing better not be a horror movie. When the girls arrive at the theater, they are pursued by two young men named George (Played by Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Played by Karl Zinny), who tell the girls they will comfort them if the movie gets scary. In the lobby of the theater, there is a mysterious set up that acts as a promotion for the film they are seeing. A young woman decides to put on the mask and when she takes it off, she ends up with a strange cut on her face. The movie begins and sure enough, it is a horror film about demonic possession. Shortly after the film begins, audience members begin finding themselves infected with a strange virus that turns them into demonic killers. As the demonic numbers rise, Cheryl, Kathy, George, and Ken have to band together and stay alive until help can arrive.
This variegated bloodbath is a pure 80’s artifact, a film that packs the macho hero, relentless carnage, a samurai sword (of course), and a blaring heavy metal soundtrack to get your adrenaline pumping. It packs tons of impressive special effects and make-up work, the ghouls ending up simple yet foully intricate. Wounds ooze pus and blood and the ghouls vomit out green slime, any gross touch thrown in just to show off what the special effects crew is capable of. The film also manages to be a little freaky at points, Bava’s camera peering down foggy staircases and dank alleyways, a silhouetted ghoul creeping in the shadows here and there. Demons turns out to be an energetic kaleidoscope of energy that is undeniably contagious. The lunacy reaches its max when our hero begins chopping off heads with the sword and a helicopter comes crashing through the ceiling of the theater. Are you intrigued yet?
Demons has lots of incoherence littered about its eighty-eight minute runtime. Who is the strange masked cyborg man handing out the tickets? Are these people from the future? Another realm? And what about the suspicious theater usher? Don’t bother trying to figure any of this out and just roll with the punches. Demons harkens back to a time when going to the movies was an immersive event, to a time when the seats where rigged with a vibrating device to spook audience members (The Tingler) and barf bags where provided for the insanity (Zombie). This is a film that should play in theaters today and feature some kind of gag to get the audience involved, much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show! The film is cool enough on its own to watch in the comfort of your own home, but if you showed this to a theater that interacts with the screen while downing a few beers in the process, you’d have a hell of a night at the movies.
Demons doesn’t ask much of us as viewers and is only concerned with our enjoyment of the content. The embellished final act is a must see, especially since while watching the first half, I couldn’t imagine things getting any wilder. The fact that the film is game to take this twist on is enough to call this a blemished horror classic. Demons turns out to have all the makings for the craziest party you’ve never been to. Even a white suited pimp with a fu manchu shows up to play hero for a while! If you are an individual who detests horror, believe me when I say there is enjoyment to be found in the gross out shticks that Demons is so fond of. This is, without question, an infectious experience, making it very easy to fall in love with this beast of a horror movie.
Demons is now available on DVD.