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
You have to love William Castle. Even if he produced B-movie schlock, the man knew how to sell a cheese filled idea. Luring audience members in through gimmicks (buzzers on the theater seats during 1959’s The Tingler, a $1,000 life insurance policy should someone die of fright in 1958’s Macabre), Castle giddily scared the pants off people through marketing alone. Despite the flashy promotion, Castle did direct a number of fairly substantial horror films that have stood the test of time and earned a respectable cult following. One of those films happens to be 1959 haunted mansion film House on Haunted Hill, the Vincent Price funhouse that features several moments that will have you dashing off for a change of underwear. Flawed but certainly a whole bunch of fun, House on Haunted Hill is nothing but an excuse for five strangers to walk into a supposedly haunted house and simply explore the spooks it has to offer. When it sticks to this premise, the film is a horror gem but when it decides to tack on its messy final twenty minutes, things don’t turn out so well. Still, you can’t argue with that skeleton backing a shrieking woman into a vat of acid. That, my friends, is why we see horror films.
House on Haunted Hill introduces us to eccentric millionaire Frederick Loren (Played by Vincent Price) and his wife, Annabelle Loren (Played by Carol Ohmart), who rents out an old mansion that is said to be haunted and then invites five strangers to join him for a night of terror. The guests include Lance Schroeder (Played by Richard Long), Nora Manning (Played by Carolyn Craig), Dr. David Trent (Played by Alan Marshal), Watson Pritchard (Played by Elisha Cook Jr.), and Ruth Bridgers (Played by Julie Mitchum), all who appear to have never met Fredrick and Annabelle before. The group is told that whoever can last the night in the home will receive a check for $10,000. The group is given the history of the house, which includes gruesome murder and mutilation, and then they are taken on a tour. As some of the guests break off from the group, the ghosts begin to reveal themselves and certain guests hint that they may not be random strangers at all.
Like a tour through a Halloween haunted house, Castle hurls one pop-up scare at us after another. Blood drips down from the ceiling, a chandelier comes crashing down on the guests, ghosts float outside of windows, skeletons walk, severed heads wait in trunks, and a witchy ghoul emerges from the dungeon. It’s in this stretch that House on Haunted Hill isn’t exactly heavy with plot but dares to have a cheeky and spooky good time as the characters are scared half to death. Heavy doses of camp are added through the otherworldly score and Vincent Price as he richly sells the ghostly encounters. There are several moments where Castle has Price almost directly address us about the terror playing out in the twisting hallways and cobwebbed dungeons where vats of acid boil and bubble in anticipation for the victim that tumbles in. The home feels just cramped enough to gives us a claustrophobic chill yet big enough to assure us that terror could easily be hiding somewhere and just waiting for the right moment to leap out and scream “BOO” right in our face. It’s loaded with atmosphere on the inside and the outside certainly makes an imposing statement is it stands proudly in the dark.
Much of the success of House and Haunted Hill lies on the shoulders of Price, who brings his usual macabre purrs to the spook show. Only Price was morbid enough to play a character that has stuck around with Annabelle, his fourth wife who has tried to poison him. He takes great pleasure in the horror around him, chewing through a smile as he passes out guns tucked into little wooden coffins as party favors. You’re a mean one, Mr. Price. Ohmart’s Annabelle is just as devious, the lady who came up with this eerie party idea. She brings her own devilish charm to the soirée and she takes terror to a whole new level as a walking skeleton stalks her through that old basement. Cook is great as the scared stiff Pritchard, the alcoholic owner of the home who fully believes that spirits wander the halls. Craig is one hell of a scream queen as Nora, who is consistently tormented by the ghosts or perhaps even one of the other party guests. Her run in with a ghoul is cellar has got to rank as one of the most shocking scenes in a horror film.
While the ending may subtract some of the supernatural creeps that flow freely throughout it, House on Haunted Hill still is a creaky winner in the haunted house subgenre. The scenes where the characters directly speak to the audience are immensely silly and certainly haven’t aged well at all. It actually causes the film to loose some momentum but it is blatantly Castle. At the time of the film’s release, Castle asked theaters to install an elaborate pulley system that would send a skeleton gliding over the heads of the audience members. I still think it would be very cool if theaters showed the film and included that Castle gimmick. It would certainly make for a nifty piece of nostalgia. Overall, House on Haunted Hill has zero depth but it does develop its characters quite nicely and it delivers scares at just the right time. It has plenty of camp throughout, which makes it perfectly safe for the kiddies to enjoy on Halloween night after trick r’ treating. In the end, the film belongs to Price and the disturbing reveal of his character in the final seconds of the film. For those who wish to get into Castle and really have some fun with his work, House on Haunted Hill is a great starting point. Be warned, this one may scare the pants right off of you.
House on Haunted Hill is available on DVD.