89 min., 1961
Written by Ray Russell
Directed by William Castle
My rating: ★★★★★
“I have known a ghoul—a disgusting creature who opens graves and feeds on corpses.”
* * *
Once upon a time, producer and director William Castle was the king of Hollywood gimmick. People still remember the time he made sure each viewer of HOMICIDAL took out a life insurance policy with Lloyds of London, because the movie was so scary it might kill them. Or how about when he sent a ghost to hover over the audiences of HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL? He is perhaps best known for rigging theater seats with buzzers that would go off during strategic moments of THE TINGLER.
But ask anyone what their favorite Castle movie was, and more likely than not, they’ll say MR. SARDONICUS. Based on the novella by Ray Russell, who also adapted the screenplay, it follows the tale of Sir Robert Cargrave as he displays himself as the perfect hero in the first few seconds of the film. He is a neurosurgeon who starts out the movie with nothing less than getting a sweet, paralyzed girl to walk again.
As he admires a new scientific advancement—called a “hypodermic needle”—he gets news from Gorslava that a former lover, Maude, needs his help desperately. He abandons his very important work to come to her aid, being the shining golden boy hero type he is.
When he shows up in Gorslava, he discovers that she has married Baron Sardonicus, a man feared by the populace just as much as Transylvanians were desperately afraid of Dracula. He meets Krull, the one-eyed wretch who serves Sardonicus. A role that should have been played by Bela Lugosi in a perfect world, but Oskar Homolko is perfectly serviceable, maybe even great.
Sir Robert notices many strange things. Portrait frames are empty. There are no mirrors in the house of Sardonicus. Oh, and there’s a maid with a face full of leeches, one of the master’s experiments.
To say nothing of the locked Blubeard-ish room, where only Sardonicus has walked . . . .
When Sir Robert finally meets Sardonicus, he is shocked by the life-like mask the master wears. Very mysterious, and considering what viewers have learned from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, very ominous. It turns out that Sardonicus wanted Sir Robert, not Maude. Why? Because of his hideous disfigurement, naturally.
You see, Sardonicus was not always his name. He used to be a peasant named Marek and due to a series of unlucky circumstances, he had to rob his own father’s grave. The result? He has been graced with the most hideous grin in the history of cinema since Conrad Veidt in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (Bob Kane’s inspiration for the Joker).
It is a horrible rictus that forces him to eat his food mashed up in a paste, which he slurps through his clenched teeth every day. He had to teach himself to speak again over the course of years. And he wears the mask to hide his horrifying face from even himself. Castle very smartly takes great pains to avoid showing the face of Sardonicus until halfway through the movie. However, the make-up job is just plain silly, even in the moment viewers first see it. Lon Chaney could have done a much better job more than thirty years before this. Sadly, Castle feels the need to show it a few more times over the course of the rest of the movie. It would have been so much better hidden in shadows.
Still, the idea is strong enough to cover up a lot of the silliness. It horrifies Marek so much that he changes his name to the Latin phrase for lockjaw: RICTUS SARDONICUS. He has tricked Sir Robert to Gorslava in order to get him to cure this horrible affliction. And if the good doctor refuses, Sardonicus has a punishment far more horrible than words for his beloved Maude.
The acting is what one would expect from its time. It’s good, but not realistic, not like actors are today. However, given the time, it is still pretty reasonable, good enough to not seem so stiff or hammy. The true stars, though, are the sets. Castle and his contemporaries at AI were very good at getting down these period pieces. This is no exception. The castle of Sardonicus is incredibly lavish, beautiful beyond words.
Yet the strongest thing Castle has in his toolbox for this film is the story. Ray Russell, an incredible SF writer, turned his novella into a very loyal screenplay with a lot working for it. It’s a lot like the rictus Castle shows us. Superficially, it might seem a bit clunky, but the idea is just so incredibly effective, it overshadows everything else. While many of his other films might need the crutch of a gimmick, this movie most certainly did not.
His gimmick for this one? Oh, it’s a dandy. Like Hitchcock, Castle liked to show up in his own pictures, usually smoking his trademark cigar. In his introduction to this movie, he meets us on a foggy London street and reads to us the definition of the word “ghoul.” He then invites us to enjoy this tale.
Yet, later he returns to his viewers with an ingenious plan. It’s so ingenious that when people talk about seeing this in their youth, in theaters on a first run, they will swear on their genitals that William Castle was actually at their theater, performing the famous Punishment Poll in person. But no, it’s on film, as anyone can see.
Every audience member was given a sign with a thumbs-up picture drawn on it. (It’s no secret that this story does indeed have a formula. Yet if you don’t want to hear about the end, you should probably skip the rest of this review.) When Sardonicus gets his comeuppance, as all villains of the time had to, Castle strolls out of the London fog once more and talks about how he doesn’t think Sardonicus was punished enough. What did the audience think? He said that they should hold up their signs if they thought Sardonicus had had enough. However, if they thought he needed more punishment, they were to hold the signs upside down. (And of course, he talked about the former as if they were limpwristed nancy boys.) He then proceeds to do a count, as if he actually were in the theater. Knowing human nature, he knew that no audience would grant Sardonicus reprieve.
So . . . he showed them the rest of the movie, and it is ghastly. Very ghastly. One would say . . . ghoulish.
In the big picture of Castle’s films, this one has mostly been forgotten in favor of THE TINGLER and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Oh, and he produced a little flick by the name of ROSEMARY’S BABY, if you remember that one. But this is easily his best, and it should not be forgotten. Find it if you can, then tell as many people as you can about it. You won’t be sorry.Have You Read...?