Friday, September 9, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

After some carnival impresario-like mugging of our host (and director and producer) William Castle, the film introduces its hero. Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is a successful Victorian physician and specialist in the treatment of paralysis.

Unexpectedly, Cargrave receives a letter written by the love of his youth, Maude (Audrey Dalton), who would have become his wife if not for a greedy father without the proper faith in Cargrave's future career. Maude is now married to a certain Baron Sardonicus and lives in one of those imaginary Central European countries full of people with utterly incongruous accents I know and love from dozens of other movies.

In her letter, Maude invites Cargrave to her husband's estate, but gives the invitation an urgent undertone that convinces the physician to close his practice at once and run off to the continent. Why, one could think he is still in love with Maud.

In Europe, the good doctor soon notices some peculiarities. The local citizenry fears his host as if he were Dracula himself, and it doesn't take too long of an acquaintance with the Baron's lifestyle to understand why. It's the usual combination of gothic ghastliness - a sinister servant, Krall, (Oskar Homolka), a permanently locked door, the total absence of mirrors in the house, experiments with leeches on the house maid. And those are the things Cargrave experiences before he finally meets Sardonicus himself (Guy Rolfe). Sardonicus is a very unpleasant man with the peculiar habit of hiding his face behind a waxen mask and with more than a whiff of the sadist about him, as the screeching town girls he likes to secretly entertain will agree.

There's a good reason for the Baron wearing a mask, though. His face is disfigured, paralysed in a permanent deathly grin he acquired when he robbed his father's grave of the lottery ticket that bought him his title. Obviously, Sardonicus needs Cargrave's help, and he is willing to threaten his own wife to get it.

Given that Mr. Sardonicus is a William Castle production, it is self-evident that it has a gimmick every carnie barker would be proud of. When the movie made its initial matinee run, cards picturing a hand showing thumbs up or down were distributed in the audience. At a certain point shortly before the end, Castle appears on screen again, asking the audience to vote if poor old Sardonicus is in need of further punishment by presenting the appropriately positioned thumb to him. After a gleeful pretence at counting the votes, the audience then is presented with the film's only existing ending, which is of course the "more punishment" one. There are rumours that a more redemptive ending does actually exist but is now lost, but the way Castle's counting scene is set up alone should make clear that there's just no chance for that; if you think otherwise after having watched the film, I have a nice bridge to sell you.

It's not my favourite Castle gimmick - that would be the ones in The Tingler - it does however give the film a gleeful charm that helps loosen up its sometimes a bit talky proceedings.

That doesn't mean the gimmick is the movie's only virtue. Probably inspired by the success of that other great cheapskate director/producer Roger Corman's House of Usher, Castle makes a trip into gothic horror, a field he usually didn't work in. There are a few differences between the two films' approaches to their sub-genre, though, and certainly one in quality and artistic vision, the latter just not a thing very close to Castle's heart. The most important difference, however, is that Corman uses colour - or rather COLOUR! - where Castle makes a black and white film (although I doubt this was anything other than a budgetary decision). Corman's film is very much screaming "new Gothic" through this alone, while Sardonicus looks much more like Castle is going for a continuation of the visual language of the classic Universal horror film, although with the addition of open sadism and relatively daring content most of its old brethren just couldn't get away with. There's an emphasis on stylish but cheap artificiality in the sets that looks to me very much like the Universal style without the verticality of the sets the older films could afford. I'm a firm believer in artificiality as a stylistic element in films as long as the artificiality serves the building of mood, as it does here, so I found this part of Sardonicus quite satisfying.

The film's photography is equally moody and satisfying and at times unexpectedly beautiful, again showing the influence of early Universal and the cheap semi-noirs Castle started his career with, albeit with less emphasis on shadows, and more on sharp contrasts and interesting framing.

Not as satisfying are the more sensationalist moments, not because I have any ethical problems with them (which would come as a surprise, wouldn't it?), but because they don't really agree with the film's more subtle aspects. The more of Castle's films I have seen, the more I come to the conviction that the man should have trusted in his own ability to be subtle from time to time, even if he (probably rightfully so) believed his kid audience to be averse to subtlety. On the plus side, Castle's lack of restraint grants the viewer moments of silliness like the beloved flying head dream sequences you'd usually connect with cartoons.

As is often the case with Castle's films, there are also some quite memorable dialogue scenes that present a sharpness and a cynical view of humanity you don't usually expect to find in exploitation films aimed at teenagers. Ray Russell's script (based on his own novella) is particularly interesting, building a castle made of classical Gothic tropes, cheap Freudianism, extreme but thematically fitting psychology and dialogue that is a bit stiff but deeper than it strictly needs to be. One could criticise that there isn't much happening in the film, but gothic horror is all about mood and theme, with little need for plot or action beyond having everything go to pieces in the end.

The acting is also pretty good, with Ronald Lewis giving (and that might very well be a first) a sympathetic and even vaguely charismatic hero in a sub-genre that usually has no time or interest for making its heroes memorable, Guy Rolfe granting his Sardonicus just the right mixture of sadism, sarcasm, desperation and even a bit of humanity and Oskar Homolka relishing the opportunity to lay it on really thick as the sinister factotum.

Audrey Dalton on the other hand seems to struggle with most of her dialogue and is never able to make Maude an actual human being.

All in all, Mr. Sardonicus is one of the better films in Castle's filmography, especially for people with an interest in Gothic horror beyond the initial Universal wave, Corman and Bava.


Spuddie said...

Now you reminded me of the 4th Season of "Wiseguy", where the season's villain was a rich lumber magnate who was obsessed with the film.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I don't think the show ever made it that far over here. Sounds like a perfect choice for a villain to be obsessed with. And demonstrates good taste on the side of the producers.