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Shocktober 2021 13. The Witch (2015)
Shocktober 2021 12. The Frighteners (1996)
Shocktober 2021 11. The Others (2001)
Shocktober 2021 10 The Horror at 37,000 feet
Shocktober 2021 9. Van Helsing (2004)
Shocktober 2021 8. Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
Shocktober 2021 7 The Frozen Dead (1966)
Shocktober 2021 5. Race With the Devil (1975)
Shocktober 2021 4. The Return of the Vampire (1943)
Shocktober 2021 3. The Sorcerers (1967)
Shocktober 2021 2. Gargoyles (1972)
Shocktober 2021 1. The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Shocktober 2021 6. Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

“Oh come, Madam! My crudeness? My cruelty? My arrogance? This is what you tell yourself in your womanish passion, is it not? But it is my face you bar your door against, not my character flaws.” – Baron Sardonicus


The William Castle Blogathon Review: Mr. Sardonicus (1961) | Anti-Film  School


As promised at the end of my first entry this year, here’s the second of our sinister smilers and ghoulish grinners this year, introducing Baron Sardonicus. Another of those “entry point” horror movies I saw on TV on a Monday night back in the seventies. This is a film produced and directed by possibly the king of the cinematic showmen, William Castle. Castle loved to spice up showings of his films with gimmicks like having certain seats wired for a mild electric shock during showings of The Tingler (1959) having a skeleton fly above the heads of the audiences during showings of The House on Haunted Hill (also 1959), having a “fright break” to allow audience members to leave if they found Homicidal (1961) too frightening and they’d get a full refund – but they’d have to stand in “Coward’s Corner”. For Mr. Sardonicus, the gimmick was the Punishment Poll, where the audience were given cards to vote whether a character should receive mercy, or further punishment. It was said that the final reel would depend entirely on the audience reaction – but if course only one ending was ever filmed. Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) is a homage to Castle and his films of the late fifties and early sixties.

As with all of the films I’ve just mentioned, Mr Sardonicus has an outrageously daft plot, and is great fun to watch. That was the thing with William Castle’s films – they were batcrap crazy fun. This one is a mad mash-up of the classic Dracula, Phantom of the Opera and The Man who Laughs.

The film is introduced by William Castle himself, of course – from a mysterious, foggy London set. We’re in the year 1880, where renowned doctor and David Hasselhoff lookalike Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is healing the paralysed legs of a little girl by use of heated towels and massage. By the end of the session, the little girl can move her legs for the first time. Not only that – but he has also invented the “hypo-dermic syringe” which he shows to his assistant who gasps in unbridled admiration at the revolutionary invention - a hollow needle to deliver medicine directly to the bloodstream – gasp. (I should probably point out here that Castle wasn’t known for his historical accuracy, okay?)

He is handed a letter, which has been left for him by a one-eyed stranger with an eastern European accent. Typically, the kind of role that would’ve been played by Bela Lugosi, had he been around. Reading the letter, he is being summoned urgently to visit Castle Sardonicus in the fictional country of Gorslava (Castle’s geography was as bad as his history, but what the heck….) The letter has been sent by Cargrave’s former love, now Baroness Maude Sardonicus – it seems the Baron needs his help urgently.

Cancelling all his appointments, and abdicating all his responsibilities – he heads straight over to Gorslava, and Castle Sardonicus, where any mention of the name Sardonicus is met with gasps of terror. He is met by the one-eyed stranger who dropped off his letter (and who, admittedly, seems to have no problem nipping across continents with speed and ease). This is Krull (Oskar Homolka) the manservant of the Baron, whose job description and mantra is; “When my master says, "Krull, do this thing," I do the thing, whatever it may be.” (All righty then…)

Meeting the Baroness Maude (Audrey Dalton), it’s obvious that a) the Baron terrifies her and b) she still has the hots for the dashing doctor.

But what of Sardonicus himself? Well, he has a thing for experimentation. And by that, I mean the poor maid who’s tied to a chair and has leeches applied to her face, and who later is hung up by her thumbs and has leeches put on her legs – with an implied threat that they can be put “all over” (ugh).


Mr Sardonicus (1961) [31 Days of American Horror Review] – BIG COMIC PAGE

Sardonicus makes his entrance wearing a mask. He’s articulate, cultured and obviously very wealthy. But he’s called away to attend to some important visitors. (Actually, some of the village girls. He chooses one for his pleasure and dismisses the rest. We hear her scream when the mask comes off)

The following morning, Sardonicus tells his story to Cargrave. He was a simple villager. His father had bought a lottery ticket which turned out to be the winning one. But he died before learning this and the ticket was buried with him. So harassed by his wife, he went out and dug his father’s corpse up to get the ticket from the waistcoat pocket. The shock of seeing his father’s agonised death-grin shocked him so much, he had a nervous reaction caused by hysteria and his face was twisted in to the same kind of grin. His wife killed herself, and he became wealthy on the winnings of the lottery and bought himself the title of Baron and a castle.

Now, he wants to be cured of his affliction.

Cargrave agrees to help, but the usual hot towels and massage don’t work. Sardonicus insists that Cargrave try other, experimental methods involving poisons that relax muscles. And if Cargrave doesn’t agree – the Krull will disfigure Maude, who is wife in name only to Sardonicus. The reasoning being if she’s as ugly as he is, then they can get jiggy, if you take my meaning.

Cargrave’s treatment involves getting some supplies from London, including the hypo-dermic device (the pause in the middle never gets old) and additional shock therapy of placing Sardonicus in a room with the corpse of his father. This seems to work – Sardonicus no longer has the Death’s Head grin, but he’s told not to move his face nor speak for a while.

Now released, along with (I guess former Baroness) Maude, they’re waiting at the station for a train, when Krull appears and wants them to go back to the castle. Sardonicus can’t open his mouth. Cargrave tells him that the serum he injected into his master was only water. The paralysis is in Sardonicus’s mind – it always was. (It was the terror of being locked in the room with his father’s corpse caused by his immense guilt that released him from his torment.) Krull is told to tell his master this.

Now, the gimmick – the audience gets to choose if Sardonicus has suffered enough, with William Castle appearing on-screen to “count the votes” and to tell the projectionist which reel to play. Naturally, the “vote” was always for more punishment. So, we see Sardonicus sitting dejectedly at a large banquet table heaving with food - all he was able to ingest in his previous state was thin soup, now he can’t even open his mouth enough to slurp that.

Krull, remembering it was Sardonicus who cost him his eye, tells the Baron he missed them at the station – and sits down to gorge himself at the banquet, while is master is doomed to die of starvation.

Next time – a film that haunted me for years that I only recently caught up with to see the ending. Mad scientists, Nazis and for crying out loud – don’t open the box!!!!


Mr. Sardonicus (1961) – Midnight Only



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