Mr. Sardonicus would be the last of William Castles gimmick films. By now, Castle had become so famous through his appearance in the trailers for the films that he was appearing to introduce them as well he turns up here to present the film while walking along a fog-lit bank of the Thames in London. The gimmick in Mr. Sardonicus is that William Castle reappears near the end and asks the audience to choose what fate is to be meted out to the title character whether he should be cursed or redeemed. Audiences would hold up a series of cards with glow in the dark thumbs on them. Depending on whether the audiences held the thumbs up or down, the projectionist would select which ending to show. In actuality, this would appear to be a choice that was already preselected and the ending where Sardonicus is doomed was always screened. Archival search has been unable to find evidence of any alternate ending where Sardonicus is saved and people involved in the production deny that any other ending was ever shot. Moreover, William Castles narration, where he says ugh at the thought of niceness and relishes depicting the just dessert tortures, gives clear indication which side of the verdict he was on.
Mr. Sardonicus was William Castles attempt to jump aboard the fad in Gothic horror that had begun a few years earlier with Hammers The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula/The Horror of Dracula (1958) and in particular Roger Cormans attempt to copy this with The House of Usher (1960). Though Mr. Sardonicus is supposedly set in 1880, the settings, characters and hairstyles are clearly 1960s USA nobody attempts to affect a British accent, for instance. The journey into Eastern Europe seems borrowed from Dracula (1897), while the master of the house with a physical deformity and the image of the blasted heath as some extension of his tormented psyche recalls much of House of Usher. The central concept of the man with the frozen grin would seem to be inspired by Batmans The Joker, who had first appeared in Batman #1 (1940) although by the point that Mr. Sardonicus came out The Joker had yet to appear on the screen. It is almost certain that both Ray Russell and the artists who created The Joker were inspired by the silent Conrad Veidt film The Man Who Laughs (1928).
William Castles atmosphere was always rudimentary and perpetually focused on shock effect he was never a particularly sophisticated director. Here however he does create a series of memorable shocks the abrupt revelation of the leeches on Lorna Hansons face; Ronald Lewis entering a room to find Lorna Hanson bound and strung up; Guy Rolfe in his blank-faced mask; the manservant Kroll (Oscar Homolka) with his eye sewn shut; Sardonicus keeping his wife (Audrey Dalton) imprisoned in a dungeon and threatening to create a smile for her with a knife unless Ronald Lewis cooperates; the skeleton of Sardonicuss father kept in a locked room and Ronald Lewiss climactic cure being to lock Guy Rolfe in the dark with the skeleton. William Castle even manages to get it together for one great scene during Guy Rolfes robbing of the grave, which conjures a marvellous sense of dread before the abrupt revelation of the skeletons face followed by the even bigger shock of seeing Rolfe with his frozen rictus grin of fright for the first time. There is also a scene earlier in the show where Guy Rolfe has several beautiful girls brought to him and selects one of them for a horrible purpose, although the reasons for this and reference to it is never made clear anywhere else in the film. Guy Rolfe plays the part of Baron Sardonicus, particularly during the latter half, with great arrogance and wonderfully mad lines.
The film is based on Sardonicus (1961), a short story by Ray Russell that had appeared in Playboy magazine several months earlier and was immediately snapped up by William Castle. Ray Russell (1924-1999) was a prolific genre writer. Mr. Sardonicus became Ray Russells most famous work, although he did go on to write a number of other films, including Zotz! (1962) for William Castle about an academic who comes into possession of a coin with powers, as well as Premature Burial (1962) and X The Man with X-Ray Eyes (1963) for Roger Corman, The Horror of It All (1964) in the UK, the theatrically released Grand Guignol tv pilot Chamber of Horrors (1966) and had the demonic rapist film Incubus (1982) adapted from his novel.
William Castles other films of genre note as producer-director are: as director of Crime Doctors Manhunt (1945), the sixth in a series of Columbia crime thrillers, of which Castle directed several, featuring a forensicologist against a split-personalitied killer; the psycho-thriller Macabre (1958); House on Haunted Hill (1959); the classic The Tingler (1959), probably Castles best film; the haunted house film 13 Ghosts (1960); the psycho-thriller Homicidal (1961); the juvenile comedy Zotz! (1962) about a magical coin; the remake of The Old Dark House (1963) for Hammer; the Grand Guignol psycho-thriller Strait-Jacket (1964) with Joan Crawford; The Night Walker (1965), a psycho-thriller about a dream lover; the psycho-thriller I Saw What You Did (1965); the psycho-thriller Lets Kill Uncle (1965); the ghost comedy The Spirit is Willing (1967); the reality-bending sf film Project X (1968); as producer of the classic occult film Rosemarys Baby (1968); as producer of the anthology series Ghost Story (1972-3); Shanks (1974) with Marcel Marceau as a puppeteer who can resurrect the dead; and as producer of the firestarting insect film Bug! (1975).
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