The Merry Mystery of Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
You know when you pop in a William Castle film, you’re in for a good time. The self proclaimed showman was one half P.T. Barnum, and half Roger Corman before there was a Corman. Castle always wanted to be Hitchcock, and found personal satisfaction when the Master himself made Psycho to cash in on the B Movie fodder that was Castle’s bread and butter.
There are awfully terrific Castle films (The Tingler), and terrifically awful ones (Bug), but whatever Castle you stumble upon, you won’t soon forget it. If not for anything else, because of the signature Castle gimmick – that cheesier than cheese “selling point” that only the lovable snake oil salesman himself would peddle – where his films were raised to a level of pure art. Whether it was Homicidal’s “fright break” when audience members, too scared to continue watching, could get a refund but still have to stand in the lobby’s “Coward’s Corner,” or 13 Ghosts, supposedly filmed in “Illusion-O” with special handheld viewers passed out to the crowd so they could see spooks not evident to the naked eye, Castle “patented” the event picture.
Mr. Sardonicus is one from the terrific pile, and like all the best, includes that trademark Castle gimmick. At a pivotal point in the movie, audiences could vote on one of two endings, and whichever ending they chose, that would play. But like the film itself, the real fun was figuring out what went on behind the mask.
Borrowed heavily from Dracula and the silent classic The Man Who Laughs, Mr. Sardonicus tells the story of a late nineteenth Century London physician, Sir Robert Cargrave, urgently summoned by his one-time love, Maude, to the estate of the mysterious Baron Sardonicus. The doctor’s apprehension is rewarded when he discovers Sardonicus’ servant, Krull, torturing a maid.
Sardonicus keeps a low profile until dinner when he arrives wearing a full face mask and refrains from eating. He tells the story of his father purchasing a lottery ticket, then dying . Upon discovering his father had the winning numbers left in his suit, Sardonicus digs up the grave, but the sight of the rotting corpse so shocks Sardonicus that, upon stealing back the ticket, his face has been forced into a hideous, maniacal grin.
Now cursed with all the money in the world but a face to frighten the most stalwart of men, he has tried every type of scientific and medical advancement to restore him to his original state, but to no avail. Upon hearing from Maude (now Sardonicus’ abused wife) that Cargrave is a specialist in paralysis, he hopes the good doctor can cure his affliction. Cargrave agrees, but his remedies prove fruitless. When he tells Sardonicus he cannot find a cure, the evil Baron threatens to mutilate Maude’s face if the doctor refuses further experimentation. He agrees, and finds a rare plant extract that he believes will return the Baron’s face to normal. Upon injecting him, it works, but Cargrave tells Sardonicus not to speak or open his mouth until the muscles have adjusted, and Sardonicus allows Cargrave to leave with Maude.
At this point, the film is interrupted and in steps Castle, offering up his “punishment poll,” allowing the story to continue with either a happy or horrible ending for Sardonicus, based on the audience’s decision.
Along with the gimmicks, Mr. Sardonicus allows for Castle’s signature overwrought dialogue, less than scary thrills and uninspired staging and direction, but it really doesn’t matter, since the Master Showman knows how to “inject” just enough fun that you’re really there for the ride.
It’s no surprise, then, that although Castle denied it all his life, there was no alternate ending. Knowing the majority of any audience would never want to see an unexciting “happy” ending for the evil Baron, the projectionist never needed to even turn the projector off. But that’s the childlike fun of Castle, and the escapist joy of watching Mr. Sardonicus. How does the film end? What ironic twist curses Sardonicus for his evil deeds? Ah, friends, that is for you to find out!
Derivative? Of course. Cutting edge? Never. Pure popcorn hilarity? Absolutely. And that, ladies and gentleman, is the charm of the Great William Castle.
Thrill to the original trailer and the pure “power to punish” within your very hands!