William Castle may have been the master of the gimmick and may well have been greater as a showman than as a director but his 1961 offering Mr Sardonicus demonstrates that he could produce the goods when needed.
He’s helped considerably by the writing. Ray Russell wrote the screenplay based on his own novella and it manages to avoid the worst clichés of the gothic horror genre while at the same time being a very effective gothic chiller.
It is 1880 and Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is a celebrated London physician who has achieved outstanding success with cases of paralysis. He receives a letter from the woman with whom he had been in love. She is now married and living in central Europe. Her husband is Baron Sardonicus and he owns a castle but apparently all is not well. The message leads Cargrave to believe that the Baroness may be in real danger.
His arrival in central Europe leads us to expect a typical gothic horror plot. The villagers warn him to keep well away from the castle; they are clearly terrified of the Baron. He is met at the railway station by one of the Baron’s retainers, a man who fulfills all our expectations of gothic horror servants. Krull (Oskar Homolka) is a shambling one-eyed rather sinister character who speaks of his master in suitably awed and mysterious tones.
When he gets to the castle itself he is in for several shocks. Firstly there is a servant woman covered in leeches, the victim of what appears to be some ghastly medical experiment. Sir Robert is a modern doctor who does not approve of the use of such antiquated methods. The Baron himself provides another shock, with his face covered by a mask. When the mask is removed it reveals a face permanently frozen into a hideous grimace, a grimace so severe that he can take only liquid nourishment.
The explanation for this disfigurement reveals a shameful secret involving grave robbing.
It is clear that Baron Sardonicus and his wife are not having normal marital relations and that the Baron is indulging his passions with unfortunate peasant girls.
Sardonicus himself was responsible for luring Sir Robert to his castle - he hopes the eminent physician can cure him. It is not merely his body that requires curing - his disfigurement has made him violent, cruel and unpredictable. The cure proves to be more difficult than expected and Cargrave is blackmailed into using dangerous and untried methods.
It’s not a William Castle movie without a gimmick. This time it’s the Punishment Poll. Just before the end of the movie Castle himself interrupts proceedings to conduct a vote by the audience. Those attending the movie had been issued with a card with which they could vote on whether Sardonicus had been sufficiently punished for his misdeeds or whether further punishment was required. In fact only one ending was shot - Castle assumed that no horror movie audience would vote for mercy for the villain!
Where the movie departs from gothic horror cliché is in the role of the scientist/doctor. We expect either a mad scientist or at the very least a dangerously deluded and misguided scientist whose work leads to evil. In fact in this story the scientist is unequivocally the hero. It’s difficult to think of another gothic horror flick in which science is presented in such a positive light.
The movie is also somewhat unusual in that it not only avoids supernatural explanation, it also avoids fanciful science fictional explanations. The entire case is shown to be a perfectly realistic example of extreme psychological states, of pathological guilt in fact. There are no real monsters, only a man made monstrous by a combination of misfortune and of his own actions.
Ronald Lewis is a likeable hero, Guy Rolfe is suitably creepy as Sardonicus and Oskar Homolka steals every scene he’s in.
Castle was not an inspired director but he was thoroughly competent and he knew what audiences wanted. Mr Sardonicus is not a great movie but it’s very entertaining indeed.
Columbia have done William Castle proud with their boxed set of his movies. The transfer is superb.