Mr. Sardonicus (1961): Wednesday With William Will Make You Grin

Welcome back everyone. Before we get started here, I’m going to hand out stuffed mackerels to each one of you readers out there. You may wonder what you’ll be doing with a stuffed mackerel. Well, just hang onto it for now, you’ll need it later on. Because before I can get into that, I think I should talk about this week’s Wednesday With William film, Mr. Sardonicus. As the early ‘60’s dawned, William Castle was on a winning streak. The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts were all great successes, and with each release Castle’s reputation as a showman grew exponentially as well. Always looking for a new angle to promote his film, the inspiration for the Mr. Sardonicus’ gimmick grew from the studio being unhappy with the ending. So, Mr. Castle thought it was high time he gave the audience a choice.

The film introduces us to Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), a respected surgeon who has a specialty in muscular relaxation. He is delivered a letter from his old flame Maude (Audrey Dalton) asking him to come to her home in Gorslava because he is urgently needed. When he arrives, he is reunited with Maude who is now unhappily married to the mysterious, masked Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe). She has asked Robert to make the trip in hopes that he can cure the Baron of his curse. Years ago when the Baron tried to recover a winning lottery ticket from the casket of his dead father, his face became permanently contorted into a ghastly grin. Over the years, the Baron has retained a tenuous grasp on his sanity, and now he insists that Robert help him or there will be dire consequences for Maude.

Mr. Sardonicus was a different kind of film for William Castle. It had much more in common with the moody gothic horrors of the 1940’s than his own contemporary productions. It is easy to see how this film could have been made years earlier, perhaps even as some kind of twisted remake of Paul Levi’s 1922 film The Man Who Laughs. Castle optioned the story from Ray Russell after reading it in Playboy, and he also employed the writer to adapt it for the screen. It was Russell’s first screen credit, but he would go on to pen 1962’s Premature Burial, William Castle’s Zots! (1962), and the 1963 classic X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Russell’s script is well paced and moves along with none of the drag of the gothic horror films that inspired it.

While part of the credit surely rests with Russell, Castle really made this film what it was. Castle and veteran cinematographer Burnett Guffey captured the gothic feeling of the film perfectly. The moody lighting and artistic angles that feel like a throwback to German expressionist film give the film a level of tension on a purely cinematic level. If there was one drawback to Mr. Sardonicus, it would be the facial appliance worn by the title character to distort his face. It is creepy looking, but by today’s standards (or even 1961’s) it looks a bit cheap. Wisely, it is mostly kept off camera, and Castle allows its few appearances to be brief and shocking. I can’t help but compare Sardonicus’ grin with the makeup Tim Burton would use for Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman.

Acting from behind immobile makeup or a full facial mask for most of the film, Guy Rolfe really does a great job in the titular role of Sardonicus. Except for a small portion of the film, Rolfe’s voice must carry his performance. Rolfe was a veteran of costume dramas, and he definitely brought the same kind of grandeur to the role of Sardonicus. It was especially fascinating to see him play the character before and after the events that leave his face with the horrible smile. He made the most of his scenes unhindered by effects, and he filled them with a pathos that really informs the character arc of Baron Sardonicus. Later in Rolfe’s career he would make several other horror gems such as Dolls (1987) and 1973’s …And Now the Screaming Starts, but his last few films would give him another great horror role when he played Andre Toulon in the third, fourth, and fifth installments of the Puppet Master series.

The other standout in the cast is Oskar Homolka as Sardonicus’ one eyed, trollish servant Krull. Homolka was a lifelong character actor, and he has one of those faces that the viewer knows they’ve seen even if they can’t place it. His most memorable role before Sardonicus was Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, but that performance pales in comparison to the deviant, yet sympathetic, turn Homolka has as Krull. The part could easily have been nothing more than a one dimensional “Igor” type part; instead, Homolka used a few memorable character traits to tell a story beyond the written dialog. This is also true to a lesser extent of Erika Peters as Sardonicus’ first wife Elinka. She only had a few moments of screen time, but her conniving, money-grubbing character, is surely a memorable performance.

The weakest portion of the film, as seems like is often the case in Castle’s films, was the young couple involved in the story. Ronald Lewis and Audrey Dalton barely make an impression as Sir Robert and his unrequited love, Baroness Maude. Their story is bland and restrained, which fits the gothic storytelling, but left me waiting expectantly for the next time Sardonicus would show up. Lewis does have a few entertaining lines explaining his new fangled gadget, the hypodermic needle. Each time he would say anything about it, he took the time to sound it out which was nice. This wasn’t just entertainment. It was an education.

Speaking of entertainment, I must get back to Castle’s gimmick. As the filmmaker explains at the start of the picture, the audience was given a card with a picture of a thumb on it. With this card, they would determine the fate of Sardonicus at the end of the film. The idea for this one hit Castle when the studio asked for a happy ending to replace the grim finale of the story. There is some controversy over whether such an ending was shot, but it seems pretty universally accepted that it was never shown. At the end of the film, Castle appears again to ask for a thumbs up or down vote, and then he proceeds to tally them right from the screen. Calculating that no audience out to see a William Castle film was going to spare the villain as ghastly end, he gave the audience what they wanted every time.

So you might be wondering why I handed out stuffed mackerels to each of you as you came in. First off, I wanted to see how long I could get you guys and gals to hold a stuffed mackerel. Let me say, I’m pretty impressed. Now they do have a purpose though. With those mackerels, you’re going to help me determine the Bugg rating for this film. So hold them up, or don’t, whatever your preference may be. Ok, ok, let’s see. Yes, we’ve got a result. Here’s the grade that I give it because you voted for it with stuffed mackerels…

Bugg Rating


  1. Nice! I have not seen this in ages, but I remember enjoying it.

  2. Wow, I'll have to check this beauty out.

    And on a related note, The Lightning Bug's Lair earned a "One Lovely Blog...of Doom!" Award from Radiation-Scarred Reviews!

  3. I remember this film from when I was a kid. it actually freaked me out back then pretty bad. Need to find this one again.

    BTW, there is one f those strange awards for you at my Blogger site:

    Not a zombie chicken!

    Bill @ The Uranium Cafe


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