Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
Director: William Castle
Writer: Ray Russell
Producer: William Castle
Cinematographer: Burnett Guffey
by Jon Cvack
Taking place in the 1800s, Mr. Sardonicus follows London Physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) who visits Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) who lives in a castle far in the middle of nowhere at the urging of his ex-girlfriend who believes that Sardonicus is veering toward unethical medical practices.
At the castle, we meet the film’s greatest performer and arguably the greatest scary movie henchman of all time Krull (Oskar Homolka), whose eye is sealed shut by an nauseating flap of skip that connects his top and bottom lids. Looking up his bio, Homolka never did much more than B and C-level movies, though beyond the screen he was a renowned Shakespearean actor in German theater. The film is worth watching for this performance alone. Oskar is creepy and unnerving while conveying a tremendous amount of foreboding death as he struggles with his master’s terrifying surgeries. Arriving at the castle, Cargrave discovers Krull torturing one the servant girls by sticking leeches in her face, which look real enough to give you goosebumps.
Cargrave goes on to meet Sardonicus, who he discovers has a terrifying and permanent grin strewn across his face. Sardonicus explains how he developed the deformity, in which having grown up little with his parents both working long and hard hours, his dad had one day bought a lottery ticket and won, then had a heart attack and dying, accidentally buried with the winning ticket. Sardonicus’ wife urged him to open the casket in order to retrieve the ticket. Sardonicus eventually acquiesced, digging up his father’s grave, opening the casket, and discovering his father’s grinning skull, forcing the same grin onto Sardonicus’ face forever since. Sardonicus has thus been on a mission to cure his deformity, experimenting on his servants - including with leeches - to try and fix the problem. Unable to discover any solutions, Sardonicus has called on Cargrave and his expertise to fix the problem. Cargrave tries and fails, which drives Sardonicus mad.
From there the film involves a brilliant play by both Cargrave and Krull as they learn that perhaps Sardonicus’ ailment is much more in his mind than anything physical; that in a quest for money, even if disrupting his father’s grave, Sardonicus might have responded to the terror of seeing his father’s skull with such a large smile on his face due to his own appetite for the money and power, knowing that what made his father smile was the potential immediate transformation of life, no different than Sardonicus’. To think that he might have lived a normal, though poor life if he disregarded the idea is something that’s stuck with me for days after.
The makeup is so good and the performances so strong and the story so bizarre that the film is far above any B-Movie designation I think it’d receive. Aside from Psycho (1960) in the year prior, I can’t find many films better than Mr. Sardonicus within a five year or so period that stand up. It’s the exact type of film you hope for when picturing an old black and white horror film taking place in a castle. The images stick with you long after. A testament to how strong of a horror film it is.
BELOW: Heck of an intro
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