Apparently unintentionally giving myself some kind of theme of renowned classic horror producers (well, well-known ones at least…) I've now dabbled in the work of William Castle, a man known less for making quality films out of low budgets than for using an endless string of strange gimmicks and threats to the audience about the film's unbelieveable levels of horror and fright. Mr. Sardonicus is actually one not originally intended to suffer this gimmickry, but ended up doing so anyway thanks to studio interference.
The film opens with Castle himself introducing the audience to the film and its concept. He tells us the dictionary definition of a ghoul, smoking a cigar and trying to "prepare" us for the fright we are about to see. "Mr." Sardonicus, really Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), is a wealthy recluse in eastern Europe who has married the childhood sweetheart–Maude (Audrey Dalton)–of Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), a knighted British doctor of medicine. Sir Robert receives a letter from Maude begging him for help that may save her life. Sir Robert interrupts his experiments with techniques to revive the muscles of the paralyzed to go to her and the Baron, and there he meets Krull* (Oskar Homolka, credited as Oscar), servant of Baron Sardonicus, a one-eyed man with a strong accent who, when asked to "do a thing, [he does] the thing." Soon we meet Sardonicus himself, in great part at least, for he is masked constantly, until we learn the story of his mask, and see for the first time what lies underneath it. Obviously strongly inspired (or perhaps just a massive coincidence, but really now…) by the makeup worn by Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (though with a far less sympathetic disfigured titular character), the face Sardonicus bears is actually pretty disturbing. I think Castle would have been better served by keeping it back under wraps after the first revelation, or at least showing a little less, but it was by no means something where seams showed the more we saw of it. Some have (ignorantly) criticized the work because it's so "obviously" a mask when Sardonicus speaks and his mouth doesn't move. Unfortunately for those people (perhaps they're deaf, or don't speak English, or just weren't paying attention…) the movie actually DOES explain this, and says that Sardonicus uses "latent muscles" to speak, which do not involve the use of the mouth (which he freely admits he cannot move).
Regardless, this is actually a lot better as a film than I expected from Castle. It has been my experience that his films were known purely for the gimmicks and never for anything beyond that, and usually HAD nothing beyond that. Of course two were later remade (The House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts) and were thus not gimmick-driven, and in my relative naïveté at the time, I thought this was further proof of that (i.e., "Let's make them into movies that DON'T rely on gimmicks!"). Of course, in retrospect, it was simply more easy cash-ins on existing scripts and concepts that made cranking out horror easier than they usually try to make it on a studio level (which is already sickeningly disrespectful and half-hearted most, if not all, of the time) and a foreshadowing of the glut of effects-driven, usually awful remakes that followed–and continue to the day I'm writing this.
However, Rolfe and Lewis are actually quite good in their roles, and the strange, leering, unquestioning servitude of Homolka is quite effective. The supporting cast is not a pile of logs, either, though there's a little twitchiness on the "reading from a cue card" meter, but overall very little, and certainly less than I expected. Overall, a pleasing viewing, I must say, and one I can't say I particularly regret. I'm not sure if it will lead me to more of Castle's films (hmmm…) but I have no real bad news about this one, and that was a happy surprise.
*No relation to the strange, cheesy 80s fantasy movie. I think, at least.