Sir Robert Cargrave is an eminent surgeon who has developed a new technique for muscle relaxation. He is summoned by his one-time love, Maude, who is now married to Baron Sardonicus. When he arrives, he finds villagers who live in fear. The Baron is strange man, not the least because he covers his face with a mask. Eventually, he tells Sir Robert the story of how he acquired his current affliction – his face is is frozen and hideously disfigured. Despite Sir Robert’s best efforts, he can’t return his face to normal. The Baron however forces him to keep trying, threatening to harm Maude if he refuses
A rather brilliant horror film out of the 60’s, this William Castle film would stand as one of Mr. Castle’s most loved quirky horror tales. Complete with a seque intro by Castle, the film would also end on the note of giving the viewers a choice as to Mr. Sardonicus’s fate. Now of course, by the time you reach this point, there really is no question as to which direction the film should go. It’s also worth noting that William Castle actually never filmed a “positive” direction ending. But none the less, you may have come across this film with the introduction of that shocking smiling image of Mr. Sardonicus. This image would later inspire a few other “like” image horror films if not in visual impact alone, such as the “The Grave Dancers” and those Buffy the Vampire Slayer creepers “The Gentlemen”. For comparison, you can take a gander at the creatures here
But moving on, this black and white film plays on the “Phantom of the Opera” relationship of a mysterious man (Baron in this case) and a faraway castle that provides sanctuary for him and his riches. The back story on this is indeed interesting and completely far fetched as we learn of Mr. Sardonicus’s origin. Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), a experimental but highly regarded physician has been making a name for himself with his approach to muscle relaxation and the success rate with his patients. Busy with patients, he receives word that an old acquaintance (former lover) Maude (Audrey Dalton),now Baroness Maude Sardonicus, is in need of his help per a delivered hand written letter. The voice in the letter suggests “peril” and prompts Sir Robert to head out per boat to the remote state of Baron Sardonicus located in Gorslava. The castle is elegant, lavish and indeed a product of one having wealth. As Baroness Maude reacquaints herself, it is the later arrival of Mr. Sardonicus that is somewhat jarring wearing a plastic mask to hide his true form. The Baron explains that the doctor is needed to attend to his ailment which will be discussed and addressed at a later time.
Krull (Oskar Homolka) is the one eye Igor of this group that basically does what the master orders. His creepy agenda is always in question painting an image of diabolical intentions at best. We are taken into the film’s stories with great reveals about what and why Mr. Sardonicus is who he is and what became of him.
The back story here essentially points to his younger self acquiring the win of a lottery but facing a disfiguring event that is influenced when he gazes upon his father’s smiling dead corpse. The result is an image that sticks with you long after. Castle really left no details out with the exception of the transformation being a suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part. The makeup for 1961 is jarring enough to put this film in the horror history books and lay the ground work of inspiration for later films. The set used is quite beautiful even in regards to the creepy outdoors that surrounds the castle. Smoke which is used to suggest fog is quite abundant in this film to the point of being overkill at times. In all the story carries itself with an eerie backdrop that is enhanced by Sardonicus’s evil deformed grin. I believe this to a film you won’t forget even for an early 60’s movie.
It is worth noting that the film was originally based on a short story by the title of “Sardonicus” that was first featured in “Playboy” Magazine. The film was later created under Castle who hired the author Ray Russell to pen the screenplay.
Horror fans will be happy to know that Mr. Sardonicus can now be experienced on bluray per Mill Creek entertainment as part of a double feature set.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)