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Mr. Sardonicus
Remind Me
,Mr. Sardonicus

Mr. Sardonicus

In January of 1961, those readers of Playboy who weren't looking at the pictures might have taken some time out to savor a very spooky story within the magazine's glossy pages. Author Ray Russell's "Sardonicus" -- a gothic horror thriller about a hideously deformed European noble, his wife, and her ex-lover, a famous doctor -- took its title from the medical term "risus sardonicus" which refers to the facial muscle spasm that gives some victims of tetanus a tight and immovable grin, their teeth bared. The real victims of the syndrome have little in common with Russell's character, thank goodness. The Baron Sardonicus is a monster, his face frozen from an emotional shock. What shock? Seeing the decayed face of his father after he dug up the body to retrieve a winning lottery ticket accidentally buried with the corpse.

This gruesome premise caught the eye of movie producer-director William Castle, a prolific and innovative filmmaker who had recently made a splash with a string of popular low-budget thrillers. Macabre (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959) and The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Homicidal (1961) cemented his reputation as a consummate showman. It also proved he was a master at boosting the box office receipts through outrageous gimmicks which appealed to the predominantly youthful audiences who flocked to his films. Macabre featured fright insurance policies for audiences, and House on Haunted Hill offered "Emergo" which floated skeletons over the audience during key scenes. For The Tingler he created the "Percepto" gimmick which gave some audience members a seat buzz when the monster attacked, and Homicidal allowed terrified viewers the chance to escape the theater during the "Fright Break."

Mr. Sardonicus would be a departure from Castle's usual horror formula. It was a period piece set in Europe and the sort of serious Gothic tale which required recreating the 19th Century on a Hollywood, California, soundstage on a low budget. The graveyard where Sardonicus exhumes his father's corpse, the deserted moors and the Baron's spooky castle were built on two stages at Columbia Studios, with liberal use of atmospheric fog effects to evoke the proper mystery.

Ray Russell adapted his own story for the screen while Castle served as both producer and director. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey photographed Mr. Sardonicus; he had won an Oscar® for From Here to Eternity (1953), was nominated for The Harder They Fall (1956), and subsequently would be nominated for Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and King Rat (1965), and win another Oscar® for 1967's Bonnie and Clyde. To score, Castle brought in Von Dexter, his collaborator on his previous horror films. (Shortly after finishing Mr. Sardonicus, Von Dexter contracted a hand condition which stiffened his fingers, and he retired from film composing to open a music publishing business.)

Castle assembled a mostly European cast for Mr. Sardonicus, including veteran character actor Oscar Homolka to play Krull, the loyal and brutal servant of the Baron. Homolka, a native of Austria, was a star of stage and screen in Europe when he fled to the United States in the early 1930s, in anticipation of Hitler's rise to power. Nominated for an Academy Award for his sympathetic role in 1948's I Remember Mama, Homolka, with his thick European accent and gruff appearance, was more often cast as a heavy and he's an imposing one in Mr. Sardonicus. Actor Ronald Lewis was cast as Sir Robert Cargrave, the famous London doctor who is summoned to Castle Sardonicus to treat the husband of his old girlfriend. Lewis made a name for himself in British cinema and television, including a role in 1962's Billy Budd, but despondent over a declining career, he died from a drug overdose in 1982 at the age of fifty-three.

The role of Sardonicus went to British actor Guy Rolfe who, after a career switch from race car driving to acting, had a steady career in movies and television including roles in Ivanhoe (1952), Young Bess (1953), King of Kings (1961), and Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961). During his later years Rolfe developed a following after his recurring appearances in the Puppet Master movie franchise for producer Charles Band. The Baron's comely wife was played by Audrey Dalton, an Irish actress who made her big screen debut in 1953, and had key roles in major films such as My Cousin Rachel (1952), Titanic (1953, as Barbara Stanwyck's daughter and Robert Wagner's love interest), Casanova's Big Night (1954, opposite Bob Hope), and many more. She also had a very prolific career in episodic television, with guest roles in top series such as Dr. Kildare, The Wild Wild West, Wagon Train, Bonanza, and many others until her retirement from acting in 1978.

The toughest part of making Mr. Sardonicus was creating the Baron's hideous grin. It was torturous on actor Guy Rolfe, who was forced to endure sitting after sitting as make-up artists worked to create the perfect mask. As Castle related in his autobiography Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Rolfe's mask "had to conform to the contours of his mouth, yet appear three times the normal size. Rolfe also had to be able to speak with it on." The hard work paid off. "Finally we achieved the perfect grin – not humorous, but horrible. Hours were lost in shooting because Rolfe could not tolerate wearing the mask for more than an hour at a time." The reveal of Sardonicus' transformation still packs a punch, with Rolfe's expressive eyes and his realistic and gruesome mask combining to create a genuine scare.

Squirmy, squishy leeches play an important part in Mr. Sardonicus, too. Crucial ingredients in the Baron's torture chamber, Krull gleefully attaches them to male captives and fair maidens alike; the leeches proved to be unpopular co-stars. As Castle reminisced in his autobiography, "Always one for reality, I got a bottle filled with the real thing – long, slimy creatures...the victim refused to have the leeches put on his body. Demonstrating their harmlessness, I put several leeches on my own chest. 'See, it's nothing...they're perfectly harmless.' When they started to suck my blood and I couldn't pull them off, I quickly changed my mind. They weren't as much fun as I thought. I postponed the scene until artificial leeches could be made."

Naturally Mr. Sardonicus wouldn't be complete without one of William Castle's trademark marketing gimmicks. This time the inspiration came from the studio brass, who were unhappy with the decidedly downbeat ending to the movie: the Baron, though cured of his rictus, finds he cannot open his mouth at all, even to eat, and so is doomed to die a slow agonizing death. Castle jumped on Columbia's preference for a happy ending to concoct his "Punishment Poll" which would allow the audience to decide the fate of Sardonicus. "I would have two endings – Columbia's and mine – and let the audience decide for themselves the fate of Mr. Sardonicus," Castle wrote later.

The Punishment Poll was a card with a fist with an extended thumb. The thumb pointed up indicated "Mercy" and downwards it was "No Mercy." After being exposed to light in a special booth – the Activator Booth – in the lobby of the theater, the card would glow. As he explained in his book, "Just before the final scene, the picture stopped and my image came onscreen, asking the audience how they felt about the fate of Mr. Sardonicus...My image onscreen began to count the voting. (The theatre managers actually did the count.) Invariably, the audience's verdict was thumbs down...Contrary to some opinions (just in case the audience voted for mercy) we had the other ending. But it was rarely, if ever, used."

Although Castle asserts in his book that there was an alternate ending filmed -- one where Sardonicus lives -- the consensus among horror film scholars is that it wasn't actually filmed. No different ending has turned up, even in these days of unearthing every scrap of unused material in extra features for DVD releases. An impractical but fanciful notion, the Punishment Poll nevertheless added an interactive twist to Mr. Sardonicus, even if there was never any way that poor Sardonicus was ever going to be able to enjoy a good meal again.

Mr. Sardonicus isn't the kind of film that normally receives respectable reviews since it is geared toward the exploitation market. "Director-producer Mr. Castle, who unveiled his latest pot-boiler yesterday, is no Edgar Allan Poe," opined the New York Times. But Mr. Sardonicus has stood the test of time in its genre. "The sheer joy of making Mr. Sardonicus made it one of my favorite films," Castle said, and his onscreen appearances in the film are delightful. The next time you're in the mood for grave digging, leeches, torture, gothic atmosphere, and a face to give you nightmares, Mr. Sardonicus is guaranteed to fill the bill.

Producer: William Castle
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Ray Russell (screenplay and story "Sardonicus")
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: Von Dexter
Film Editing: Edwin Bryant
Cast: Oscar Homolka (Krull), Ronald Lewis (Sir Robert Cargrave), Audrey Dalton (Maude Sardonicus), Guy Rolfe (Baron Sardonicus), Vladimir Sokoloff (Henryk Toleslawski), Erika Peters (Elenka), Lorna Hanson (Anna), Edith Atwater (nurse), James Forrest (Wainwright).

by Lisa Mateas