As time goes on and his films become historic artifacts, the overall opinion on William Castle has warmed up. There was a time, however, when his trademark gimmicks were considered cheap and tacky. But doesn’t every notable movie have a gimmick? People saw a shot-for-shot reenactment of The Lion King because it featured the gimmick of Beyonce lending her voice both to the film and its soundtrack. Avengers: Endgame became the highest grossing film of all time because it advertised the gimmick of containing every notable MCU character in one film. William Castle is like everyone else when it comes to gimmicks, the only difference is he was open about his use of sensationalism.
There are more notable titles in William Castle’s career than Mr. Sardonicus; his partnership with Vincent Price for House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler is what most of us focus on. They’re considered the peak, and it’s hard to argue that. Both films are entertaining, and House on Haunted Hill has one of the best posters ever illustrated. There’s a giant skeleton holding a woman in a noose, Vincent Price holding a decapitated head, and towards the bottom, someone drowning in what’s presumed to be acid while a foe closes a trap door. Now all you see on a poster is Elizabeth Moss’s face with a handprint over her shoulder, shameful.
In the history of Castle’s gimmicks, none attracted attention quite like The Tingler‘s Percepto. Buzzers were placed in theater seats to make viewers feel like The Tingler was getting them. There’s a rumor that in one theater Percepto was installed two weeks early, and the employees passed time by testing the vibrating gimmick on middle-aged women watching The Nun’s Story. As if those viewers needed more Catholic guilt.
I wanted to throw some love to Mr. Sardonicus because it was the moment where I discovered there was more to William Castle than those two films. It was a film I was of course introduced to through Svengoolie. Before that episode, I was led to believe that William Castle only had two good films. Because of my rubber chicken-dodging hero, I learned William Castle made numerous fun contributions to horror. Soon after, I also saw Strait-Jacket and Thirteen Ghosts, two other great examples of William Castle finding fun in the macabre.
One way to sum up Mr. Sardonicus is saying it’s like a Hammer Horror film, but entertaining. Perhaps that’s harsh, but sometimes Hammer Horror has a way of doubling whatever you found to be dull in Universal Horror films. The last thing anybody wants are more scenes that revolve around two professors in a study smoking pipes where one says “during my studies in Cairo I heard a legend about a pharaoh named Kharis….”
Mr. Sardonicus takes place in the secluded castles that populate those films but it strays from the textbook attitude. It’s simple in its execution: a doctor is called on by a former lover to tend to her husband who’s revealed to be a sadistic Baron. Once he gets there, he sees horrors like a tied-up maid covered in leeches. That alone is far more thrilling than those nap-inducing Hammer Horror films.
In case there’s any Brits proud of their country’s contribution to horror reading this, I’ll try to redeem myself. The same year that Mr. Sardonicus came out, Hammer released a film I appreciate, The Curse of the Werewolf. I mainly give it a pass because it stars one of my all-time favorite actors, Oliver Reed. It also has a psychotic reinvention on werewolf mythology. Try to follow this: a beggar finds himself performing at a king’s party, insults him, and is thrown into the king’s personal prison. The film fast forwards fifteen years when the castle’s jailer and his mute daughter who clean the cell are the only ones communicating with this beggar. The mute daughter refuses to have sex with the king, so she’s tossed into the beggar’s cell. The crazed beggar rapes her. She gets out, is taken to the king, kills him, and flees. She dies while giving birth to a rape baby on Christmas Day. Because of this, her child has the werewolf curse. Because this kid had the audacity to leave his mother’s womb the same day as Christ, he’s cursed with being a werewolf.
Gotta love fever-brained creativity.
Speaking of odd mythology, one of the key factors in Mr. Sardonicus as a good genre movie is how much fun it has defining what ghouls are. “Ghoul” always seemed like another way to say “monster,” but in Mr. Sardonicus it describes people who are “changed” from digging up graves. Spoilers, but in the film we find out Baron Sardonicus had his face mutated from facing his father’s decayed corpse after digging it up for the winning lottery ticket he was buried with, which resulted in the Baron’s wealth.
Baron Sardonicus’s mutated face is hard to look at, but the mask he wears is far more unsettling. It’s one of the first times you see a movie character wearing what looks like the flesh of someone else’s face. Maybe he was trying to go for a natural look, but he looks more like Leatherface, or that girl running out of the motel room in The Devil’s Rejects. The way you see his cold, dead eyes within the shadows of the mask is very unsettling. It’s evidence of William Castle being more than the director who only had gimmicks comparable to x-ray glasses found in the back of a comic book.
The big gimmick of Mr. Sardonicus was The Punishment Poll. Just before the final scene, William Castle appears, asking the audience to decide the fate of Baron Sardonicus. Has he suffered enough, or should the film end on greater torment? Audiences held up a card showing a thumbs up (MERCY) or flipped it for a thumbs down (NO MERCY). Mr. Sardonicus turns sixty next year, and there’s still no evidence of a filmed scene depicting what would happen if audiences voted MERCY. William Castle accurately predicted nobody in 1961 would say, “Sure he tortured his maid and gouged out Oskar Homolka’s eye, but we all have our bad days.”
Mr. Sardonicus is the perfect amount of pulp and frights. For years William Castle has been compared to a gag shop owner getting by on fake vomit and whoopee cushions. After watching this film, you’ll hopefully see he was a valuable asset to horror. So many have painted him as a hack filmmaker with bad gimmicks, but there’s a short list of filmmakers who are capable of making a film worthy of being brought up and admired almost sixty years later.