BluRay/DVD Reviews

MR. SARDONICUS

By • Mar 12th, 2002 •

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Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment – 1961
89 mins. – B&W. Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1, enhanced for 16X9 TV.

A bonafide phenomenon of 50’s & 60’s ‘B’ film showmanship, William Castle gleefully devised an elaborate gimmick to accompany each of his films – a thousand dollar Lloyds of London insurance policy, to be filled in before entering the theater, for MACABRE; an inflated skeleton on a wire that floated over the audiences’ heads during THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL; polarized glasses for THIRTEEN GHOSTS which revealed the otherwise invisible spectres on screen; a row of seats in each theater wired to deliver mild voltage directly into the hindquarters of the unwitting patrons seated therein during a particularly tense moment in THE TINGLER; and for MR. SARDONICUS, a card with a glowing hand displaying either a thumbs up or thumbs down for the eponymous villain, depending on the filmgoers’ media-interactive vote as to the old boy’s fate. Castle’s lively screen-expansive ideas and entrepreneurial personality was homaged sweetly by Joe Dante in MATINEE, with John Goodman capturing the ethos of the road stomping showman.

I remember taking my beautiful next door neighbor Linda Elin to THE TINGLER back in ‘61. I was sixteen and hooked on horror. The film was playing one town over in the White Plains RKO theater, and I had to have been one of the few patrons who knew about the electric shock gimmick. Wanting to show off for my date, I asked the ancient usher who was taking our tickets where the ‘tingle seats’ were and, much to my embarassment, he showed us to the bathrooms.

Seeing MR. SARDONICUS after all these years, what I didn’t remember was how delightful Castle was in his two screen appearances, as himself, pushing the ‘punishment poll’ ritual. Of course there was only one ending you were going to get: thumbs down for Mr. Sardonicus. But Castle paused and glowered, confided and cajoled, everything he could to convince our baser instincts to prevail in the voting. Then he pretended to count the votes, addressing a woman in the 9th row much as Hitchcock had done in his prerecorded loudspeaker talk to patrons standing impatiently on line outside the DeMille Theater on Broadway in 1960 waiting for the last act of PSYCHO to end. Hitch, too, liked the gimmicks, but they were not a central draw of his films as they were for Castle’s.

Castle’s effective cameo was what I didn’t remember. What I did remember were Oscar Homolka’s scene stealing presence (resembling an elderly Michael J. Pollard), the effective screenplay structure and decent dialogue, the handsome broad-stroked B&W cinematography, and the still-frightening reveal, at the fifty minute point, of Sardonicus’ hideous secret. It made members of the FIR screening group shriek in horror. What a moment!

Oscar Homolka, by the way, was a juicy character actor whose mischievous performances and thick accent always felt real. (Think Akim Tamiroff) Born in Vienna in 1899, he enjoyed a long, though for my taste not nearly visible enough film career in Germany, Austria, England and America. He worked with Hitchcock (SABOTAGE, ‘36), George Stevens (I REMEMBER MAMA, ‘47), Billy Wilder (THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, ‘55), Carol Reed (THE KEY, ‘58), George Pal (THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM, ‘62), and created a memorable Russian official twice, in the 2nd and 3rd Harry Palmer spy films, Guy Hamilton’s FUNERAL IN BERLIN (‘66) and Ken Russell’s BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (‘67). Homolka died in 1978. Would that more directors had appreciated his ability to deliver vivid, likeable performances, even in villainous roles, as Castle did.

A brief featurette on the DVD is hosted by FIR’s very own David Del Valle, who waxes enthusiastic about Castle, the ‘punishment poll’ gimmick, and actor Guy Rolfe.

In the tight story, actor Rolfe succeeds in making us believe he is, in flashback, a sympathetic, henpecked mid-Eastern European, and later, after his dreadful misfortune with a lottery ticket, a cold, sadistic nobleman with a veneer of culture. For half the film he has to perform while wearing a full face mask, and so a fun double feature might be THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (on DVD from MGM/UA), with Vincent Price doing his campy bit with a similar prop, or perhaps even VANILLA SKY (on DVD from Paramount), with Tom Cruise venturing into the territory of facial concealment.

And William Castle penned an autobiography, “Step Right Up!…I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America” in ‘76. What sticks most in my memory is his depiction of producing ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), which should have been his crowning achievement, but instead was a nightmare wherein the accumulated negative vibes of all his past films seemed to visit a curse upon him, almost driving him into the grave. It didn’t, though, and he continued making films until ‘75, two years before his death.


Featurette with David Del Valle.
Theatrical trailer.

Credits:
Produced, Directed, and with a screen appearance by William Castle.
Written by Ray Russell, from his Playboy novella.

Cast:
Guy Rolfe, Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Oscar Homolka.

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