Monday, June 25, 2012

Mr. Sardonicus - 1961

Director:                              William Castle
Screenplay:                         Ray Russell (from his novella)
Produced by:                      William Castle
Director Photography:        Burnett Guffey
Editing:                               Edwin Bryant
Art Direction:                      Cary Odell
Music:                                 Von Dexter
Makeup:                             Ben Lane (supervisor)

Sir Robert Cargrave                        Ronald Lewis
Baron Sardonicus/Malek                Guy Rolfe
Baroness Maude Sardonicus         Audrey Dalton
Krull                                                 Oscar Homolka
Henryk Toleslawski                      Vladimir  Sokoloff
Elenka Toleslawski                        Erika Peters
Anna                                                Lorna Hanson
Geoffrey Wainwright                     James Forrest
Head Nurse                                  Mavis Neal Palmer

William Castle was born in 1914 in New York and died in 1977 in California.  His birth surname was Schloss which translates as ‘castle’, hence ‘William Castle’.  Mr. Castle was something which is not seen much nowadays:  He was a showman.  He was also an actor, a director, a producer, screenwriter, head of his own production company, and self-proclaimed “king of the gimmicks”.
William Castle with friends
His show business career started on the New York stage in 1929, with bit acting parts.  He worked his way up to stage manager, and eventually directed his first play in 1932, a revival of “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi.  Years later he worked with Orson Welles in theater and on the film, “Lady from Shanghai”. 

One story told is that when he went out to Hollywood in order to get an “in”, he introduced himself as a nephew of producer Samuel Goldwyn.  It may be apocryphal, but it’s a good story, and sounds characteristically inventive.  He started in films with jobs as dialogue or assistant director.  As a full director he made low budget movies in all genres, with titles such as:  “Klondike Kate” 1943, “Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven” 1948, “Johnny Stool Pigeon” 1949, “Cave of Outlaws” 1951, “Slaves of Babylon” 1953,  and “Conquest of Cochise” 1953.   He stated in an interview in the early 1970’s:

“It wasn’t until 1957, when I went into business for myself with my own production company, that I started making horror films.  Before that I did everything from musicals to Westerns to soap operas….In those days I only wrote and directed, never produced.  I decided to go into business for myself after I did several TV series, which I hated.  The reason that I became a producer as well as a director was that I hated producers.  I hated the interference.  I wanted the autonomy of creating what I wished, and in order to have that I had to become a producer.”  The Horror People, 1976.  John Brosnan. New American Library.  page 139.

Mr. Castle continued to make movies through 1975, mostly horror or suspense, however it is for the series of six horror films made between the years 1958 and 1961 he is best known:  “Macabre”, “The Tingler”, “House on Haunted Hill”, “13 Ghosts”, “Mr. Sardonicus”, and “Homicidal”.  For these movies he devised the promotional gimmicks which made him famous.  For example, for the movie “Macabre” he advertised that he had taken out an insurance policy for $1000 with Lloyd’s of London for any audience member who died of fright while viewing the film. 
I don’t think anyone collected on this policy, or attempted to.  (A similar gimmick was used at the beginning of the movie “The Screaming Skull”, 1958.  A somber voiceover announced that free burial service would be provided for any audience member who died of fright while watching the film.  This was not a William Castle production.  Personally, I think I would have preferred the thousand bucks.)  His films made money, but were not popular with critics who dismissed them as too low-brow, crude, shocking and exploitative.
In the interview quoted above, for the movie “Homicidal” he described having nurses posted in the theaters to assist any patrons who came unglued from fright.  He also described the “fright break” which occurred near the end of the movie.  As the audience watched the heroine approach a house containing a murderer, the film stopped and…

 “During the last sixty seconds of the film my voice would be heard saying ‘Ladies and Gentleman, this is William Castle.  You are cordially invited, if you’re too frightened to see the end of this picture, to go to the box office and get your full admission price refunded.’  We did actually refund the money but very few people took up the offer.  Those who did just wanted to see if we would, but it was a great gimmick.”  Ibid. page 140.

For the movie “House on Haunted Hill” ” he created a gizmo to be installed in some theaters which he called “Emergo”.  This was a papier maché (later changed to a lighter inflatable model) skeleton, attached to wires and hidden in a compartment beside the movie screen.  At a scene in the movie when the heroine is threatened by a skeleton rising from a vat of acid, the theater skeleton would be released from the compartment and manipulated to fly over the heads of the audience members, scaring them out of their wits.
Carol Ohmart as Annabelle Loren meeting her fate in "House on Haunted Hill"
Vincent Price as Frederick Loren, pulling strings to put a scare into his wife in "House on Haunted Hill"

"Ilusion-O" was the gimmick used in the 1960 movie “13 Ghosts”.  The spirits were supposed to be visible to only the audience members who were brave enough to don special ghost viewers which were given to them as they entered the theater.  These viewers were very similar to regular 3D glasses, tinted red and blue.  The ghosts were still visible without the viewers however.

For 1959’s “The Tingler” Castle came up with what is probably his best known gimmick, which he called “Percepto”.  In the movie the creature called the Tingler was a parasite which attached itself to a person’s spine when the person was frightened.  Releasing the tension by screaming was the only way to kill the Tingler.  It looked something like a cross between a lobster and a large centipede, but mostly looked like what it was – a rubber toy pulled along by a string.  In some theaters a few seats were wired with “Percepto” to give a small buzz when the Tingler appeared to be loose in the movie theater in the story.  As the real audience watched the Tingler crawl among the audience members on the screen and attach itself to a woman’s leg, they were encouraged to “Scream!  Scream for your lives!” by the voice of Vincent Price.

The Tingler.  Lobster or centipede?  You decide.
The only way to kill the Tingler.

“Mr. Sardonicus” was adapted from the novella Sardonicus by the book’s author and released in 1961.  Author Ray Russell kept the script faithful to the novel with a few minor changes.  At the beginning of the film William Castle provides an introduction, using some dialogue from the book.  It is set on a soundstage which looks a bit like foggy London.  Castle lights one of his ever-present cigars and tells us that the story will be about “gallantry, graciousness and ghouls.”  He then proceeds to look up the word ‘ghoul’.  Why am I telling you when I could be showing you?

The hero of the story, Sir Robert Cargrave, is a surgeon and researcher famous for successful treatment of paralysis.  He receives a letter from old flame Maude Randall, now Baroness Sardonicus.  She implores him to come to visit her and her husband in their castle somewhere in the wilds of the Balkan mountains.  He cannot refuse the request as he still carries a torch for Maude and because she says that his help is needed urgently to ensure her well-being.

He is met at the rural train station (shades of Chatanooga Choo-choo, via “Young Frankenstein” -- “Pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania station?”  “Ja, ja.  Track 29.  Oh, can I give you a shine?”) by Krull, servant and jack of all trades to the Baron.  The mere mention of the name Sardonicus strikes the station master with terror.  By way of explanation he says to Sir Robert, "you do not yet have daughters."  A line written to foreshadow what will come and to make the imagination run wild.  Krull is played by Hungarian born character actor of all trades, Oscar Homolka.  He often played heavies in films, and Krull is a lulu.
Oscar Homolka as Krull.
When Sir Robert arrives at the castle the first thing he finds is a servant girl tied to a chair, screaming because her face is covered with leeches.  An infuriated Sir Robert demands an explanation.  Krull calmly informs him that the girl is being used as a guinea pig by the Baron.  The doctor demands that she be released and he will return to dress her wounds.
Lorna Hanson as Anna.  And leeches.
Sir Robert enters the parlor and is received by a warmly friendly but slightly nervous Baroness Sardonicus, who asks Robert to please call her Maude as he did in the good old days.  The Baron makes his appearance, and what an appearance it is.  He is wearing a strange mask, and does not join them in eating dinner as he has “already dined.”  It’s always a bad sign when they say that.
Ronald Lewis as Sir Robert and Audrey Dalton as the Baroness.
Guy Rolfe as Sardonicus.
Later, alone with Sir Robert, Sardonicus explains his story in flashback.  He was living happily, but in poverty with his family.  His father died, and later it is discovered that he had purchased a winning lottery ticket, but unfortunately the ticket was buried with him.  So, the grieving son had to dig up father and retrieve the ticket.  The sight of his father’s decomposing corpse with it's lips drawn back terrifies the young man.  He remembers to take the ticket from the body, but the shock has frozen his face into a hideous grin ever since.

No other doctors have been able to help him, so Sardonicus has sent for Sir Robert as a last resort because of his work with paralyzed muscles.  He also makes it clear to Sir Robert that if he fails, Maude will suffer a brutal surgical procedure to her face at the hands of Krull which will destroy her beauty and make her more amenable to her husband's marital requests.  Maude had married the Baron only to save her father from financial ruin.  She does not love her husband, for his cruelty as much as his looks, and has kept her bedroom door barred to him since their wedding.  The lottery winnings allowed him to purchase the castle, his land and his title, but money sure can't buy you love, huh?  So that is why the Baron has turned to the young girls of the village to relieve his blue bal....I mean, to comfort him.  
Krull prepares to do his master's bidding.
Sir Robert will have a front row seat for Maude's torture unless he  does as Sardonicus wants.

Sir Robert relents, of course.  He tried and failed with his massage techniques, but there is one other remote possibility for a cure.  He has been researching a South American poisonous plant which might be diluted and used for muscle relaxation, but it has not been tested on humans. Sir Robert tries his best to dissuade the Baron from such a dangerous experiment, but the Baron insists.

The dilution is prepared and injected into the Baron’s facial muscles.  He is then left alone in the dark in the room which contains the corpse of his father – yes, the one which caused the trouble to start with.  He kept it for sentimental reasons, I guess.  When light from the doorway suddenly illuminates the corpse, the sight shocks the Baron once more, as it did years ago when he defiled his father’s grave.
Oh dad, poor dad.  Your corpse has rotted and I'm feelin' so.....horrified.  But in a good way.

The shock, along with the medication, has cured him.  His face now appears normal, although Sir Robert warns him not to try to speak as his muscles are too slack to work properly.  He assures the Baron this will wear off soon and all will be well.  The Baron dismisses both the doctor and his wife, annuls his marriage, and prepares to live a normal life alone in his castle.  Sardonicus is cured, Robert and Maude can marry, and everyone is happy.  

The lovers wait in the train station to return to London.  They are also taking Anna with them which is really nice - no more leeches for that poor girl.  Krull runs into the station and tells Sir Robert that he must return to the castle, the Baron is unable to open his mouth.  He cannot speak, eat or drink...he will die.  Sir Robert tells Krull that the medication was fake; it was simply distilled water.  He put on a show for the Baron to convince him that the drug was a miracle, however the shock alone was enough to effect a cure.  The Baron's own mind had created his condition, and his mind alone relieved it.  He assures Krull that he only need tell his master of this truth, and the Baron will be able to open his mouth whenever he wants.  Krull's face lights with understanding and he returns to the castle.  

At this point the film is interrupted and we have arrived at the gimmick for "Mr. Sardonicus."  Castle reappears and addresses the audience.  They will have the opportunity to vote on the fate of Sardonicus and the story will have the ending the audience wants.  Mr. Castle, you have the floor....

When we return to our story, the Baron is writhing in agony at his dinner table which is piled high with goodies.  He is pulling at his lips in a frenzied attempt to open his jaws.  Krull enters the room, pauses and watches the Baron thoughtfully.  He puts his hand to the place where his left eye used to be – the Baron had put out his eye long ago when Krull had disobeyed him.  The Baron is really not a nice guy.  Krull is sad to have to tell his master that he missed the train and Sir Robert is gone.  There is nothing to be done.  The Baron claws at his mouth as he watches Krull sit at the table and enjoy some tasty treats.  Oh agony, the nasty Baron Sardonicus is doomed to die of starvation, and Krull has his revenge and a very nice dinner.
The votes are in!  No mercy!!

I hope no one reading this actually believes that all that voting stuff was for real.  Patrons were actually given the voting cards, however the film of Castle “counting” the votes was as phony as a Florida ballot recount.  According to Mr. Castle, alternate endings were filmed to accommodate both mercy and no mercy outcomes.  It defies logic to think that on a low budget movie money would be spent to film more than one ending and both sent out to theaters.  On top of that, the actors had no recollection of any other scenes being filmed.  Supposedly, there was another take of the Castle voting clip which was used for drive-in theaters so that patrons could flash their headlights to indicate their vote.  That is conceivable perhaps.  It would still involve only a second version of the request for the votes, not a second ending for the movie.  In other words, does anybody think that there is any way in hell that Sardonicus would get off with no punishment?  You only have to look at the expression on Castle’s face when he says “mercy” and “no mercy” to see which way it will go.  Fix!!  That’s ok.  I would have voted thumbs down myself.

Tall, dark and handsome Guy Rolfe is a very sinister Baron, but he is also sympathetic in the flashback scenes when he is retrieving the lottery ticket.  Physically, he has an impressively aristocratic bearing.  Mr. Rolfe is perhaps better known to some horror fans as the character Toulon in the "Puppetmaster" film series.  I haven't seen any of the movies myself, and it all sounds terribly confusing.  They involve something about living puppets, Nazis, psychics, more Nazis, revenge plots, characters who die but then reappear. I don't know.  All you need to know is that Guy Rolfe is in several of the films.

Guy Rolfe

Audrey Dalton was born in Ireland in 1934.  As Maude she is lovely and looks gorgeous in the period costumes, however she seems to be unable to wear emotions as well as she wears the gowns.  Maybe that fits the character she is playing – an unhappily married, very proper, very reserved Victorian Englishwoman, and she does project a subtle sense of longing underneath her composed exterior.  Ms. Dalton has had a long career, a great deal of it in theater and on television.    

Ronald Lewis is solid and forthright as the dependable, ethical Sir Robert.  He also shows a hint of his long suppressed feelings for Maude, as well as believable strength of character.  His knighted surgeon is confident in his capabilities but not boastful.  You believe that his love is true and he will always do the right thing.  A knight, maybe not in shining armor but armed with shining principles.  One thing I would have liked him to do which appears in the novella but not in the film, would be for Sir Robert to strike Sardonicus before he and Maude make their exit. "Varlet!  Scoundrel!  Take that, you blackguard!"  Something like that.  

Oscar Homolka (born Oskar Homolka in Vienna), was a versatile, respected, classically trained actor.  Even though he did seem to specialize in movie villains, mostly due to his build and accent, he could play sympathetic roles with equal ease.  Krull is a nasty man, but Homolka shows us the somewhat rusty honor underneath and is able to invoke sympathy for him when we see how the Baron has treated him.

The sets appear simple, but look very good.  Whatever the budget was for the movie, the money is on the screen.  The castle is elaborate enough to be believable.  The exterior scenes contain enough fog for the right dismal mood.  Fog always helps.  Just ask Ridley Scott or John Carpenter.  The costumes look beautiful and the actors wear them well.  The movie has a richer, glossier look than most of William Castle's films.  

The William Castle inserts are the highlights of the movie.  As silly and entertaining as the movie is, the gimmick is what elevates it above what it would be otherwise.  Elevates it in terms of just plain enjoyment. 

Mr. Castle made several other thrillers.  Among them are:  “The Night Walker” 1964, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor (married to each other from 1939 to 1952); “Straight-Jacket” 1964 and “I Saw What You Did” 1965, both starring Joan Crawford.

It was inevitable that Castle would jump on a trend which began in the 1960’s.  Movie patrons began to witness the phenomenon of older actresses who had once been glamorous icons appearing in uncharacteristically un-glamorous roles in horror flicks.  The trend started with “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” in 1961 starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  The movie was a hit and the cash register was just too hard to resist, so other actresses and actors followed in their path.  Davis again in 1964’s “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” along with Agnes Moorhead, Olivia de Haviland, Mary Astor and Joseph Cotton; Tallulah Bankhead in “Die, Die My Darling” in 1965; Joan Crawford again in “Berserk!” 1968, and “Trog” 1970. 

In the 1960’s, Castle acquired the rights to Ira Levin’s novel, Rosemary’s Baby and wanted to direct a film version.  According to most sources, the studio would not let him direct the movie, given that he was known for low-budget B pictures, however they allowed him to produce.  In the interview which has been quoted in this piece Mr. Castle did not mention anything about wanting to direct the movie, but said that he chose Roman Polanski to direct the film.  Take your pick which story you like better.   He also appeared in a very brief cameo – he was the man waiting outside the telephone booth when Rosemary is trying to make her panic call to Dr. Hill.
William Castle on the set of "Rosemary's Baby, with  John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow. 

William Castle’s daughter Terry Ann Castle was a co-producer on remakes of two of her father’s films, “House on Haunted Hill” in 1999 and “Thirteen Ghosts” in 2001.  I wish I could say that the remakes are as entertaining or as satisfying as the originals.  

“Mr. Sardonicus” and the other movies I have mentioned are all very enjoyable.  The stories are easy to follow, not much thinking is required.  As a matter of fact it is usually better to just park your brain at the door, pop some popcorn, sit back and enjoy the silliness.  The gimmicks are less effective today, of course.  I just can’t help but wonder what fun it must have been when the movies were in first release; how much fun the audiences, mostly teenagers, would have had with the crazy gimmicks.   Audiences today are so much more sophisticated.  Or are we?  In spite of the huge-budget flicks with tremendously realistic special effects, sometimes I think we have lost that sense of fun. 

William Castle was a showman and a savvy promoter.  There is really no one like him today.  He deserves to have the last word.

“You need this sort of showmanship these days.  It’s all coming back.  Showmanship is an integral part of the entertainment world….and this is why I started my gimmicks.  I had no cast and no money so I had to do something else to compel audiences to come into the theatre.  Not having stars or a high budget I had to do something different and I became, in effect, the king of the gimmicks.  I know I’m a darned good showman; no one could top my gimmicks.”  Ibid. page 145

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