Audrey Dalton in Mr. Sardonicus (1961)


(director/producer: William Castle; screenwriter: Ray Russell; cinematographer: Burnett Guffey; editor: Edwin H. Bryant; music: Von Dexter; cast: Oskar Homolka (Krull), Ronald Lewis (Sir Robert Cargrave), Guy Rolfe (Sardonicus), Audrey Dalton (Maude Sardonicus), Vladimir Sokoloff (Father), Erika Peters (Elenka), Lorna Hansen (Anna); Runtime: 89; MPAA Rating: NR; Columbia Pictures; 1961)

“A cheesy gothic horror tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Mr. Sardonicus is a cheesy gothic horror tale directed by William Castle (“Strait-Jacket”/”House on Haunted Hill”), someone best known for his innovative ad promotions and gimmicky devices he peppers his films with during his heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. Part of the film is reserved for William Castle’s opening and closing monologue. In the epilogue he rails against the London fog in 1880 because his matches are too damp, while in the prologue he has the audience in a “Punishment Poll” vote thumbs down or up on whether Mr. Sardonicus got off too easy in the film–the audiences were given glow-in-the-dark “thumb cards” with which they flashed at the screen at the climax.

The horror spectacle is flatly achieved and fails at both its comic and scare efforts. Building to one frightening scene, the remainder of the film after the mystery is revealed remains clunky and tedious. It’s a pointless and twisted tale about a villainous baron’s greed and lack of humanity due to a curse cast on him.

The film opens as brilliant London neurosurgeon Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is summoned by his former lover Maude (Audrey Dalton) to her remote Moldavia castle in Gorslava where she resides with her brooding husband Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe). She was tricked into marrying him and now feels in danger, and needs the help of Sir Robert. The baron suffers from a scarred deformation of his face from his youth and covers it with a mask whenever he is seen in public. The baron’s face has frozen into a hideous grin after digging up his father’s grave for a winning lottery ticket. Assisted by his faithful but sadistic one-eyed servant Krull (Oskar Homolka), Sardonicus forces Cargrave to treat him with an untested procedure by threatening to harm his wife if he doesn’t. The results look as if they may be successful as the baron’s face is restored to normal, but it soon becomes apparent that all is not well as the baron can’t get rid of the curse. It all builds to an unsatisfying payoff.