Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 29 min.

Release Date: October 18th, 1961 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: William Castle Actors: Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Guy Rolfe, Oskar Homolka, Vladimir Sokoloff, Erika Peters




n London in 1880, director William Castle himself introduces the coming picture, detailing the meaning of “ghoul,” which is defined, via a dictionary he happens to have on him, as “An evil being who robs graves and feeds on corpses.” It’s a dark and foggy night when the filmmaker offers up his hopes that audiences will enjoy the film, but it’s a bright and sunny morning when the story proper begins. Doctor Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is busy providing physical therapy for a young girl with damaged legs when a disheveled, disfigured man enters the Queens College Hospital office, demanding that he see Sir Cargrave to hand-deliver a letter.

The doctor is preoccupied by a hypodermic needle from Scotland – an invention that will surely revolutionize the medical industry. But that special letter contains words from his beloved Maude Randall (Audrey Dalton), who is told she cannot be wed to Robert, as he’ll never amount to much and she must marry into wealth instead – a rich widower in central Europe. The doctor immediately leaves for the remote, mountainous region of Gorslava, where that renowned widower, Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), resides, now in possession of Maude as his baroness. Although he has lost his true love, Robert is curious to see how she fares in the cavernous castle of Sardonicus – where strange experiments take place, including some ghastly bloodletting therapy on wailing human guinea pigs. “Not the leeches again!”

The setup isn’t too far removed from “Frankenstein” or “Dracula” (or any of the later Hammer adaptations), especially with the isolated, labyrinthine estate – complete with a deformed assistant (Oscar Homolka as Krull), a terrified maid (Lorna Hanson), and a padlocked room (“The servants call it the Chamber of Horrors”). And it also resembles the tale of Bluebeard, with a secret surrounding the Baron’s nocturnal activities, particularly as Krull lures women to a subterraneous lair to meet untimely demises (and those with knowledge remain frustratingly cryptic). It’s a touch grimmer, too; torture, violence, and death are around every corner, along with the gnawing wait until Sardonicus removes the eerie mask that he wears to conceal some undoubtedly horrible mutilation.

“The baron is an unusual man …” Clearly, in the early ’60s, ghouls weren’t widely known – and even in the subsequent years, the term has grown into something far more generic and nondescript. Here, cannibalistic grave-robbing creatures are quite specific beings, though the revelations about such monsters and how they came to be defined are summed up merely as a morbid story to frighten young children. The related boo moments, however, are largely amusing, even if they also don’t precisely contribute to the movie’s interest in popularizing ghouls.

Curiously, Sardonicus isn’t shown to be as dastardly as he’s described – at first. But the second half boasts some exceptionally hideous surprises (a few along the lines of “Psycho”) – or at least some magnificently grotesque suggestions. Sadly, the makeup effects are not nearly as effective as in “The Man Who Laughs,” which utilized prosthetics to a far more spectacular degree, even as it was made more than three decades prior. And the Baron’s threats and influences rarely seem enforceable (despite his height and potential for brute strength), considering that he would need many more minions than just Krull to carry out his orders. In the end, “Mr. Sardonicus” feels more like “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” relying on a superstitious curse rather than the actual ghouls so painstakingly characterized. And, thanks to a William Castle gimmick, in which he reappears to directly interfere with the storytelling (unique yet unnecessarily disruptive), the conclusion (by itself, macabrely poetic) loses some of its steam.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10