Producer/director William Castle was browsing through Playboy magazine one day and what caught his eyes (of all things) was a novella titled "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell. Castle purchased the rights to the story and gave us one of his most memorable efforts. Transforming Columbia's soundstage to resemble period Europe, the film delivers a satisfying gothic mix of psychological horror and cheap thrills.
In a role that would have been perfect for Vincent Price (he was working with Corman and AIP at the time), lanky Guy Rolfe deliciously plays the title character. Initially, he was a pauper who discovers that his late father was buried with a winning lottery ticket. When uncovering the coffin lid, the shock of seeing the father's decaying skull causes his face to freeze in a ghoulish grimace. Now changing his name to Sardonicus, his wealth allows him to become a baron, and he now resides in a castle with his second wife, Maude (Audrey Dalton).
Sardonicus call upon a known London neurosurgeon Sir Robert (SCREAM/TASTE OF FEAR's Ronald Lewis)--his wife's former lover--to travel to his abode and attempt to cure him. When Sir Robert arrives, he's shocked to discover experimental leech applications to the maid, administered by Krull (Oskar Homolka), Sardonicus' vile assistant. Top-billed Homolka plays it properly creepy, possessing only one eye after his master plucked the other one out. Finding Sardonicus to be cold-hearted and ruthless, Sir Robert is blackmailed into helping the smiling Baron (who wears a expressionless mask to conceal his deformity), but it's he who gets the last laugh in the end.
Castle is on hand to introduce the film, hamming it up from what is supposed to be the foggy streets of London. Towards the end, he appears again to carry out the "Punishment Poll," inviting the audience to vote on whether Sardonicus should be shown mercy or not. Theater patrons were asked to hold up a card (thumbs up or thumbs down) to vote for his fate while Castle pretends to tally up the votes. Of course, there's only one ending and fate for Sardonicus, but Castle later claimed that he actually filmed a different one just in case (as if the usher was going to count votes and tell the projectionist to stop everything!). But then again, knowing the showman that Castle was, he'd want fans to believe that.
Previously only available on VHS through special order from the "Critic's Choice" mail order catalog, Columbia now presents MR. SARDONICUS in its original 1.85:1 ratio in an excellent anamorphic enhanced black and white transfer. The detail offered by this transfer is remarkable--images are smooth and well defined and there is very little grain present and only minor markings at the beginning. Presented in Dolby Digital mono, the audio sounds exceptional for a 40-year-old film and has some surprising punch considering it's age. English and French subtitles are also present.
Like with all of Columbia's William Castle DVDs (five so far), there's a fun, behind-the-scenes featurette. This one is called "Taking The Punishment Poll" and contains interviews with David Del Valle, Don Glut, Michael Schlesinger, Fred Olen Ray, and Bob Burns, who proudly shows off his original "Punishment Poll" card. Since Diane Baker was present in the STRAIT JACKET featurette, I was hoping we'd see the still-active Guy Rolfe here, but no such luck. Also included are trailers for SARDONICUS, 13 GHOSTS and STRAIT JACKET. (George R. Reis)
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