Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Johnny California: MR. SARDONICUS and the Limits of the Imagination

 by JB

Just the other night, I was enjoying Svengoolie and trying to turn off my little brain nub, when suddenly, I got to thinking...

I assume that my loyal readers watch and/or record the Svengoolie show on the METV machine on Saturday nights. The man is a national treasure, for Pete’s sake. Last Saturday, he presented the 1961 William Castle classic Mr. Sardonicus, and try as I might to simply wait for my edible to kick in and enjoy it, the Former Film Study Teacher within my cerebellum sprang into action—like Clark Kent rising to the challenge of a crime-in-progress by donning his suit and cape.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: London Doctor Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) has had astonishing success treating patients afflicted with paralysis. One day he receives an urgent missive from an old girlfriend, Maude (Audrey Dalton) summoning him to Gorslava to treat her ill husband. Cargrave rushes out to the made-up, middle-European village and discovers all is not right in Maude’s castle: 1) the servants are tortured with leeches, 2) there is a locked room no one is allowed to enter, and 3) Maude’s husband wears a mask he refuses to take off. Seems Hubby is sensitive about his looks...

In an endless flashback, we learn that Maude’s husband is, in fact, Marek Toleslawski (Guy Rolfe) a poor farmer whose father dies suddenly. Although his first wife Elenka (Erika Peters) professes to love him, we can tell she is craven and duplicitous. Marek receives word that his dead father has won the lottery. Where is the ticket? Why, buried with his father of course. Elenka does her best Lady Macbeth impression and convinces Marek to dig up his old man for the winning ticket. Turns out, “turning ghoul” on the man who sired you has unintended consequences...

“Hey, Sardonicus, you should smile more. Why so serious?”
Mr. Sardonicus is one of director William Castle’s famed “gimmick films,” along with Homicidal (“Fright Break”), the original House on Haunted Hill (“Emergo”), 13 Ghosts ("Illusion-O"), and The Tingler (“Percepto”). Mr. Sardonicus’ promotional gimmick was “The Punishment Poll.” Audience members were handed a glow-in-the-dark card upon entering the theater. Near the conclusion of the picture, William Castle (onscreen) urged viewers to vote by holding up their cards—either “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down”—to decide the main character's fate. Onscreen, Castle pretended to count the votes, and the audience was duped into thinking that 1) Castle had filmed two different endings and 2) THEY were deciding which one they would be shown. Neither was true. Cost-conscious Castle only ever filmed one ending.

SPOILER ALERT: Mr. Sardonicus meets a bitter, bitter end.
Gimmicks aside, as I watched the movie last Saturday, I was struck by how much it owed to EVERY OTHER HORROR MOVIE EVER MADE. I realize that horror cinema trades in stereotypes, archetypes, and tropes, but this was ridiculous. Screenwriter Ray Russell (adapting his own short story) seems to have bought a deck of “Horror Movie Trope” playing cards, and his screenplay, such as it is, sees him simply dealing them out one by one. Nothing in the film seems original to Sardonicus.

We first meet Doctor Cargrave in a scene cribbed from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Jekyll shows his good heart by volunteering at a charity hospital. The scene between Cargrave and a little paralyzed girl exists for maximum pathos.

Cargrave receives a letter and rushes off to Gorslava, where the locals urge him not to go to Castle Sardonicus. This bit is stolen from the beginning of Dracula, where Jonathon Harker travels to Transylvania and is warned against visiting its most famous resident by scared and superstitious locals.

Cargrave meets Sardonicus, whose face is hidden by a mask, in a bit stolen directly from every iteration of The Phantom of the Opera. “Oh, Mr. Russell, where do you get your ideas?”
Sardonicus’ twisted but loyal servant Krull (Oscar Homolka) tortures people, just like Dr. Frankenstein’s twisted but loyal assistant Fritz tortures the Monster in 1931’s Frankenstein.

We learn of the Sardonicus backstory through an endless flashback, reminiscent of the similar but much, much better flashback in 1932’s The Mummy, where we learn why Boris Karloff’s Imhotep is such a crankypants. HINT: Both stories involve burials gone wrong because OF COURSE THEY DO.

Cargrave gets to work, trying to cure Sardonicus in a long montage that is more than a little reminiscent of the famous “There must be a way back” sequence in 1933’s The Invisible Man.

I kept wondering how on earth Russell was going to work the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Godzilla into the mix, but the film concluded... and not a moment too soon.

The film’s not-so-subtle ironic ending is deeply indebted to the best episodes of Rod Serling’s famed The Twilight Zone. Conveniently, the CBS-TV series The Twilight Zone debuted in 1958, three years before Sardonicus. I'll bet budding screenwriter Ray Russell was watching every Friday night, taking notes.

SPEAKING OF SVENGOOLIE: After enjoying great success with a similar promotion last October, MeTV is once again allowing Mr. Goolie to run amok this Scary Movie Month. To wit: 1) Every Saturday in October will feature a Svengoolie double feature; 2) MeTV will be re-running their delightful Svengoolie Un-Crypted special; and 3) Several days of programming will be devoted to Halloween episodes from the vintage syndicated reruns that are MeTV’s stock and trade.

Saturday, October 7
8am: A Bugs Bunny BOOnanza Bash
9am: MeTV Halloween Westerns: Specially selected spooky Western episodes.

7pm: Svengoolie: Killer Klowns from Outer Space
9:30pm: Svengoolie: The Crawling Eye
11:30pm: BOOnanza Late Night—Sventoonie

Saturday, October 14:
7pm: Svengoolie: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein
9:30pm: Svengoolie: Invaders from Mars
11:30pm: Svengoolie Un-Crypted
12:30am: BOOnanza Late Night—The Twilight Zone

Saturday, October 21:
7pm: Svengoolie: Kolchak: The Night Stalker
9:30pm: Svengoolie: Godzilla: King of the Monsters
12am: BOOnanza Late Night—Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Saturday, October 28:
7pm: Svengoolie: Kolchak: The Night Strangler
9:30pm: Svengoolie: Trilogy of Terror
12am: BOOnanza Late Night—Kolchak: The Night Strangler

1 comment:

  1. AHHHH!!!!! Thanks sooo much JB for the heads up on Svens upcoming schedule!!! It is impossible for me to put into words how big of a role Svengoolie played in helping foster my massive love of movies as a child o the 70s. Sven...then Son of Svengoolie was and continues to be the greatest combination of humorist, movie historian, parody genius, perfect host, and inventor of dad jokes. When i ran into him at a booth at McHenry County Fair a few years ago i legit had to hold back tears and fumbled thru a brief thank you for all he's done.

    Not all heroes wear capes...some throw chickens.

    Thanks also for the down low on Sardonicus...thats a gap for me!

    Peace .n. BERYNNNNNNN