Mr. Sardonicus

Scene from William Castle's "Mr. Sardonicus," now available on Blu-ray. (Courtesy of Mill Creek Entertainment / May 18, 2009)

Many years ago I put "Mr. Sardonicus" on my list of guilty pleasures. It's no longer on that list, not because it's gone down in my evaluation, but only because I no longer feel guilty. This 1961 bit of horror melodrama (based on Ray Russell's short story) is my favorite among the many directed by prolific filmmaker William Castle. (Full disclosure: I haven't seen all of his 60 or so features. Not nearly.)

Guy Rolfe plays a 19th-century peasant whose face becomes paralyzed in a hideous grin after he robs his own father's grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket. Now he is rich, but, alas, miserable; he invites his wife's ex-boyfriend, a great surgeon, to his spooky mansion, hoping the doctor will fix his face.

The contrast between the deliberate pace and the outlandishness of the story enhances the mood. This is the kind of film where — in a wholly unnecessary subplot — we hear the young blond maid being tortured by a one-eyed hunchback (the great Oskar Homolka): "No!" she screams. "Not the leeches... again!" We're obviously talking classic here.

Five minutes before the end, Castle himself appears on screen to let the movie theater audience determine the movie's ending: Will Sardonicus live happily ever after? Or will he be doomed to a slow, agonizing death? Castle never even bothered to shoot the happy ending; he knew that no audience — certainly not an audience seeking out a William Castle film — would forgive Sardonicus.

On the new Mill Creek Blu-ray the detail and grain are superior to the old Sony DVD release, which wasn't so bad itself. The audio was never that great, but it's acceptable. The DVD had a 20-minute "making of" short, while here there are no extras at all. I would gripe if it weren't that "Mr. Sardonicus" is part of a double-feature disc — paired with the lesser 1971 "The Brotherhood of Satan"; and the list price is 10 bucks (even cheaper online).

"Mr. Sardonicus" (Mill Creek Entertainment, Blu-ray, 19.98, with "The Brotherhood of Satan")

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ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).