As delightful as William Castle’s movies are in any venue, you lose out on one of their most appealing aspects—call it their rowdy carnivalesque dimension—when you watch them in the atomized privacy of your home theater. This point was brought home to me recently when I had the chance to watch Mr. Sardonicus in 35mm at a local repertory house, and then received Mill Creek’s admittedly excellent Blu-ray transfer for review. Differences in the film’s comparative impact had less to do with the size of the respective screens than with the viewing environment. Castle’s movies were meant to be seen in your local picture palace, crammed cheek by jowl alongside other moviegoers, shoveling popcorn out of a paper bag, and feeling the tug of tacky puddles of pop at your feet.
The ultimate promotional showman, Castle created an inventive series of publicity stunts in order to put his bargain basement productions over with viewing audiences. Whether it was sliding a skeleton along a string over their heads during House on Haunted Hill or rigging electric buzzers beneath select seats to deliver sudden shocks to their posteriors during fraught moments in The Tingler, Castle never met an attention grabber he couldn’t use. By all accounts, though, Castle was never content merely to reign as king of the gimmick flick. He also wanted to imprint his indelible persona on his films (it’s clear he relished playing the glib, shamelessly schlocky impresario), taking his cue to some degree from Alfred Hitchcock’s sardonic appearances on the master of suspence’s eponymous TV show.
It might be a bit hyperbolic to claim Castle as a cinematic postmodernist, but it’s clear from Mr. Sardonicus and other films that he cares next to nothing for photorealistic naturalism or even narrative integrity: He breaks the fourth wall right off the bat in an introductory address to the viewer, and later brings the story to a grinding halt with a show-stopping reappearance wherein he calls on the audience to participate in a “Punishment Poll” that will decide Sardonicus’s fate. In a word, Castle puts the art back into artifice. As if to prove this hypothesis, Mr. Sardonicus opens on an obvious matte-painting backdrop and a barebones set shrouded in dry-ice fog. Castle steps into frame, pauses to light a cigar, and then catches the camera’s eye. His spiel at one point requires him to reach into his coat, pull out a pocket-sized dictionary, and read aloud the definition of the word “ghoul,” a figure from folklore that, he gleefully informs viewers, will play a significant role in the proceedings.
On this provocative note, the scene shifts to a somewhat more realistically depicted London street, and we enter the surgical laboratory of Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis). These early scenes take great pains to establish his cutting edge therapeutic technique, while Ray Russell’s script makes much ado along the way about the modern marvels of the “hypodermic syringe.” Later, when we finally encounter Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) in the flesh, his blank mask bears an uncanny resemblance to the one Édith Scob wears in Georges Franju’s surgical shocker Eyes Without a Face, which wouldn’t open in the U.S. until the following year, and then only in a mangled version titled The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. All these bona fides firmly enlist Mr. Sardonicus in the ranks of the medical horror subgenre.
After receiving an importunate missive from former paramour Maude (Audrey Dalton), who’s now married to Sardonicus, Sir Robert travels by boat and train—in a montage that effectively mirrors similar scenes in many an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—to the central European province of Gorslava, where Sardonicus resides in gloomy yet opulent baronial splendor. Sir Robert is met at the station by the baron’s manservant Krull (Oscar Homolka), a one-eyed factotum with a disconcerting fondness for leeches and impromptu surgical procedures. Veteran character actor Homolka brings a hammy late-period Bela Lugosi flavor to his performance, underhandedly stealing every scene he’s in, especially those opposite stolid Lewis.
From behind his impassive mask, the baron’s plummy tones belie the grim horror of his history, when he was yet a lowly peasant called Marek Toleslawski, a tale of woe that he reveals to Sir Robert via an extended flashback. Sardonicus’s story centers on a winning lottery ticket buried with his recently deceased father Henryk (Vladimir Sokoloff). Egged on by his money-hungry termagant wife, Elenka (Erika Peters), Marek stoops to grave robbery, a pastime that doesn’t bode well for young Marek. Owing to the psychological shock of the experience, his face is stricken with the same ghastly expression as that on his father’s corpse, the so-called risus sardonicus, from whence he derived his assumed name. “The bitter irony of it appealed to me,” he informs Sir Robert. Sardonicus then delivers his cold-blooded ultimatum: Either Sir Robert cures him, or he will have Krull torture and permanently disfigure Maude.
Mr. Sardonicus is one of Castle’s most effective films. As a director, he proves he has some real chops, steadily and expertly building tension until the terrifically effective reveal of Sardonicus’s hideous visage. Granted, at bottom, the film’s little more than an extended morality play of the sort that viewers were accustomed to from TV shows like The Twilight Zone or the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller. But with its elegant set and costume design, solid performances from Rolfe and Homolka especially, and tongue-in-cheek humor, Mr. Sardonicus stands (alongside The Tingler, I would argue) as one of William Castle’s strongest, most memorable efforts.
The Brotherhood of Satan, on the other hand, is an intermittently effective exercise in post-Rosemary’s Baby satanic panic, combined with some elements of dime-store surrealism, including one unforgettably psychedelic dream sequence, and sporting some truly bizarre set and costume designs. After a disjointed (read: borderline incoherent) opener in which shots of a toy tank are juxtaposed with the twisted and bloody wreckage of an automobile, the film cuts to square-jawed Ben (Charles Bateman) and bikini-clad blonde Nicky (Ahna Capri) making out on a blanket lakeside. Nicky suddenly looks up, startled, at something off-screen as something red and viscous drips onto her face. The nifty fake-out reveals it to be nothing more than a melting ice-cream cone being held by Ben’s six-year-old daughter, KT (Geri Reischl).
The logical connection between these disparate scenes becomes clear once Ben, Nicky, and KT hit the highway. They soon drive past the mangled wreck, which they stop to report at the next town, Hillsboro. The townsfolk are less than welcoming though: One resident’s idea of bringing out the welcome wagon is to go after them with a hatchet. Problem is, once they arrive in town, some preternatural force prevents them—and everyone else, natch—from leaving. As if this weren’t trouble enough, local children keep going missing, and their parents wind up dead, killed in various unsavory fashions by their own kids’ toys, a plot device that never even remotely finds explication.
As you might imagine, these scenes vary wildly in effectiveness, most tipping the scale toward risibility, though one or two are actually chilling. All of this tempest in a teapot leads, as such things invariably will, to the requisite witches’ coven (a word certain of the actors insist on pronouncing with a long “o,” just like in American Movie). As in Rosemary’s Baby, the ultimate goal of the geriatric sect appears to be the transmigration of their souls into the young’uns’ bodies, a development the film plays out in a finale so protracted that, once our heroes finally arrive at the dilapidated manse where the rite is going on, it takes them five whole minutes of screen time just to find the right door and force it open. The pseudo-twisty ending strives mightily for ambiguity, but instead has to settle for inscrutability.
The Brotherhood of Satan was directed by Bernard McEveety and co-written and produced by Peckinpah regular L.Q. Jones, who also stars as the local sheriff. Jones would subsequently write and direct the even more outlandish A Boy and His Dog, starring a baby-faced Don Johnson and based on the Harlan Ellison story. Solidifying the Peckinpah connection, the film also features Strother Martin as rumpled medico Doc Duncan. It spoils nothing to point out, since the film reveals the fact early on, that Doc is more involved in the bloody goings-on than initially appears. But wait until you get a load of his attire during the satanic ritual scenes. With his mane of white hair and spangled high-collar cape, Martin uncannily resembles a cornpone Dr. Mabuse all duded up in Dr. Strange’s magical mantel.