William Castle films were a genre unto themselves in the 1960s. The producer and director loved using interactive gimmicks with the theatrical audience in his brand of horror. Mr. Sardonicus is typical of Castle’s body of work, a quaint bit of gothic atmosphere offered up with little that would scare today’s audiences. Most today would consider this movie more of a creepy drama than a true horror film.
Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), a pioneering surgeon in the London of 1880, gets a mysterious letter from his one-time love, Maude, seeking assistance. Maude (Audrey Dalton) has been married off to a Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), a wealthy and mysterious man living in a fictional Eastern European country. Cargrave still pines for his former love and rushes off to help her at the Baron’s secluded and creepy mansion.
Baron Sardonicus introduces himself to Cargrave wearing a full mask, which we soon learn is to cover up his hideous visage. Much of the film’s second act flashes back in how the Baron became disfigured in the first place. Sardonicus is a real bastard to everyone, right from the get-go. The film makes us aware of the concept of ghouls, creatures that rob graves and eat corpses. Think the uglier cousin of vampires. The Baron has been experimenting on his staff and local village girls in search of a possible cure for his affliction. Desperate to look normal again, Sardonicus hopes Cargrave can find a solution. Sardonicus blackmails Cargrave into helping him by threatening Maude.
At a length of 90 minutes, the film feels unnecessarily padded out and overstays its welcome by the conclusion. Like many other productions of the day, Mr. Sardonicus feels and looks like a stage play at times. The special effects are mostly confined to the prosthetic face worn by the Baron, which might induce giggles in today’s more jaded audiences than any intended fright.
One can’t help but compare Mr. Sardonicus to an extended episode of the original Twilight Zone. Castle directly copies Rod Serling’s manner of introducing and capping off the story, directly addressing the audience. Mr. Sardonicus might have actually made a very good episode of the classic show, if the script had been pared down in length. The acting performances are strong all across the board. If you are a big fan of William Castle’s work, this is another fine entry in it.
Mill Creek has delivered a fantastic-looking Blu-ray for Mr. Sardonicus. The 1961 black & white film looks incredible for its age, one of the better catalog treatments from the era on Blu-ray. The main feature is presented at 1080P resolution in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The well-maintained AVC encoding shares a single BD-50 with the other movie on this double-feature, The Brotherhood of Satan.
Mr. Sardonicus was licensed from Sony and it is highly likely they provided this immaculate, film-like master to Mill Creek. The film elements are in pristine condition and have been very recently scanned, going off the pleasing level of resolution and clarity found in the picture. The black & white cinematography is crisp and sharp. There is not a single trace of ringing or filtering present in the picture, the film’s natural grain structure has been left intact.
Inky black levels reveal a high degree of shadow delineation, containing some of the best moments seen for a vintage film on Blu-ray. Contrast is usually strong if one makes allowances for slightly blown-out whites in a few shots. The vivid definition produces a fairly sharp image. Exceptions include some of the optical shots and transitions, which introduce another generation of film into the proceedings.
Sony must have had intentions to release Mr. Sardonicus to Blu-ray on their own, but for whatever reason licensed their fine work to Mill Creek. We should be grateful that Mill Creek rescued this brilliant transfer for release, as it looks beautiful and will please the stingiest of videophiles.
The sole audio option is an English DTS-HD MA 2.0 soundtrack. If it is a stereo mix, it is incredibly narrow in presentation and practically collapses to the center. Dialogue is intelligible and there isn’t much in the way of hiss or sonic imperfections, but a low-budget production from 1961 has audio limitations. Von Dexter’s score comes across as a bit thin in texture and fidelity for the dated presentation. Optional English and French subtitles are presented in a white font.
Mill Creek has provided no extra features of any kind on this double-feature Blu-ray.
Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.