Mr. Sardonicus, 1961. 8/10

With a plot somewhat reminiscent of Dracula, a Victorian Englishman (Dr. Robert Cargrave, played by Ronald Lewis), journeys to a central European country at the behest of a mysterious nobleman (Baron Sardonicus, that is, Guy Rolfe).

He gets the stereotypical skittish look from locals as he inquires about the Baron. Once on the premises, he meets the Baroness (Audrey Dalton), who’s not only English, but Cargrave’s former lover we well. Krull (Oskar Holmolka), a Lon Chaney-sque valet, scuttles about.

We discover that the Baron has a facial deformity (he wears a mask). Cargrave’s mission, then, is to somehow cure the Baron so he looks normal. What’s cool is that we assume Sardonicus must be hideous, but we don’t know exactly how.

Krull had some authority in the house, as he busies himself by torturing the maid Anna (Lorna Hanson) with leeches. That’s correct, and it looks almost as bad as it sounds. At dinner, Shakespeare is discussed, and the deep subject of ghouls. Meanwhile, in what looks like a dungeon, Krull has rounded up a bunch local girls for a ‘party.’ Man, even over in that neck of the woods, the dorks always get the girls.

God knows they’ll probably end up in the lonely hearts leech club, but Sardonicus has lain a cunning trap: a feast, wine, and a promise of gold. He doesn’t stint on the histrionics, giving a brief lecture on the vintner’s art. Finding the right vintage (of woman, that is), he shoos the others out. Soon we hear screaming.

Meanwhile, Cargrave is hallucinating or having a nightmare of what’s taken place since he’s stepped off the train. He awakens, and tried to settle in. Who’s at his door in the morning? Krull. Nobody has a mirror there. Well, how does the Baron shave? The old boy keeps separate rooms from his wife. But he tells her that he’s going to reveal all to Cargrave.

And then, what does he imply, Maud asks, “Imply? Cowards imply, I command!” Guess we can quote him on that. It’s obvious, then, that Maud is, well, a mere doggie biscuit to entice Cargrave with her “charms.” In his garden, there’s nothing but nasty stuff–wolfbane, nightshade, etc.

Then we get a flashback: the Baron was merely a peasant, Marek. His first wife, Elenka (Erika Peters), is quite unhappy. His dad, Henry (Vladimir Homolka) got her a lottery ticket. She thinks pops is a gullible loser. Well, he dies that night. Marek and Elenka struggle financially. Marek’s pretty stubborn; anyway, a guest–a drunken friend who’s been to the city.

He has news: Marek’s father had won the lottery. But where’s the ticket? Oh, man, in the clothes he was buried in. Well, if we play ghouls, this isn’t a problem. Pretty creepy graveyard scene…is the full moon going to break through the lmist? Yes! And just in time too. He gets it done, but pops is skulled-up already. Well, the good news is, Marek gets the ticket; on the bad side, he gets dad’s skeletal face too.

Back to the present: the Baron shows his face to Cargrave; nicely, what we see is its reflection in a pond. There’s a spurious explanation of how he’s able to speak. Interestingly, he believes that the transformation is from psychological shock, not from a supernatural curse. Since he won a load of money, he was able to buy his title, and so on.

Rather surprisingly, Cargrave is automatically sympathetic, and offers to start working on him immediately. With encouragement from Maud, he starts in. At this point, we’ve got to wonder what’s going to happen. Thanks to the adroiti use of the flashback, we’ve got the first mystery solved–what the Baron looks like–then, a deeper mystery–his fate.

There’s some discussion on methodology. Suspense continues, as we don’t see if anything’s happened or not. Then, Cargrave basically throws in the towel. Of course, the Baron won’t give up. Cargrave won’t go any further even for a fortune. As expected, the Baron takes him down to the dungeon; where Maud is conveniently plunked in a very authentic looking torture chamber.

“What have you done to her?” “Nothing…yet.” The deal is that, unless Cargrave tries his experimental treatment on him, she’ll get a surgical version of his disfigurement. Even Krull objects. As we might guess, Cargrave relents. Maud asks if he can really cure him: well, maybe. Among the stuff he gets from England is a then state-of-the-art thing–a hypodermic needle.

Here comes a ‘scientific’ explanation. Sounds ok, actually, given some flossy Victorian suspension of disbelief. Somewhat less believable is her explanation of why she married the sadist in the first place. At least it’s plausible. Anyway, Maud gets locked into a dark attic room with…her father-in-law’s corpse. Just a heads-up for Cargrave to go for broke with the new treatment.

The tension is really good by now: not only do we not know how the experimental treatment is going to come out, what we do know is pretty nasty too. The wrong amount of the plant extract in the injection will kill the Baron. Plus there’s the everpresent torture chamber awaiting the good guys in the unfortunate event of failure.

Well, the injection is just part of the treatment. Shock is the other. That is, the shock befalling the jerk locked in the room with his corpse-daddy. He indeed freaks out. Shazam! The corpse turns back into its predecomposed state. And the Baron gets his face back. He writes a letter: he annuls his marriage to Maud, and basically gives Cargrave a blank check.

All’s well. But, no. Krull come rolling up to the train station. The Baron can’t open his mouth. He’ll die. This is excellent! But the best thing is Cargrave’s brilliant explanation. The ‘cure’ was a complete ruse. No wacky serum–it was just water. The change was purely psychological; that’s why it was incomplete. He’s “his own healer.” But until he accepts himself (and therefore his misdeeds) he’ll not make it out of misery.

Krull hastens back to the boss man, and lies to him; he says Cargrave and Maud’s train had already left. That’s a deft final twist; as we might gather that Baron was smart enough to have completed the cure had Krull not had his sweet revenge.

I remembered this from its TV debut in the mid-’60s. Even then, I thought it worked very well–it had to–kids get bored easily. The pacing was slow here and there, but the flashback sequence helped to enhance interest. As noted, there was always something to look forward to. The ending, where movies generally need to put on their best face (pun time!) was the best part.

The psychological miracle was as absurd as the injection experiment, but that’s not the point. The Victorian Era had this strange confluence of science and the spiritual/supernatural. There was room on the shelf for the likes of Dracula alongside Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the glimmer of ancient evil and uncovered, uncharted nooks of science. Actually, one aspect of science here was a clever distraction, the other proved not only to be potent, but uncontrollable as well.

Mr. Sardonicus worked well on many levels; only director Castle’s campy fake audience interlude interrupts the unfolding story. Special effects were better on the corpse than on the Baron’s face, but not at all bad. The stick in a dark room with the corpse deal was a very effective device. Unlike many Castle and Hammer movies of the time, the script and plot were coherent and intelligent. Very enjoyable ’60s horror. 8/10?

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