How do you do, my revolting readers? It’s William Castle’s Birthday, so it’s time once again to ho-nor this master of movie mayhem.
Mr. Castle has no equal when it comes to ghoulish amusements. He was the man who turned theater seats into joy buzzers, unleashed plastic skeletons upon audiences, and gave us the ability to see ghosts through cardboard. Alfred Hitchcock (Castle’s friendly rival) may have made more “prestigious” pictures, but Castle gave us a circus. Castle was the merriest master of the macabre ever to live and he will forever be my “Hitch-cock.” 😉
Of his many triumphs, I think I am most fond of Mr. Sardonicus. Master Castle’s films usually dealt with contemporary terrors, but Mr. Sardonicus was, in the legend’s own words, “an old-fashioned story.” In its essence, this is a Universal Gothic done in Castle’s inimitable idiom. Mr. Sardonicus is a tale of castles and fog, of masks and madmen, and of graves and… ghouls. “Ghoul” is very popular word, but it’s seldom used in its literal sense. Take, for example, William Castle. He’s a “ghoul” in the sense that he revels in the macabre and gruesome, but he certainly didn’t dig up graves and feast on corpses. (It’s not in his autobiography. ;))
Mr. Sardonicus does play with the idea of a figurative ghoul vs. a true ghoul. The truth falls more towards the former, but the latter is alluded to heavily. The fact that the idea of a real ghoul is hinted at all is unusual for a horror picture, and it is fascinating to deal with even the potential of one. The “ghoul” in the film is the tit-ular Sardonicus, though he is less a “Mr.” and more a “Baron.” While digging up his father’s grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket (if I had a nickle…;)), Baron Sardonicus is so frightened by the sight of his father’s grinning skull that it actual causes his face to freeze in a permanent grin! Because of the grave-robbing and the unnatural deformation that occurs, he refers to himself as a ghoul.
In truth, he owes a little more to The Man Who Laughs and The Phantom of the Opera than a traditional ghoul. Like the unusual gentlemen in those stories, Sardonicus is a mortal man with ghastly visage and a mask. The audience could feel a certain sympathy for The Baron, although he does test one’s capacity for mercy with his habit of torturing girls with leaches, not to mention his cruelty towards his servant. Really, it’s up to the individual to decide if Sardonicus is worthy of redemption or condemnation. Of this, Castle was painfully aware. Not missing the chance for a bit of fun, Castle came up with another ingenious gimmick: The Punishment Poll.
The Punishment Poll was classic Castle. Ostensibly, the audience could decide on whether or not they wanted to show the ghoul mercy by voting on one of two endings. Each theater-goer was given a glow-in-the-dark card featuring a hand with the thumb out. When instructed by Mr. Castle in the film, they voted by holding up the card with either the thumb up or down as to whether Sardonicus would live or die. The gag? There was only one ending filmed! In the film, Castle “tallies” the votes and announces the result immediately, with no break in the continuity of the scene. Like a great magic trick, the act was fake, but the fun was very real. Besides, the ending we got is deliciously nasty! It’s the perfect twisted punchline and I can’t imagine a more fitting way to end the story of Sardonicus. My lips are sealed when it comes to specifics, but it’s a fantastic note to end on.
In ho-nor of Mr. Castle’s birthday, we have provided Mr. Sardonicus in all its ghoulish glory, I cannot recommend this film enough. It represents everything that was fantastic about William Castle and is just about the most fun one could have being repulsed and lied to! 😉 For a bit of Castle’s carny brilliance, check out the film below: