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31 Days of Horror Movies: Mr. Sardonicus

I'm going to crib a bit from David Thiel's blog, and consume the month of October here with a '31-Days-Of' theme. That's right: each day, I'll write a sub-section of a particular topic. The topic/theme this month? Horror movies! Why not, right? It's Autumn, it's October, and Halloween (my favorite holiday) is just around the corner. What better way to celebrate than to single-out some of the best horror films ever made? On that note, here we go....

Mr. Sardonicus

The film is in good ol' black & white, and set during the late 19th century, in one of those quaint but foreboding European towns that so often appear in horror films. It tells the tale of simple farmer Marek Toleslawski. Marek's father buys what turns out to be a winning lottery ticket, but then dies, and the ticket is buried with him. In order to claim the money, Marek must dig-up his father's corpse. In doing so, he comes face-to-face with the dead man, and it sends him shrieking into the night.

Although Marek ultimately retrieves the lottery ticket, his night of grave-drigging has left him permanently scarred: His face is now contorted into that of a grinning skull with skin. His wife kills herself after seeing this disfigurement, and although he is now wealthy, Marek's life is a shambles. He retreats to an old castle, hires the requisite deformed manservant and, somehow, manages to find a new wife. He renames himself Sardonicus, which has Latin origins that eventually trace themselves back to 'sardonic smile.'

The thrust of the film is Sardonicus's quest for physical normalcy. He invites a doctor to the castle to aid in this, and the doctor and Sardonicus's second wife have a history together. Sardonicus has been left twisted and angry by the events of his life, and could most certainly be described as selfish and sadistic. I won't reveal more of the movie, in case you want to see it.

Released in 1961, Mr. Sardonicus comes at the tail-end of of director William Castle's heyday. Known for his penchant for using gimmicks when releasing his films, the gimmick for Mr. Sardonicus involves Castle appearing toward the very end of the film, and offering viewers a choice in how it ends. Rumor has it that only one ending was ever filmed, so the 'choice' was truly a gimmick.

Mr. Sardonicus, like many Castle films, is tame by today's standards, yet it does have a certain horrific charm about it. This is no doubt due to the setting, the direction, and the ghoulish, frozen smile planted on the face of the title character.


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