[box cover]

Mr. Sardonicus

William Castle was either a genius or a certified nutball ... or both. Producer, director and master showman, he was famous for making movies with built-in gimmicks. For The Tingler (1959) he had electric buzzers installed in theater seats to give the illusion of electric shock when the title creatures attacked someone on-screen. 13 Ghosts (1960) was presented in "Illusion-O!" — really just a pair of tinted sunglasses that revealed the spooks on the screen. For his film Homicidal (1961) , Castle offered a "Fright Break" so that cowards could leave the theater and get their money back. And The House on Haunted Hill featured the terror of "Emergo," where inflatable skeletons sailed over the audience's heads on wires. In a similar vein, Castle promoted 1961's Mr. Sardonicus as being the first film where the audience "can actually decide the climax of a motion picture!" The gimmick this time was "The Punishment Poll," in which cards were given to the audience as they entered the theater . Towards the end of the movie, Castle appeared on-screen to ask if Mr. Sardonicus should be punished or left alone; the audience raised their cards for "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" and (supposedly) the ending they voted for was shown. Of course, there was only the one ending, with Sardonicus getting his comeuppance — Castle was a genius at understanding and exploiting human nature. Like all of his films, Mr. Sardonicus never quite lives up to its concept or marketing, but it's a fun ride nonetheless: A simple farmer (Guy Rolfe) digs up his father's grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket. He's so traumatized by the event that his face is permanently frozen in rictus, giving him a perpetual death's head grimace. After many fruitless attempts at a cure, he finally invites his new wife's former lover, an acclaimed physician (Ronald Lewis, who looks exactly like David Hasselhoff!) to his fabulously spooky castle (purchased with the lottery ticket), where he skulks around in a creepy mask and does experiments with leeches on the maid-servant. His right-hand man, Krull, is played by the great character actor Oscar Homolka, memorable from films like Funeral in Berlin, The Seven Year Itch, and I Remember Mama; he's especially brilliant in the maid-torture scene as he cackles that the leeches are "so thirsty for the sweet nectar that flows in your veins...." More funny than scary, Mr. Sardonicus is makes for great viewing with friends, MST3K-style. Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) in rich, snappy black-and-white. Included is a six-minute featurette, "Taking the Punishment Poll," and the hilarious, Castle-produced theatrical trailers for Mr. Sardonicus, 13 Ghosts, and Strait-Jacket, which starred the ever-scary Joan Crawford. Keep-case.

—Dawn Taylor

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