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March 24, 2006

Castle Creep


William Castle - 1961
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD



Mr. Sardonicus
William Castle - 1961
Columbia Pictures Region 1 DVD

William Castle was causing me nightmares even before I saw any of his movies. I was a very gullible seven year old who was frightened by kids next door convincing me that I would be the next victim of The Tingler. It was another couple of years before I was finally allowed to see any horror movies in a theater which meant I was the only person I knew who missed 13 Ghosts. A friend with far more permissive parents thrilled me with his recounting of Homicidal. I never actually saw a William Castle film until my parents were away and I finally saw The House on Haunted Hill on late-night television.

For those who haven't seen it, The House on Haunted Hill is about five people who have been invited by Vincent Price to spend the night in a haunted house, with the survivors to get the princely sum of $10,000.00. When you're in Junior High, you watch the film to see people fall into large vats of acid. More puzzling when you are an adult is how Castle got away with combining the exterior by Frank Lloyd Wright with a Victorian mansion interior.

Homicidal and Mr. Sardonicus are the first two films Castle made following the release of Hitchock's Psycho. Hitchcock must have felt very insecure if he thought he was being challenged by William Castle. It sound almost like John Coltrane worried about Kenny G. Hitchock took the bait and made what was essentially a William Castle film with a bigger budget and much better music. Castle, in turn, did his own version of Psycho and recycled the scary parts again in Mr. Sardonicus. Hitchcock gave his television dramas darkly funny introductions with deadpan humor. Castle's on screen introductions to his films were both darker and droller, with Castle's cheerful countenance a reminder that his movies were essentially a shared inside joke.

Aside from the obvious title, Homicidal takes the plot twist of Norman Bates' identity further with the casting of "Jean Arliss". The film is about a clueless group of relatives who never stop to notice that Emily and Warren are never seen at the same place at the same time. Warren is introduced as a creepy young boy who takes a doll from his step-sister. The rest of the film is about Warren's return from Denmark just before his 21st birthday when he is to inherit his parents' millions. Warren's wife, Emily, has been making a habit of killing several people important to Warren's birth. Castle's Psycho-bits include the unexpected knifing of the justice of the peace during a marriage ceremony, the decapitation of an old woman, and lots of ominous shots looking up and down a staircase. At the end of the film a sort of explanation about Warren that mentions, "whatever happened in Denmark, we don't know". Columbia Pictures has it right in their DVD supplement by renaming this film "Psychette".

If Homicidal is Psycho for slightly sophisticated teenagers, Mr. Sardonicus is Eyes without a Face for ten year olds. If the white mask is reminiscent of Georges Franju, seeing Guy Rolfe without the mask is a reminder of Lon Chaney and Conrad Veidt. Castle's film is about a man who realizes too late that the winning lottery ticket is in the jacket worn by his father, dead and buried several months ago. Digging the grave to retrieve the lottery ticket, the man freaks out at the sight of his father's remains. With his face marked by a permanent rictus grin, Mr. Sardonicus is very rich, but very ugly. Taking place in 1880, Castle, in a one-time step into the past, skitters into Corman and Bava country. The first big shock is the sight of Oscar Homolka placing leaches on a maid's face, and later stringing her up by her thumbs. Castle teases the audience with fleeting glimpses of the face of Sardonicus. The main Psychobit concerns the secret behind the locked door. Not only did Sardonicus unbury his father, he kept him in the house. The preservation techniques for Daddy were as effective as those employed by Norman Bates on his beloved mother. Keeping your mother preserved in the basement may be classic, but preserving your father after cashing in his lottery ticket is just sick!

Posted by peter at March 24, 2006 12:06 AM


He's probably killing all those people so he can get the inheritance so he can continue to afford dying his hair several times a week.

Does that second shot remind you of Eyes without a Face?

Posted by: Tuwa at March 24, 2006 06:50 PM

Not only did the masked Sardonicus remind me of Eyes without a Face, but I forgot to mention how both films involve tests with caged dogs, and "innocent" women being lured to their doom.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at March 24, 2006 11:18 PM