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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Mr. Sardonicus (1961) - William Castle

Mr. Sardonicus is a curious little story from William Castle that involves an impressive tale propelled by an enticing cast. Oskar Homolka was engaging in a truly weird way as the man servant Krull. He tortures a young woman by hoisting her up by her thumbs and then putting leeches on her feet and face. He is cold and merciless. Definitely a strong secondary villain. But, Guy Rolfe as Mr. Sardonicus is frightful as fuck. He is a great villain. Sardonicus appears to be haunted by ghouls and discusses his displeasure with them in long discussions. His demeanor is intimidating and gloomy. He uses this emotionless mask that makes him even more frightening. 

Baron Sardonicus brings the world's leading surgeon to his home to fix his freakish appearance. Sir Robert Cargrave has been brought in to the estate for this purpose. If he doesn’t do the surgery, then Sardonicus will make his wife's face appear like his own. Oh, Cargrave has been making night eyes with our evil hosts wife. Shades of the convenient Old Dark House trope come into play. 

The film examines the Sardonicus' back-story and depicts him, somewhat, in a sensitive manner. Basically, Sardonicus used to be identified as Marek Toleslawski. He was poor and worked frantically to make money. His father had picked up a lottery ticket (#7707). However, he died the night that he bought it and was buried with it in his waistcoat. It turns out that Marek’s dad had won the lottery but was accidentally buried with the ticket. So Marek digs up his dad’s corpse. Except that when his fathers body is uncovered it shocks him so much that it transforms his face. It turns him into the freakish ghoul with the tight disfigured mouth. I appreciated getting some backstory. I always applaud additional world building. 

It’s William Castle so you know that your going to get a good amount of jump scares. Those combined with the torture/leeches scenes and Sardonicus’ mug make for a pretty decent horror movie. It’s nothing a preteen should lose any sleep over. The gimmick that Castle takes advantage of for this movie is the Punishment Poll. This is a part of the movie that was supposed to feel like audience participation. However, it was nothing more than another gimmick from the king of shock cinema. 

Technically Mr. Sardonicus is a really sound movie. I don't have many gripes or concerns about the picture. However, I do feel that some of the low-budget techniques showed through a bit. For example, it would have been expensive to show Sardonicus mouth moving. So to remedy this, Guy Rolfe was barely seen on screen when talking. Sometimes they would film him from behind to get away with hiding the mask. 

Mr. Sardonicus was good. I admired the curious tale and direction. I would have killed to see this in the movie theater during the sixties. William Castle was recognized for his odd tricks and gags during the screenings of his pictures. This feature had some great reveal moments and jump scares. Perfect for the Castle experience. I found the film to be striking but not necessarily scary. The scariest parts were Sardonicus’ disguise and mutated face. His featureless mask was the criterion for creepy. I am so sure that Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween owe a great deal of inspiration to this one.

Of course I would have to recommend movies like Phantom of the Opera. That movie seems like the most obvious suggestion. But this picture has also invoked nostalgia for films like Mystery of the Wax Museum, the Peter Lorre classic Mad Love and the Tom Cruise drama Vanilla Sky

William Castle

William Castle

Ray Russell

Oskar Homolka
Ronald Lewis
Audrey Dalton
Guy Rolfe
Vladimir Sokoloff
Erika Peters
Lorna Hanson

Columbia Pictures

Release Date
October 18, 1961

United States

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Tower of Terror (1997) - D. J. MacHale

The Tower of Terror was an episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, which appeared in 1997 on ABC Network. It’s a fun movie that makes a creative connection to a ride in the Disneyland California Adventure theme park of the same name. Tower of Terror truly has the Disney look and feel. It fits right in line with a movie like Hocus Pocus or Haunted Mansion. In fact, do yourself a favor and set-up a little marathon. Those movies aren't great but it’s a fun way to pass a late October afternoon.

Tower of Terror follows Buzzy, a single dad (Steve Guttenberg) taking care of his daughter Anna (Kirsten Dunst) in Hollywood, California. Buzzy is a tabloid reporter that desperately wants to start writing legitimate material again. Abigail Gregory had tapped Buzzy to investigate the Hollywood Tower Hotel. An infamous haunted hotel that had been gained popularity for some righteous parties. However, the disappearance of five people in 1939 on Halloween is what it is known for. The group had been in an elevator when the hotel was struck by lightning. This kick-started some sort of black-magic that swallowed all passengers of the elevator that night. Buzzy agrees to help and starts his investigation. Everything points to a witch among the original group from ‘39. However, mysteries start to unfold. Guttenberg is on the case!

The actors did as good as they could be expected too. Obviously, Steve Guttenberg is the lead actor here. And with good reason. It’s pretty much just him. Kirsten Dunst does alright but her character doesn’t evolve much. Michael McShane is the next best. He is always funny. He is a master at timing and physical comedy. The other actors are kind of blah. The beginning of the movie shows us 1939 and the night that the people disappeared. However, it never really feels like ‘39. It looks like a poor interpretation of what a shined up version of the thirties would look like if it were made in 1997. The actors are too peppy. The thirties are too shined up. It’s too happy. Nothing looks real.

The movie isn’t necessarily scary. Tower of Terror has supernatural elements that are constrained in this neutered made-for-television short film. But that shouldn’t serve as a distraction. The movie still works on a number of levels and younger viewers will appreciate the minor scares. In fact, it might be too much for the very young and meek. Don’t let the fact that it’s a Disney movie fool you. You won't have any singing birds or other doe-eyed forest folk here. This movie exists solely as a minor thriller for pre-teens.

This movie was one of the first VHS tape that I had found when I started collecting. I think I found it sealed at a thrift-store for twenty-five cents. You have to love old media like VHS. It’s such a classic format. Of course this movie is more-than-likely available in higher resolution. However, watching it on VHS brings a sense of nostalgia. It’s a kind of nostalgia that belongs with a movie like this. It’s that warmth that Disney strides for.

Director: D. J. MacHale
Producer: Iain Paterson
Writer: D. J. MacHale
Starring: Steve Guttenberg, Kirsten Dunst, Michael McShane, Melora Hardin and John Franklin
Studio: Zaloom/Mayfield Productions, Walt Disney Television & ABC
Release Date: October 26, 1997
Country: USA
Did ya Know: Most of the tower footage in the film, both interior and exterior, were shot at the actual Tower of Terror attraction at the Disney's Hollywood Studios. Every time the hotel is seen from the outside, the Hollywood sign is seen behind it. In the 1939 sequence, the sign reads "Hollywoodland" which was the what the sign said back in those times. Steve Guttenberg and Nia Peeples would co-star in another TV movie together with 2015's Lavalantula.