Thursday, October 20, 2011

Night of Terror #20: 'Mr. Sardonicus' and 'Van Helsing'

Hello, all. It's me, your horrible host, with another entry in-- sorry, going for a William Castle thing, there, in honor of tonight's entry, Mr. Sardonicus. To write about it, we have the sardonic Phoebe Heyman, and I might chime in in the comments if I feel like it. Let's give her a big "thumb's up," OK?

A few days ago we watched Mr. Sardonicus, a William Castle movie from 1961. The plot: A famous doctor, Sir Robert Cargrave of London, recently knighted for his achievements in the field of curing paralysis, receives a missive from his former fiancee, now married to the mysterious Baron Sardonicus. She beseeches Sir Robert to come for a visit, and when he arrives amidst a flurry of disturbing events, he's eventually pressed into service to protect the innocent, and maybe help the not-so-innocent. While Sir Robert is a bit too unflappable and self-confident to be the best "audience surrogate" for a horror movie, that's the only thing I can really fault about the movie, which is really fun, unexpectedly disturbing, and pretty original despite its tight plotting.

I particularly enjoyed the movie for its enthusiastic participation in the "Eastern Europe as locus of the frightening and uncivilized" motif, a trope I encountered frequently when I majored in Slavic Languages and Literatures. However,
Mr. Sardonicus is notable for its commitment to an authentic setting - it's nominally set in the fictional Central/Eastern European republic of "Gorslava" but all the visible writing, like in the train station and cemetery, is real Czech, and the village scenes are pretty good too.

It was also interesting to contrast the film with Van Helsing, which we watched today: Both films are set in the abstract Mitteleuropa of . . . well, horror films, but despite coming out forty years earlier, Mr. Sardonicus actually gives a much more nuanced depiction of the region. Van Helsing claims at once to be set "in Transylvania," "on the far side of Romania," and, most bizarrely, in Budapest.
Both films also draw a sharp juxtaposition between a "civilized" Western city and a heavily fictionalized, indiscriminately Eastern or Balkan rural area: London and "Gorislava," Rome and "Transylvania." Both films also depict the contrast between a large castle or estate - removed from the village milieu and owned by the aristocracy - and the surrounding rural region. In Van Helsing, the heroine Anna and her brother Velkan are the last of the Valerious family, whose huge castle stands adjacent to the "Budapest" village area. From their names, we can assume that their ancestors were not autochthonous to the region. In Mr. Sardonicus, Baron Sardonicus is originally a local, but after buying his expensive estate, he furnishes and staffs it so that it is indistinguishable from any Western counterpart. Both the Valerious and Sardonicus estates become the loci for horrible deeds and disturbing events, as if the uncanny nature of the Eastern setting must always triumph over the trappings of civilization.

The immersive location isn't the only unique quality of
Mr. Sardonicus. The plot, which I don't want to reveal too much about, is a great mash-up of multiple influences: Dracula, of course, but also maybe "The Monkey's Paw." More than anything, the flashback that's the film's centerpiece reminded me of an Eastern European folk tale. The film's most unique feature, and probably its most famous, is the "Punishment Poll" that appears before the film's conclusion. The original theater audiences were given a glow-in-the-dark card with a "Thumbs Up" sign that could be turned over for the "thumbs down." William Castle comes on-screen and asks the audience to vote with the thumb, Roman Colosseum-style, on whether the villain has received enough punishment or if he deserves some more. Unfortunately, reports that Castle actually shot an alternative ending to the film proved to be apocryphal. Despite its gimmicky nature, I think the Punishment Poll fits into the plot of the movie surprisingly well - the villain is convincingly sympathetic throughout most of the movie.

Despite its huge budget, expansive CGI, and some unexpected bright spots - Kate Beckinsale does a surprisingly good Eastern European accent -
Van Helsing isn't such a great movie. Mr. Sardonicus, on the other hand, is above all else really fun - and has one of the most shocking movie moments of all time. Watch it today!

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