Mr. Sardonicus (1961) by #WilliamCastle
A mysterious & cruel Baron demands experimental treatments to restore his face.
"the "Punishment Poll" lets YOU decide the fate of Mr. Sardonicus!"#Horror#NotQuiteClassicCinema pic.twitter.com/TAWTD7g15w
— Angus Kohm (@AngusKohm) July 25, 2020
Back in the 1990s, I was asked to join the board of The Manitoba Association of Playwrights (MAP). I was a playwright, and a member of MAP, and I suppose I thought it was some kind of honour to asked, so I said yes. In retrospect, I now realize that an unemployed playwright might not be the best choice for your volunteer board. My (somewhat limited) understanding of the art of putting together a board for the arts and culture sector is that you want to include people who can raise money. And one suggestion of where to start looking for likely candidates is among your largest donors. That’s right. People who already give you money, and might have friends and colleagues who can also give you money. It’s worth noting that people like that can likely afford to volunteer their time, because earning money to pay their rent is not an ongoing problem for them.
The Map Board was full of playwrights. And somehow I was chosen to be the head of The Fundraising Committee. It sounded like an impressive title until I realized that I was the entire committee. So, basically, I would come up with ideas and pitch them to the board. The board would generally say yes and I would put together an event that would raise a couple of hundred dollars (if we were lucky). Not exactly keeping the organization afloat, but I guess it was something.
In 1998, I put together a fundraiser that would ultimately change everything. It was a double bill of new plays called Mountain Climbing (by my friend and fellow playwright Gary Jarvis) and The Inner City Dead (by me). We cast the shows with volunteer actors, most of whom were university or high school students. They were keen and hard working, and when the plays were performed, they drew many friends and family members out to see them – making the fundraiser a huge success.
“This is the best idea we’ve ever had!” one of my MAP colleagues said, as he watched hundreds of people file into the threatre.
This got me to thinking… What if we produced a high school playwriting competition? We could pick five high school playwrights, then hire five young, keen recent university graduates to direct them, and then cast a bunch of high school and university students to act in them – and to top it off, we’ll have the winners determined by audience vote (so everyone will try to bring out as many supporters as possible)! It seemed like a surefire way to draw big crowds to the show and raise some money to help support MAP!
Surprisingly enough, when I pitched the idea to the MAP Board in 1999 they didn’t seem to understand it, and opted instead to authorize a different fundraising project. I had to admit temporary defeat, but I knew that the idea was a good one, so in 2001 I tried again. This time the MAP Board said yes, and The Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition was born.
I edited an anthology called I Was a Teenage Playwright: The First Ten Years of the Scirocco/MAP Manitoba High School Playwriting Competition in 2011, in which I wrote an introduction explaining the entire history of the project. Those who want to know more about it (if there are such mythological creatures) can seek it out there. The important detail for this rambling blog post, is that the winners of the competition were chosen by AUDIENCE VOTE.
That’s right. After each performance, audience members would fill out ballots that would be collected by ushers and counted very carefully – twice. At the end of the second night, we would announce the winners and award prizes in front of the audience.
When I saw the ad campaign for Mr. Sardonicus (1961), I couldn’t help but imagine what this was going to like. William Castle, the genius behind such gimmickry as “Emergo”, the giant skeleton who would fly out over the audience during House on Haunted Hill (1959) and rigging buzzers under audience seats during The Tingler (1959) had surely come up with another winner. Before the final reel of the film, Castle would give the audience a chance to vote and then, depending on the results, the theatres would play one of two final reels. This would surely bring people into the theatres. It might even make people want to come back to see the film again and vote for the other ending (the one they didn’t see the first time). Brilliant, if I do say so myself.
The reality is a little less brilliant. It appears as if Castle only shot one ending to the movie. He comes out on screen right before the final scene and asks the audience to vote. He pretends to count their votes from on screen! Cute and funny, but clearly not possible. Maybe audiences would have been fooled by this in 1961, but I’m not so sure. One person I spoke to, who saw the movie back then, said that the ushers would come out and pretend to be counting votes as well. But there was no spot during the flow of the movie when those votes could have been taken into account and the correct final reel of film been cued up and started. I had expected Castle to say something like:
“Now we will have a brief intermission while votes are counted. When we come back, one of two possible endings will be screened…”
Alas, this was not the case.
Still, it was kind of a fun, silly gimmick. And nice to see Castle doing his thing on the screen.
Don’t get me wrong. Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is a great piece of #NotQuiteClassicCinema that I truly enjoy. It’s beautifully shot, with great performances from a stellar cast, and simply oozes gothic horror atmosphere. It gives me a similar feeling to the great Roger Corman Edgar Allan Poe films – which are some of my favourites. I would recommend Mr. Sardonicus to anyone looking for a good time on a #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. Just don’t expect more than one ending…