Mill Creek Entertainment forges on with their budget conscious releases that help bring obscure little films to the public in an HD format. Many of these releases are of older films in which easily could never have seen the light of day. Presented here we have the odd pairing of a William Castle film from the early 60’s called “Mr. Sardonicus” and an early 70’s occult film named “Brotherhood of Satan”.
“Mr. Sardonicus” stars Guy Rolfe as the titular character Baron Sardonicus. After an incident in which he was digging up his father’s grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket that was buried with him, his face has frozen into a grotesque smile. This happened due to his elation upon finding the ticket combined with the shock of seeing his dead father. He has enlisted the help of a famous physician, Dr. Ronald Cargrave to help him get his face back to normal. As it is now, he wears a blank mask (think Vanilla Sky) to cover up his face. After all his research and failures to fix it himself, Mr. Sardonicus believes Cargrave is his last chance.
“Mr. Sardonicus” is very much a product of its time. Although not a classic by any means it does share similarities with some of the other archetypal horror films such as “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man”. The atmosphere of the exteriors are foggy and murky giving a gothic vibe. This is by far the film’s best strength as the Sardonicus character is not very compelling or particularly scary. His main sin seems to be arrogance and rather unorthodox medical experiments. William Castle talks directly to the viewers in the beginning as a sort of set up for another one of his film gimmicks that he was known for. This one is called the Punishment Poll and it involves the viewer as having the ability to sway the outcome of the villain of the film. Back upon its release the audience were given signs to hold up when Castle stops the film for a moment and comes back onto the screen asking the filmgoers if he should punish the villain or let him off the hook. They were given glow in the dark thumb-shaped cards which they would use to decide Sardonicus’s fate: a cure, or a gruesome death. Obviously since there was no actual interaction between him and the audience, there is only one inevitable outcome but it comes across charmingly. A slightly different version was created for the drive-in, in which audiences could vote using their car headlights. Rumor has is that the cure ending was never screened. Castle does exude a classy wit and comes across as highly affable during his scene near the end.
“Brotherhood of Satan” may be more palatable for modern day audiences. In this film a small desert town is in the midst of a crisis as many of the town’s children have gone missing. After a bizarre opening scene in which a toy tank crushes a full sized car, we are introduced to Ben and his young daughter K.T. (Charles Bateman and Geri Reischel). They are accompanied by Ben’s new girlfriend Nicky and are attending a childrens birthday party before they are heading out for a road trip. Afterwards they get on the road and you sort of just watch the family drive through the desert from several long interior shots. This is a rather extended seemingly pointless scene. Anyone familiar with “Manos: Hands of Fate” will know how excruciating silent driving scenes can be with no dialogue to accompany it. However as the driving continues you realize the director maybe trying to create personal scene and it helps with geography as the radio slowly turns to static showing that they are traveling towards the middle of nowhere. They see a destroyed car on the side of the road filled with bloody victims so they decide to get off at the next town and fond some help. What they do find is a creepy town where the townsfolk who are on edge due to the missing children crisis. The couple and young one are nearly attacked until they are helped by the town sheriff. From here they all try to help to find out what is happening to all the children.
For a PG film there are some quick moments of gruesomeness near the end and due to the camerawork these are nice visceral moments of intensity. In particular when the townspeople start mobbing the main characters upon their arrival. With the handheld camera work, there is a great feeling of panic, confusion and fear. There are a lot of roving tracking shots which help give it a sense of professionalism. Although slow, there are some nice moments of dread especially once you see an incredible creepy doll walking on it’s own and doing the bidding of the devil. The use of children is a unique twist which helps add an additional creepiness factor. As stated earlier, the film tends to be a slow affair. In all honestly, to make this a better film the development that happens with only a half hour left should’ve happened sooner and then have been the main focus for the majority of the running time. As it is, it’s a slightly above mediocre entry to the satanic cult genre. I think if you can settle in knowing it may be a little bit slow you can derive some nice chills. Out of all the creepy dolls shown in all of filmdom, the one in “Brotherhood of Satan” is near the top of the list.
I was quite surprised with the level of detail and sharpness in the transfer. This is not a show off material by any means but from the very beginning it is very well detailed. Close ups fare the best as beads of sweat on foreheads glisten clearly. Mid-range and external shots are also well detailed for the most part. There are some terrific looking set pieces both internally and externally and the HD presentation helps show them off nicely. As far as the source print is concerned, it is in great shape and there are not many lines, warts or specks.
“Brotherhood of Satan”
The opening film company logo does not give a great first impression as it is littered with specks and a general muddy feeling. However, considering the low budget nature of the production, the rest of the film actually looks quite good. The transfer is speckled and a bit scratchy but it looks good in a grind house sort of way. There is some nice detail for the most part and colors, although slightly muted, fare pretty well throughout. I can only imagine that fans of the movie should be overjoyed this obscure little film ever got released on Blu and I’m sure will be plenty happy with the image. For me personally, the scratchiness helps add a grindhouse feel to the experience.
TheDTS-HD MA 2.0 track is all front heavy as you can imagine from a small budget film from 1961. The supposedly heavy thunder sounds anemic with almost no bass behind it leaving us with a less than immersive experience. Effects and mood music come across as hollow and tinny. There is no directionality to any of the audible action on the screen. The main strength is that the dialogue is easily discernible and even throughout. This sounds exactly like what you would think given the low budget nature of the film from this era.
“Brotherhood of Satan”
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 track fares a little better than the first film but not by much. It feels a decade more modern as there is a seemingly wider soundstage. Again there is no LFE to be found anywhere and it leaves sound effects flat and cheap. Most of the effects, whether it’s the playful screaming of the children or thunder effects, they all sound like stock foley effects. The end result is completely listenable however lower your expectations.
This is quite an odd pairing for a double feature however most of the times distribution companies try to pair a relatively popular movie with a lesser known one just to get the latter bought. “Mr. Sardonicus” has a moment or two but it is ultimately a fairly skip-able movie. If you have a soft spot for the old horror classics, this should prove to be an interesting viewing. I found the nice genre specific moments in “Brotherhood of Satan” to be overall more engaging. It can be a little too slow at times but the creepy doll and the last twenty minutes almost make up for it. I can’t complain about the audio/video since they do their jobs respectively. These are the best these are ever bound to look. For the price it’s recommended to horror and occult fans only.