Sardonic Kiss

I have always carried the sense that the world is a mystical place in which strange visions, dreams and coincidences carry meanings that interweave us all together at levels beyond our conscious understanding.  As it happens, I’ve recently become blogging buddies with Terry Castle… and only when I noticed her career interest in producing horror films, combined with the venerable Castle name, did I realize that her very father directed one of my favorite films of all time:  Mr. Sardonicus.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a great fan of cinema.  My first career, blocked and battered as it might have been, all grew from that magical transporting that can happen in a darkened theater, be it a play or a film, or even in the space between our screens and ourselves.  Only in films did I see anything that resembled the world that I lived in, the one where insects were communing with you from the trees and the spirit of Native Americans were as “real” as the milkman and the mad men in suits driving to offices.

I met my best friend in college when walking down the dorm hall asking if anyone would care to come see a film at the cinematech:  King of Hearts, a French picture about insane people breaking out of the asylum in a town abandoned by its citizens because combat of war is approaching.  As previously noted on Valentine’s Day, I was first introduced to Andy at a screening of a Fellini movie, complete with Fellini in attendance (how kind of him to show up for this big moment in my life).

Yet Mr. Sardonicus has always held a particular place in my heart and psyche, one that few others seem to put in that Truffaut, Bergman, and Scorsese pantheon.  One might call it a guilty pleasure, but I think Sardonicus an overlooked masterpiece.

In the film, a nice but poor man and his lovely young wife realize that his recently deceased father has won the lottery… only to have been buried with the ticket in his pocket.  The man digs up the grave (of his dad, the former gravedigger) and is so shocked by the decomposing face that he has a mirror reaction, his own face inexorably frozen in some sort of smiling rictus (the sort one starts to get at social events, like charity fund-raisers).

Ironically, he is rich, but wrecked.  His wife kills herself and he buys a Castle and title (Changing his name to “Sardonicus,” meaning tetanus-like rigid smile), and lures a brilliant doctor from London (this is all 1880’s, by way of low-budget Hollywood) by holding his fiancé hostage, a former flame of Sardonicus.

Gothic mask-wearing and grin-revealing moments abound, leeches on faces, assistants who lack an eye due to Sardonicus’ wrath, etc.  The film builds to the doctor shockingly re-confronting Sardonicus with the exhumed corpse of father, and the face goes normal once again.  Doc gets out of Dodge on the train with his belle, and the joke’s on Sardonicus whose face is now frozen shut.

The assistant has his revenge, in choosing not to tell Sardonicus that he’ll be fine (basically that the injection he have Sardonicus was water and that his problems are all in his head).  I love the final shot of the film—a swooping crane shot through Sardonicus’ baronial dining room, over the bounteous table heaped with food into a desperate close-up of Sardonicus manically shoving food against his frozen-shut mouth, the realization of death by tortured starvation his ultimate fate.  WOW!

Firstly, I am fascinated by the simultaneous development in the late nineteenth century of modern psychology and cinema.  It’s as if Freud said dreams were important at the same time that we humans were first learning to cast our collective dreams through magic lanterns onto screens.

I also came to take an interest in William Castle (who himself changed his name from Schloss (meaning Castle, in German).  Castle was a bit of a P.T. Barnum in making films with gimmicks (like the tingler that would buzz random seats in the theater at peak scary moments).  Even Mr. Sardonicus had a moment (in the theaters in 1961, not on TV in the early 70s) where the audience could vote for Sardonicus to get compassion or be punished, as in the ending I saw.  Filmgoers would vote with glow-in-the-dark thumbs, up or down.  Apparently no audience ever voted for compassion.  In our days of American Idol, it was Castle who bridged the Roman Coliseum and the interactive world.

Even as a kid, I could tell that I was in the hands of a skilled and knowing filmmaker when I watched Mr. Sardonicus.  Castle played up the kitsch but at the same time the Oedipal struggles of son, father (my father, saying, “Wipe that smile off your face, Mister”), guilt, money, masks and the psychology of man against himself rang all too true enough to a boy on the cusp of growing up (little did I realize that growing up would take well into my forties).

So, here we are today.  Terry Castle lost her dad back in 1977, and in the spirit of parenting I think about how hard that must have been, and about how my mom lost her dad as a young girl.  I think about how much my son, Will, loves horror films and how Terry has also two teen boys, one named Will.

I know that Columbia Pictures holds the rights to Mr. Sardonicus, because I had looked into the possibility of a remake.  I have no cachet nor cash, so no way is that going to happen.  However, my playful pitch:  Pee-Wee Herman as a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who must try to cure a Miss Havisham-like producer who has ended up with the weird smile after some Faustian Hollywood betrayal lands her with riches but the inability to fully enjoy them.  Oh, and did I mention that it’s a musical (think Little Shop of Horrors meets Little Mermaid meets Sunset Boulevard).  How whacked would that be?

So, let’s dedicate a bit of ourselves today to creative process.  As Terry said in a back and forth comment exchange, she writes because she cannot help it.  Do you have any completely unrealistic creative ideas?  Operas that cannot be staged, novels spanning epochs?  Does music pulse in you, pushing to get voiced even if it’s just in the shower?  Do you too picture a movie but have no idea if it can ever come to pass.  I say, “do tell,” as this is the very sort of thing that interests me a lot, and maybe you too… maybe others in this very Salon who you have yet to consciously meet.  And big thanks to the spirit of William Castle.

Here’s to creating our way into this space, and more fully into our lives, deconstructing our old ways and celebrating our new ways—in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


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12 Responses to “Sardonic Kiss”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    What a great treat this was, Bruce: an introduction for me to the work of William Castle and yet another link through you and Terry to the on-going conversation we’re having with each other and with the creative voices of the past and future. Thank you for shining a light on part of my friend Terry’s story. (My own creative impossibility – finding my voice among a community of writers and friends – seems more like reality every time I visit you or Terry or any of our fellow salon-goers.)

    Thank you both. And thanks to William Castle. May he rest in peace.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Wow. What a fascinating tale. And yes, to “can’t not” in all its creative glory.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Ultimately narrative seems to be a way we frame our lives and make our selves… in a spiraling arc toward soul-making and then collective soul-making. I dimly sense that this is what we cannot not do, and what we cannot do alone but only together—singing and being sung to, painting and being painted, loving and being loved.

      As Wordsworth wrote, we enter this life “trailing clouds of glory.”

  3. Natalie Says:

    Every time I encounter a joke about blogging and bloggers being passe – I think about this that you have here said. I can’t help it. I’ve got to write.

    I have a voice. I must be heard. Even if it is my own dark corner of the vast blogosphere, it is enough. For now.

    There is a hole-in-the-wall video store down the street that specializes in independent, cult, and b-flicks. I’m going to go see if they have Mr. Sardonicus!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      You have to share some of those jokes about blogging (I think stock-brokers hear a lot of jokes but shrinks… not so much). Are they like: three bloggers are stuck in a rowboat?

      Maybe it’s like the Jews doing well in comedy, we turn our neurosis into humor (which is, says Woody Allen, tragedy plus time).

      So, welcome to you and your voice; dust the darkness off your coat and have a cup of tea as in this strange cottage in the blogging woods where, as in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” the old blind guy might inadvertently light the monster’s thumb on fire, thinking it a cigar.

      If you find Mr. Sardonicus let me know what you think.

  4. Terry Says:

    Seeing my father’s face on your blog takes my breath away. WOW!

    People used to stop and ask my Dad all the time, “How do I become a
    producer?” He would stick his hand into his pocket and pull out fairy dust. He would sprinkle his fairy dust, “Puff,” Dad would say. “Now you’re a producer. Go produce.”

    Keep moving forward in the creative process. And who knows one day you might see Mr. Sardonicus being played by Pee-Wee Herman!

    Your love/hate relationship with Hollywood rings in my ears. As a creative, it’s seductive. And sometimes you get sick of being seduced. Thanks for writing about Dad. Thanks for writing.

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      That’s a funny anecdote, and it made me think of times that I have said to a client that I wished I had some magic dust to make his or her life be just what they want (love, money, etc.).

      I can just picture your dad saying “Puff,” and the challenge, both funny and, in a way, authentic, to say, “Now you’re a producer. Go produce.” It underscores how people often have no idea the blood, sweat equity and chronic discouragement in jobs that seem easy if you don’t know much about them—and it also speaks to life when we stop making excuses and just follow our paths.

      For whatever reason I feel this great affection toward your father, appreciating his wit, his smarts, his own sardonic trickster delight in being the showman and provocateur. And as you sail through your life, ‘like a Jewish Kennedy” I appreciate your spirit and natural tendency to encourage others (including me). I think it might have been the relentless competitiveness that was wilting to my creative spirit in Hollywood.

      More than one or two producers, back in the day, suggested that I move to Europe where they make the sort of films I liked to write. Maybe I would have been better off moving down the road from Mr. Sardonicus in Gorslava (the food looked pretty good, if your mouth wasn’t frozen shut and you were able to eat it).

      I laude the generosity of your creative spirit, and the scrappy perseverance with which you honor your dad. Perhaps, even if our personal dad isn’t William Castle, this is something we can all learn through parenting (sometimes even tougher than producing? Certainly tougher than being a therapist at times?)

      Happy writing.

  5. Terry Says:


    I just needed you to know that Dad often said if he wasn’t making movies he would want to be a therapist.

    Interesting. Don’t you think?

  6. Cecilia Says:

    How interesting – I am a new reader and fan of Terry’s and did not know this about her father’s work. Thank you for the introduction!

    I too believe very much in the mystical coincidences, dreams, etc. that we all experience. I have experienced too many to cast them off as meaningless! Sometimes this belief does make me then look for meaning in *everything*…perhaps even where there was no meaning intended?

    I do have a creative fantasy (to write an epic novel based on my family’s immigration) which does not need to be fantasy except that I just don’t see myself with the will to bring it to fruition 😦

    Thanks so much for stopping at my post earlier this week!

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Cecilia, While I think we probably actually could find “meaning” in every coincidence, I sense that the journey is out of the head, that meaning maker, and toward the spirit, which just IS.

      If a book is burning inside you, my heart-reaction is to encourage you to give your family voice. From a Chinese framework this might be hexagram 27, Tiger’s Mouth, through which we pass, through which the ancestors eat our Gu…

      When we send the human, which as you evocatively pointed out from a Japanese pictorial perspective is two made one, yet still clearly two sides of a “character,” perhaps we seek ways to honor our diverse journeys and at the same time find our unity.

      It has been said that if we go far enough into the personal, in these depths we reach the universal.

      Maybe the singular will you have lacked in the past, will be bolstered by a more collective encouragement for you to sing your song.

      Ultimately, your creative process is my creative process, and you might be blocking yourself by thinking “epic.” Perhaps a few blog posts become sketches for a short story, become a collection, become a novel… epic is a long journey—you’re already on that.

      Finally, if you haven’t gotten it, Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way,” may be destined to assist you. Blogging is a big step, now we just encourage each other to keep taking those steps.

      (I’m haunted by a play that won’t leave me alone, but which I feel completely ill-equipped to write…. so I keep making notes and plan to write this weird thing that will likely never see the light of day).


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