Mr. Sardonicus

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Mr. Sardonicus
Theatrical release poster
Directed by William Castle
Produced by William Castle
Written by Ray Russell
Starring Oskar Homolka
Ronald Lewis
Audrey Dalton
Guy Rolfe
Vladimir Sokoloff
Erika Peters
Lorna Hanson
Music by Von Dexter
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
October 18, 1961[1]
Running time
89 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Mr. Sardonicus is a 1961 horror film produced and directed by William Castle. It tells the story of Sardonicus, a man whose face becomes frozen in a horrifying grin while robbing his father's grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket. Castle cited the film in his memoir as one of his favorites to produce.[2]

Plot summary[edit]

In 1880, in the fictional central European country of Gorslava, prominent London physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) has come to visit the mysterious Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) at the urgent request of Cargrave's former love, Maude (Audrey Dalton), now the Baron's wife. Sir Robert becomes apprehensive when his inquiries about Sardonicus are met with fear. When Sir Robert arrives at Castle Sardonicus, his fears are quickly justified: one of his first sights is that of Sardonicus' servant Krull (Oskar Homolka, credited as "Oscar Homolka") torturing one of the Baron's servants by placing leeches on her face.

Maude herself is fearful of what will happen if Sir Robert is not willing to do as Sardonicus asks of him. Even Krull is not immune to the Baron's cruelty as he is missing an eye, thanks to Sardonicus's anger.

Sardonicus tells Sir Robert his story. Once he was Marek Toleslawski, a farmer like his father Henryk (Vladimir Sokoloff). Marek and his wife Elenka (Erika Peters) lived a humble life, but Elenka and Henryk wanted more. Henryk bought a ticket for the national lottery, but died in his sleep that night. Marek and Elenka learned that the ticket was a winner but could only claim the prize if they had the ticket, which was buried with Henryk. Elenka pressed Marek to retrieve the ticket so he could, as she said, prove his love to her. Marek opened the grave and was horrified to see his father's skull seemingly grinning at him. After screaming and running away, he went back and retrieved the ticket. When he returned home, he and Elenka realized something was wrong: Marek could not speak. Elenka lit a candle and saw Marek's face contorted into a fixed terrifying grin, similar to Henryk's skull. The prize money allowed Marek to buy a title and castle; but Elenka committed suicide soon after seeing his face for the first time, so she was unable to share the riches with him. Marek renamed himself "Sardonicus" (after the medical term Risus sardonicus, Latin for "sardonic smile", used for tetanus victims) and learned to speak all over again with the help of some of the greatest diction experts in the world. His own subsequent experiments on young women were intended to find a cure for his condition, but he has had no success. Since Sardonicus's new wife Maude had mentioned Sir Robert as a great doctor specializing in paralysis, he had hoped Sir Robert would help restore his face. (He had tried several other great doctors before, with no success). Sir Robert agrees to try.

Sir Robert's efforts at restoring Sardonicus's face have no effect. Sardonicus demands he try new and experimental treatments and, when Sir Robert refuses, threatens to mutilate Maude's face to match his own. Sir Robert sends for equipment and supplies, including a deadly South American plant which he uses to experiment on dogs. When Sardonicus then has Maude and Sir Robert see the open upright coffin of Henryk Toleslawski which he'd brought to the castle, Sir Robert conceives an idea: he will inject Sardonicus with a diluted plant extract, then recreate the event that led to Sardonicus' condition. Though Sardonicus is skeptical, he agrees. The injection is made, the room darkened, and a light shined on the skull. Sardonicus screams in agony, imagining Henryk's flesh has been restored. Sir Robert comes into the room to find Sardonicus' face is back to normal, though Sir Robert advises him to not speak until his facial muscles have had time to adjust. The Baron writes a note to Maude annulling their marriage, and a note to Sir Robert, asking his fee. Sir Robert tells Sardonicus, "You owe me nothing", and Sardonicus lets them both go.

At the train station for the trip back to London, Sir Robert and Maude are confronted by a frightened Krull, who tells them Sardonicus not only cannot speak, he cannot open his jaw or lips at all. They must return and help him. But Sir Robert tells Krull that the injection was only water, that the plant extract would have been lethal even in a small dose. What happened was all psychological, and once Sardonicus realizes that, he will be all right and able to speak and eat.

(At this point, director Castle gives his "punishment poll", resulting in Sardonicus getting more punishment.)

The story resumes with Krull returning to the castle, and lying to the Baron, telling him that he just missed Sir Robert (presumedly Krull's revenge for Sardonicus's cruelty to him). This dooms Sardonicus to death by starvation, while Krull cruelly sits down to eat his lavish dinner in front of the Baron.



Guy Rolfe displays the torturous make-up used to transform him into Mr. Sardonicus.

The film is based on a short story called "Sardonicus" that was originally published in Playboy. Castle purchased the rights and hired its author, Ray Russell, to write the screenplay.[3]

To achieve Sardonicus's terrible grin, actor Guy Rolfe was subjected to five separate facial appliance fittings. He could not physically stand to wear the piece for more than an hour at a time.[3] As a result, the full makeup is only shown in a few scenes, with Rolfe instead wearing a kerchief over the lower half of his face for most of the running time.

Castle claimed that, at the behest of Columbia Pictures, he shot a second ending for the film in which Sardonicus is cured and survives (although co-star Audrey Dalton claims no such ending was ever shot[4]). Castle, with his reputation as the "king of gimmicks" to market his films, built the marketing for the film around the idea of the two possible endings.[2] Audiences were given the opportunity to participate in the "Punishment Poll". Each movie patron was given a glow-in-the-dark card featuring a hand with the thumb out. At the appropriate time they voted by holding up the card with either the thumb up or down as to whether Sardonicus would live or die. Legend has it no audience ever offered mercy so the alternate ending – if in fact one existed – was never screened.[5]

The "poll" scene, as presented in the film, is hosted by Castle himself, and he is shown pretending to address the audience, jovially egging them on to choose punishment, and "tallying" the poll results with no break in continuity as the "punishment" ending is pronounced the winner. The "punishment" ending occupies only three minutes of film after the "poll", and was the ending of the original Ray Russell short story. Given that Turner Classic Movies was unable to locate any cut of the film which included the "merciful" ending, the suggestion of alternative endings itself appears to have been an elaborate conceit on the part of Castle in service of the "gimmick". There are reports that a separate version was produced for drive-ins, in which patrons were asked to flash their cars' headlights to vote, but despite an intense search by Columbia, so far this footage has not come to light, suggesting that the story is aprocryphal.

Critical response[edit]

The film received mixed to negative reviews from critics. The PTA Magazine described Mr. Sardonicus as an "elaborately produced [film]... that evokes disgust as well as macabre thrills".[6] The New York Times sharply disagreed. While praising Lewis's performance, the Times stated that Castle "is not Edgar Allan Poe. Anybody naive enough to attend...will find painful proof".[1] Allmovie gave the film a mostly positive review, complimenting the film's mounting tension and suspense, and disturbing make-up effects, calling the film one of the director's best works.[7] The film currently holds a 38% "Rotten" rating on film review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 4.6/10 based on 8 reviews.[8]

Cultural impact[edit]

The US television series Wiseguy incorporated the film into a story arc about a rich factory owner in Washington State who was fixated on the film and had comparable emotional issues. He was cured by re-enacting the film's ending. Noted film critic Jeffrey Lyons played himself explaining the film's psychological subtext to FBI agents on the case.


  1. ^ a b Thompson, Howard (1961-10-19). "'Five Golden Hours' and 'Mr. Sardonicus' in Multiple Openings". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  2. ^ a b Castle, p. 164
  3. ^ a b Castle, p. 163
  4. ^ Weaver, p. 54
  5. ^ Waters, p. 20
  6. ^ National Congress of Parents and Teachers (1961). "Mr. Sardonicus". The PTA Magazine. p. 40. 
  7. ^ "Mr. Sardonicus (1961) - William Castle". AllMovie. Retrieved 5 October 2015. 
  8. ^ "Mr. Sardonicus (1961) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 5 October 2015. 

See also[edit]


  • Castle, William (1976). Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul. New York, Putnam. ISBN 0-88687-657-5 (Pharos edition 1992). Includes introduction by John Waters.
  • Waters, John (1983). Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company. Chapter 2, "Whatever Happened to Showmanship?", was originally published in American Film December 1983 in a slightly different form.
  • Weaver, Tom (2002). Science Fiction Confidential: Interviews with 23 Monster Stars and Filmmakers. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-1175-9.

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