Mr. Sardonicus

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.[1]

Mr. Sardonicus
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam Castle
Produced byWilliam Castle
Written byRay Russell
StarringOskar Homolka
Ronald Lewis
Audrey Dalton
Guy Rolfe
Vladimir Sokoloff
Erika Peters
Lorna Hanson
Music byVon Dexter
CinematographyBurnett Guffey
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
October 18, 1961
Running time
89 minutes
CountryUnited States


In 1880, in the fictional central European country of Gorslava, prominent London physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) visits 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: he sees Sardonicus' servant Krull (Oskar Homolka) torturing another of the baron's servants with leeches.

Maude is afraid of what may happen if Sir Robert refuses Sardonicus' requests. Even Krull is not immune to the baron's cruelty; he is missing an eye, lost to Sardonicus' anger.

Sardonicus tells his story to Sir Robert. He was born Marek Toleslawski, a farmer like his father Henryk (Vladimir Sokoloff). Marek and his wife Elenka (Erika Peters) lived a humble life with his father, but Elenka and Henryk wanted more. Henryk bought a ticket for the national lottery but died before the drawing; after his burial, Marek and Elenka discovered that the ticket won but had been buried with Henryk. Elenka insisted that Marek retrieve the ticket from the grave to prove his love to her. Upon opening the grave, Marek was traumatized by the sight of Henryk's "grinning" skull. His face was frozen in a horrifying grin, leaving him unable to speak intelligibly. Elenka, terrified by the transformation, committed suicide. The lottery prize allowed Marek to buy a title and a castle, but he had no one to share them with. Marek renamed himself "Sardonicus" and hired speech experts to retrain him to speak. He conducted experiments on young women to find a cure for his condition, but had no success. He learned from his new wife, Maude, that Sir Robert was a great doctor specializing in paralysis, and he had hoped Sir Robert could restore his face.

Sir Robert agrees to try, but he is unsuccessful. Sardonicus demands he try more experimental treatments. When Sir Robert refuses, Sardonicus threatens to mutilate Maude's face to match his own. Sir Robert sends for a deadly South American plant and uses it to experiment on dogs. Sardonicus displays Henryk's open coffin, giving Sir Robert an idea: He will inject Sardonicus with plant extract, then recreate the trauma that caused Sardonicus' condition. The operation is a success, and Sardonicus' face is restored. Sir Robert advises him not to speak until his facial muscles have had time to adjust. The baron writes a note to Maude releasing her from their marriage, and another to Sir Robert asking his fee. Sir Robert refuses any fee, and Sardonicus lets them go.

As they prepare to leave by train, Krull implores them to return. Sardonicus has lost the power of speech again, and he cannot open his jaw or lips. Sir Robert tells Krull that the injection was only water, and that the plant extract would have been lethal even in a small dose. It was a placebo, and Sardonicus' affliction was only psychosomatic. Once Sardonicus realizes that, he will be completely restored.

Krull returns to the castle and tells the baron that he just missed Sir Robert's train. Krull sits down to eat his lavish dinner in front of Baron Sardonicus who is doomed to starve.



The film was 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.[2]

To achieve Sardonicus's terrible grin, 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.[2] As a result, the full makeup is only shown in a few scenes, with Rolfe instead wearing a mask over his face for most of the running time.[3]

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.[1] Near the end of the film, 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.

The "poll" scene, as presented in the film, is hosted by Castle himself. 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. Castle, in his autobiography Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, claimed the idea for two different endings came from the Columbia Pictures' dissatisfaction with the downbeat ending of the original story and script, so "I would have two endings, Columbia's and mine, and let the audience decide for themselves the fate of Mr. Sardonicus."[3] The alternate "merciful" ending purportedly showed Sardonicus being cured and surviving (although co-star Dalton claims no such ending was ever shot).[4] 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". Castle claimed in his book, "Invariably, the audience's verdict was thumbs down... Contrary to some opinions (just in case the audience voted for mercy) we had the other ending. But it was rarely, if ever, used." The consensus among film historians, however, appears to be that no other endings were ever filmed.[3]

The "punishment" ending occupies only three minutes of film after the "poll", and was the ending of the original Russell short story.

There are reports that a separate version of the "poll" was produced for drive-ins, in which patrons were asked to flash their cars' headlights to vote.[5][6] A similar variation was filmed for the drive-in market for Castle's The Tingler,[7] but to date no evidence for any variation of Mr. Sardonicus has come to light.


Mr. Sardonicus was released by Columbia on October 18, 1961.[8]

Critical response

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".[9] 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".[8] 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.[10] The film currently holds a 38% "Rotten" rating on film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 4.6 out of 10, based on eight reviews.[11]

Cultural impact

The U.S. 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.[12] He was cured by reenacting the film's ending. Noted film critic Jeffrey Lyons played himself, explaining the film's psychological subtext to FBI agents on the case.


  1. Castle, William (September 3, 2010). STEP RIGHT UP!...I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America. William Castle Productions. p. 164. ISBN 978-0578066820.
  2. Castle, William (September 3, 2010). STEP RIGHT UP!...I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America. William Castle Productions. p. 163. ISBN 978-0578066820.
  3. Mateas, Lisa. "Mr. Sardonicus". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved April 27, 2017.
  4. Weaver, Tom (2002). Science Fiction Confidential: Interviews with 23 Monster Stars and Filmmakers. McFarland. p. 54. ISBN 0-7864-1175-9.
  5. Wegmuller, Joyce. "Mr. Sardonicus - 1961". Retrieved April 27, 2017. Supposedly, there was another take of the Castle voting clip which was used for drive-in theaters so that patrons could flash their headlights to indicate their vote. That is conceivable perhaps. It would still involve only a second version of the request for the votes, not a second ending for the movie.
  6. Hays, Loron. "William Castle Double Feature: Homicidal & Mr. Sardonicus (1961) - Blu-ray Review". Retrieved April 27, 2017. [Voting] became tricky when it came to the drive-in and audiences were encouraged to flash their headlights instead.
  7. "The Tingler". Retrieved April 27, 2017. Also included is "William Castle's Drive-In Scream! Scene," which is an additional scene created for the drive-in market and features Castle's own voice replacing that of Vincent Price.
  8. Thompson, Howard (1961-10-19). "'Five Golden Hours' and 'Mr. Sardonicus' in Multiple Openings". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-24.
  9. National Congress of Parents and Teachers (1961). "Mr. Sardonicus". The PTA Magazine. p. 40.
  10. "Mr. Sardonicus (1961) - William Castle". AllMovie. Retrieved 5 October 2015.
  11. "Mr. Sardonicus (1961) - Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 5 October 2015.

See also


  • 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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