Mr. Sardonicus is a 1961 horror film directed by William Castle and starring Guy Rolfe in the title role. It is based on the short story "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell.
Set in the year 1880, the film follows Sir Robert Cargrave, a renowned surgeon who specializes in paralysis, who receives a letter from his past love Maude and is invited to the mansion of her husband, Baron Sardonicus, in the fictional country of Gorslava.
When he reaches his destination he finds the reason for him to be there; the Baron's face has been paralyzed into a horrifying rictus grin for many years, and he wants Richard's help. But his face is not the only thing twisted...
As with other William Castle films, the movie's main marketing gimmick was the audience's chance to decide the title character's fate by "penalty poll", the outcome of which supposedly affected the film's ending. The ending in which Sardonicus dies was purportedly the only one filmed (William Castle believed - apparently correctly - that no audience would ever vote for the merciful ending), although Castle claims both were shot and the 'good' ending was just never chosen; given Castle's tenuous relationship with the truth, who knows.
Baron Sardonicus grins upon:
- Antagonist Title: Baron Sardonicus is the main villain.
- Awful Wedded Life: Strongly implied with Baron Sardonicus and Maud. At best, he treats her distantly and at worst, he outright threatens to disfigure her in order to coerce Sir Robert.
- Berserk Button: Sardonicus does not appreciate it when Sir Robert uses the word "ghoul" to generally describe "horrible people", prompting him to clarify its original definition ("A disgusting creature that robs grave and feeds on corpses").
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Krull's specialty, which Sardonicus inflicts on women for his own amusement.
- The Dog Bites Back: At the end of the film, Krull withholds the information that might save Sardonicus' life.
- Dramatic Thunder: On the opening credits.
- Driven to Suicide: Sardonicus' wife (when he was still Marek Toleslawski) took her life when she saw his face.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Krull follows Sardonicus' orders obediently, but has doubts when he is ordered to mutilate Maude's face.
- Eye Scream: Implied to be what Sardonicus did to Krull.
- Fake Interactivity: In the closing "vote on the outcome" footage, the producer actually goes through the motions of calling on specific audience members to hold their cards up higher or otherwise clarify their votes, even though there's no guarantee that, e.g., there'll be a woman in the ninth row to respond to his query.
- Foreshadowing: Mr. Sardonicus's empty picture frames used to have pictures of his forefathers, but according to Krull, Sardonicus has forsaken his forefathers "in one magnificent gesture". It later comes into play that Sardonicus forsook his forefathers not just because he blames his father for his disfigurement, but because he's secretly scared of his father's corpse.
- From Nobody to Nightmare: Marek Toleslawski was a Nice Guy peasant before he was convinced to retrieve a lottery ticket from his father's grave. Afterward, not so much.
- Frozen Face: Sardonicus' Slasheriffic Nightmare Face, as well as the effect of the handsome mask he wears.
- Meaningful Background Event: When Robert arrives at Sardonicus' estate, the windows of the mansion form a skull.
- Meaningful Name: Sardonicus was inspired to pick up his name after reading about Risus Sardonicus, aka rictus grin.
- Multiple Endings: The main marketing gimmick for this film. The film itself is a subversion in that only one ending was filmed; the "punishment poll" was entirely meaningless (maybe - see above intro).
- Mummies at the Dinner Table: Sardonicus keeps his father's corpse in a locked room.
- The Reveal: Marek Toleslawski revealing his face to his wife Elenka.
- Scream Discretion Shot: Done when one of Sardonicus' lady-visitors sees his face.
- Story Branch Favoritism: Just before the end, producer William Castle appears and asks the audience to hold up cards so as to vote for whether Sardonicus lives or dies... but Castle only filmed one ending, assuming (correctly) that the audience would always choose death.