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 (Ronald Lewis), a renowned surgeon specializing in paralysis, who receives a letter from his past love Maude (Audrey Dalton) and is invited to the mansion of her husband, Baron Sardonicus (Rolfe), 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:
- Adult Fear: The train conductor implies this to Sir Robert. It's one thing for Baron Sardonicus to lure unsuspecting women to his castle. It's another thing when one bears in mind some of those women happen to be someone's baby girl.
- 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 torture her if she can't convince Sir Robert to cure his disfigurement.
- 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"). Although said calmly, there's a bitter inflection behind his tone.
- 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.
- Dramatically Missing the Point: Baron Sardonicus thinks Maud is disgusted with him because of his appearance. In turn, Maud calls him out on this, saying the real reason has to do with his arrogance and cruelty.
- 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.
- Establishing Character Moment: Sir Robert using his patented massage treatment to heal a little girl's leg halfway through establishes the good doctor's benevolence, as well as his tried and true method of encouraging his patients to heal themselves.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Back when he was Marek Toleslawski, Baron Sardonicus was the sort of man to mourn for his mother's passing.
- 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.
- Sir Robert's colleague points out that belladonna is a poisonous plant, despite saying it has healing properties. Sir Robert corrects himself and says it was no belladonna, but before he can say what plant has all-healing properties, he's interrupted. This foreshadows that he might've meant to say "placebo".
- 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.
- During the dinner conversation, Baron Sardonicus and Sir Robert bring up MacBeth, discussing how he was a man "made evil" by circumstances. Later on, we find out that just like MacBeth, Sardonicus wasn't always evil and indeed became the despicable monster he is today because of his greedy wife.
- Freudian Excuse: One could say Sardonicus's resentful view of women and their "charms" stems from how his first wife would constantly browbeat him into doing what she wanted, to the point that it lead to him becoming a "ghoul". It's led him to believe that all women (even Maude herself) are just like his wife, selfish and unloving creatures who easily shun him for his appearance.
- 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.
- Henpecked Husband: Sardonicus was one before the grave robbing incident.
- Ignored Epiphany: At one point, Sardonicus directly accuses Maude of being disgusted by his face. From what we can gather from Maude's dialogue, she's told him before she's rather repulsed by his arrogance and cruelty. Sardonicus's prejudice against women blinds him from accepting this truth, leading him to believe that (like his first wife) Maude is only saying this to cover up how "shallow" she is.
- Ironic Echo: Krull tells Sir Robert how loyal and obedient he is to Sardonicus, to which Sir Robert says he finds it commendable. Later on, Krull throws these same words in Sir Robert's face when that same obedience is about to have him torture Maud on the Baron's command.
- 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.
- Pet the Dog: When Maude and Sir Robert are about to leave, we also see Sardonicus's maid in tow, strongly implying she will now work for much kinder employers.
- 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.
- Villainous Breakdown: Baron Sardonicus has one when not only does Krull tell him he lost Sir Robert, but he mocks his inability to open his mouth by eating in front of him.