Mr. Sardonicus (USA, 1961)

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Mr. Sardonicus is a 1961 American horror film produced, directed and introduced by William Castle (Homicidal; House on Haunted Hill; 13 Ghosts; et al). The screenplay was by Ray Russell (Incubus; The Horror of It All; XThe Premature Burial), based on his short story that first appeared in the January 1961 issue of Playboy magazine.

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The film stars Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton Guy Rolfe, Oskar Homolka, Vladimir Sokoloff, Erika Peters and Lorna Hanson.

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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).

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.

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The “poll” scene, as presented in the film, is hosted by Castle himself, and he is shown jovially egging the audience 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.81vWXwQMozL._SL1500_

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Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) orders his bride, Maude (Audrey Dalton) to entreat renowned British doctor Sir Robert (Ronald Lewis) to travel to Moldavia to cure him of a peculiar malady.

Arriving at the Baron’s castle, Sir Robert discovers that Sardonicus wears a mask to hide his gruesome face. Meanwhile, the sinister butler Krull (Oscar Homolka) tortures the rmaid with leeches.

With bitterness, the Baron relates how his face came to be so disfigured: years back, he realized that his recently-deceased father was buried with a winning lottery ticket in his coat pocket …

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Reviews:

” …it’s a gem in its own right; a preposterously insipid B-movie with the gothic grandeur to match. Taking place in an Old Europe only a comfortably stateside studio set could provide, as well as the sort of cold, isolated estate you’d expect to find in a cheapie Nosferatu remake, the film might very well be confused for an old fashioned morality tale…” Ruthless Reviews 

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Mr. Sardonicus is a neat little gothic horror film that effectively evokes the memory of the fine Universal horror efforts made 15 to 30 years previously. The story is interesting and compactly told, and benefits from a competent cast anchored by a juicy performance by Oscar Homolka. Unfortunately the film’s atmosphere is marred by cheap theatricals by producer/director William Castle.” Barrie Maxwell, DVD Verdict

“The odd man out of William Castle horrors, Mr. Sardonicus is a somewhat lumpy gothic tale that builds slowly to one scary jolt that colors the whole film. An uneven screenplay and poor production values prevent its good performances from adding up to much, and it finally becomes less than satisfying. But save yourself for that one big scare, and it may be one you’ll never forget.” Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

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” …this Castle concoction is by far the most elegant of his films. Its slow pace and reliance on psychological horror may be offputting at first, but the film has developed a steadfast cult following over the years and remains highly effective for more patient viewers.” Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital

Related: William Castle films on Horrorpedia

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Mr Sardonicus poster

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Categories: 1960s, adaptation of a short story, body horror, gothic

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