I first heard about Mr. Sardonicus when I watched a short documentary about William Castle, and already knew the gimmick that Castle, the King of Gimmicks, used to promote this film. Just before the ending of the film, Castle himself appears on the screen to conduct a “punishment poll”, supposedly counting glow-in-the-dark cards with a thumbs up on one side and a thumbs down on the other, which the audience was asked to hold up in response to the question of whether Mr. Sardonicus deserved more punishment. “The couple on the left, is that one vote or two?” the showman asks as he tallies up votes. Depending on which version of the legend you accept, Castle either filmed two alternate endings, but the lenient ending was never used and was eventually lost, or he was so certain that audiences would vote for more punishment, that he only filmed one version. The latter seems more likely, as movie theaters would probably refuse to even show the film if it the screening procedure were so complicated. It is also typical of Castle to make audience think they are getting something which they really aren’t.
Since I already knew all about the gimmick, I decided to just watch the film as a film, not a curiosity, to see how it holds up. The plot is pretty ridiculous. A peasant in a central European region pleasantly named Gorslava digs up his father’s grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket, and act which somehow causes his face to be frozen into a hideous grin. He buys the title of baron then takes to wearing a mask and uses his ill-gotten wealth to torture girls from the village in an attempt to find a cure for his condition. When that doesn’t get him anywhere, he summons an imminent surgeon from London, who happens to be the spurned fiance of his wife. Perhaps anticipating Botox, the doctor theorizes that poisons may be injected directly into the face. When it is finally revealed, the Baron Sardonicus’ distorted grin is indeed creepy, if not entirely convincing, but Oskar Homolkova, who plays the sadistic servant of the Baron looks like he has rubber bands pasted to his eyelids.
Corny marketing gimmicks aside, Castle was doing something fairly ambitious. Although it was clearly filmed on sets, Castle set the film in Europe in 1880, at a time when medical science in England was making great strides, and both add to the atmosphere of the film. I would say that Mr. Sardonicus is somewhat reminiscent of the British horror films of Amicus studios, but Amicus was not founded until one year later. And although the story the screenplay was based on was originally published in Playboy magazine, this is probably the closest Castle ever got to literature.