Mr. Sardonicus 1961
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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." The alternate "merciful" ending purportedly showed Sardonicus being cured and surviving (although co-star Dalton claims no such ending was ever shot). Given that no one researcher 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. 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. A similar variation was filmed for the drive-in market for Castle's The Tingler, but to date no evidence for any variation of Mr. Sardonicus has come to light.
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