|Mr Sardonicus (Merciful Ending)|
|The infamous "Punishment Poll"|
During the film’s original theatrical run, audience members were given a “punishment poll” — a placard printed with the image of a thumb — before entering the theater. The use of the placards is explained onscreen at the film’s climax.
The title character of Mr. Sardonicus, played by Guy Rolfe, is a shady aristocrat, lurking about his castle in the fictional European country of Gorslava, hiding his face from the superstitious locals. In flashbacks, we learn that he was once Marek Toleslawski, a common peasant with a lust for wealth. Marek’s father, dreaming of a better life for his son, buys a ticket for the national lottery, but dies before the drawing and is buried with the ticket in his pocket. The ticket, of course, proves to be a winner. So consumed is Marek by greed that he violates his own father’s grave to retrieve the ticket and claim the enormous jackpot. He succeeds — but is so traumatized by the sight of his father’s grinning skull that his own face is permanently fixed into a hideous contorted leer.
Marek’s newfound riches buy him a castle and the bogus title of Baron Sardonicus, but his wife is driven to suicide by the sight of him and he is shunned by everyone. Seeking to cure his horrible rictus, Sardonicus resorts to weird science, murder, and extortion — even threatening and betraying his second wife (played by Audrey Dalton).
In the end, an experimental treatment performed by Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) wipes the smile off Sardonicus’ face — but leaves him with his face completely paralyzed, unable to speak or even eat; he seems doomed to a slow death by starvation.
All seems lost. But before he departs Gorslava, Cargrave informs the Baron’s servant Krull (Oskar Homolka) that Sardonicus’ paralysis is only psychosomatic. If told this, Sardonicus will almost certainly be fully cured, repent his evil ways, and reform his life. But if not, he will surely die. The choice rests entirely with Krull, who has suffered much abuse at the Baron’s hands.
The "Punishment Poll"
At this point, the narrative pauses, and director William Castle appears onscreen to address the audience directly. He explains that the fate of Baron Sardonicus is in the hands of the audience, and instructs the theater ushers to tally the vote and screen the appropriate ending.
In the “No Mercy” ending, Krull — who hates the Baron after years of being abused and overworked — returns to the castle without telling Sardonicus the turth about his condition. Krull sits down at the banquet table, laden with a sumptuous feast, and begins to eat as Baron Sardonicus collapses in silent despair.
Evidence for the Existence of the “Merciful” Ending
Director William Castle stated unequivocally that he had indeed shot a “merciful” ending to the movie, but its existence is unconfirmed. As far as is currently known, there are no contemporary accounts of such an ending ever having been filmed or screened.
Castle maintained in his autobiography Step Right Up! that the “merciful” ending existed, but was never actually needed. Castle claimed that he only shot the sequence at the insistence of studio bosses, just in case — but that the audience demanded the “no mercy” ending every time the film was shown.
There is ample reason to doubt Castle’s account, however. He was a consummate showman, and was known to exaggerate, if not outright fabricate. And he tips his hand somewhat in his onscreen appearance, breaking the fourth wall freely, pretending to count the votes himself.
In any case, if a “merciful” ending ever existed, the print has probably been permanently lost. The overwhelming likelihood, though, is that such an ending never existed in the first place— that the whole thing was an elaborate ruse. Without independent verification, however, it remains a tantalizing possibility.