I happen to have been one of those persons who actual read the original Ray Russell short story BEFORE having seen William Castle's film adaptation and, perhaps unsurprisingly, I can reveal that the film is not a patch on the short story. The movie actually plays out more like an episode of Boris Karloff's TV show THRILLER which was running on television at the same time the 1961 film was released. In fact, MR. SARDONICUS' lead actor Guy Rolfe appeared in a much more effective and scary episode of Thriller entitled "THE TERROR IN TEAKWOOD" almost concurrently. The incredibly sepulchral quality of Guy Rolfe, in fact, is the main reason to watch MR. SARDONICUS other than William Castle's whimsical on screen introduction to the film. The two "romantic leads" (Ronald Lewis and Audrey Dalton) are quite bland and unremarkable but Rolfe and his brutish one-eyed manservant Krull (played with Lugosi-like relish by Oskar Homolka) keep things bubbling along with interest. Oh, incidentally Krull has had his eye gouged out by Mr. Sardonicus for disobeying him. Once.
Robert Lewis (also seen in Peter Ustinov's fine film BILLY BUDD) plays a doctor much in the same mold as Henry Daniell in Val Lewton's THE BODY SNATCHER; he in fact is seen in the opening segment miraculously doctoring a paralysed young girl into moving her leg. Lewis' character has recently been knighted for his work in the medical field. He receives a letter from his old flame Audrey Dalton (in fact a veteran of three rather good THRILLER episodes: "The Hollow Watcher", "Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook" and "The Prediction" who was prevented from marrying Lewis because her father said he would never amount to anything. The now-knighted doctor reads the now Baroness Sardonicus' lettre pleading with him to come at once. He arrives in the central European country of Goslava where the film promptly morphs from THE BODY SNATCHER to DRACULA. The local official blanches at the mention of Dracula . . . er, I mean Sardonicus' name and insists that the doctor not go there! Krull arrives with a carriage to take the doctor to Castle Dra. . . er, Castle Sardonicus and it travels through a similar studio-created blasted landscape enshrouded in fog which would've looked perfectly at home in any film adaptation of DRACULA you'd care to mention. The doctor arrives to hear a woman moaning in despair and breaks in to find her tied up with multitudes of leeches attached to her face. It seems the folks at Castle Sardonicus like to experiment with human "guinea pigs" as Krull so bemusedly explains. The doctor is reunited with his old love Baroness Sardonicus but the Baron doesn't make his appearance for a little while longer. When he does, however, his face is shrouded in a blank mask (I suppose the film has now gone from THE BODY SNATCHER to DRACULA to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at this point). There is also a forbidden locked room which no one but the Baron is allowed to enter (shades of every "old dark house" movie you've ever seen) behind which comes hideous slurping sounds. Also, at one point Sardonicus is called away from the dinner table to inspect a bevy of buxom beauties Krull has gathered from the local village. The Baron chooses one of them and sends the others away. The implication of which seems to be that Sardonicus does something horribly monstrous to the girl such as murdering her and eating her flesh like the ghoul he has been implied to be. That would make the movie veer from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA to COUNTESS DRACULA territory. However, this is never even remotely stated in the film and whatever happened to the girl (or any other girls the Baron has brought to his castle in the past) is never explained. For all we know, the Baron and his beauty engaged in nothing more than a night of adulterous whoopee!
Eventually Sardonicus explains his backstory. He was once a poor peasant whose father had been buried with a winning lottery ticket in his waistcoat pocket (the closed captioning of which constantly spells the item of clothing as a "weskit" -- is the whole world mind-numbingly illiterate?!?!?!!!!). Out of poverty and desperation, the poor guy digs up his father's grave but the sight of his decomposed father with a rictus grin somehow causes his own face to twist into a ghoulish permanent grin -- hence the wearing of the mask. Sardonicus pleads with Sir Robert to cure him. And if he don't, he's a-gonna slice up his wife's face to match his so she will no longer bar him from her bedchamber. Events follow along their (ab)normal course and, as I've said, there's really not a lot that happens throughout the film. It does, however, feature the rather nicely cold and merciless "thumbs down" ending where Sardonicus gets his just desserts. Pun intended. Before this ending, Castle famously appeared on screen again with his gimmick "thumbs up" or "thumbs down' card so the audience could vote on whether or not Sardonicus should be punished for his crimes. Although the only crimes we have witnessed the Baron perpetrate are the brief tying up of his wife and threatening her with slicing her face -- which he in fact never does. Oh, well, of course, there WAS that whole "gouging out Krull's eye" incident but that we never see either. Incidentally, contrary to popular legend Castle only ever shot and released the one ending; there was never any chance of a "happy ending" for Sardonicus being shown since it never existed. Admittedly, there's nothing quite like the spectacle of seeing William Castle on the screen counting the audience votes, telling a small boy to sit down so he can count the people behind him, etc. etc. Totally ridiculous and a lot of fun; that's what William Castle was known for and did best. So, while I can't really justify recommending this film to anyone . . . if you've got an hour and a half with nothing to do you could do worse. MR. SARDONICUS is a mildly entertaining (if quiet) movie and after all, it's much better than a poke in the eye.
Oh, sorry Krull. . .