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“For years, I have searched for a unique way whereby a motion picture audience can actually decide the climax of a picture. I have found such a way,” Castle said in the trailer for Mr. Sardonicus, before explaining his gimmick, the Punishment Poll.
The film was based on a story published in Playboy magazine. After Castle read it poolside in Hawaii, he quickly raced to purchase the rights and hired the author, Ray Russell, to adapt it for the screen.
The terrifying tale is about Mr. Sardonicus, whose face is frozen in a horrible expression after he robs his father’s grave. Actor Guy Rolfe had to be fitted five times in order to get the “frozen smile” mask right, and it was so uncomfortable that he could only wear it for about an hour at a time.
Another challenge was working with leeches. Castle wanted to use real ones, but the actress was hesitant. So the director showed her how harmless they were by putting a few on his chest. However, the experience changed Castle’s mind, and he had artificial ones made.
“The sheer joy of making Mr. Sardonicus made it one of my favorite films,” said Castle.
His gimmick for the film came thanks to the studio.
Columbia Pictures disliked the ending and asked him to reshoot it. That’s when Castle came up with the idea of allowing the audience to pick the ending with a “Punishment Poll”.
Movie-goers were given a glow-in-the-dark card (about the size of a baseball card) with the words “Mercy” and “No Mercy” written on opposite sides of a thumbs up icon. Towards the end of the movie, William Castle appeared to ask the audience to vote if Mr. Sardonicus should be shown mercy or no mercy. According to him, their vote decided the ending which would be shown. He even pretends to count the votes on-screen.
Castle said, “It’s always amazed me how bloodthirsty audiences are.”
While Castle maintained that a second ending was filmed and even shown sometimes, this alleged ending has never been found.
While there probably wasn’t another ending filmed, the marketing for the film never gave away the secret. Instead, the poster declared: “The only picture with the ‘Punishment Poll’!”
Actress Audrey Dalton said, “William Castle loved those kinds of movies. He got such a kick out of enticing the audience. He would literally giggle and laugh.”