Nineteenth century Europe is the setting for this gruesome tale of curses, disfigurement, and pleasures of the flesh.
The story opens at the London clinic of Dr. Robert Cargrave. He’s a busy guy who graduated at the top of his class and is hard at work investigating the use of various poisons in curing paralysis. He has no time for a love life but that is more to do with his beloved, Maude, marrying a rich Eastern European weirdo , Baron Sardonicus, at the behest of her mother. He is obviously still in love though since he bolts from his office without a second thought when Maude summons him to her new home in “Gorslava.”
Gorslava is about as rosy a place as you’d expect but it does have a railroad stop and a kindly clerk who warns the doc to go back home. Too late though as the butler shows up and he is one freaky cat who rocks a crushed eyeball and a surly manner. He takes the doc on a bumpy coach ride to Castle Sardonicus. The castle is a dour place with lights burning in certain windows to make the place look like an enormous skull.
Maude hasn’t aged a day but is quick to say that living in the boonies is fine since her husband buys her the latest books, fashions, and musical scores. One look around proves that he saved a lot of money not buying pictures for the frames on the wall, or mirrors for that matter. Mr. Sardonicus doesn’t show up till dinner. He makes a grand entrance in a bizarre mask that he always wears. That night the doc has a hard time sleeping with all the screams coming from somewhere in the house where Mr. S is entertaining a trollop from town.
We soon learn that it was Sardonicus who insisted they invite the doctor over . Turns out Mr. S has a story to tell and it’s a whopper. Flashbacks reveal he was a poor slob with a shrewish wife and no prospects until he finds out his dearly departed dad was buried with a winning lottery ticket. He digs up the ripe gent and loses all composure when he sees the death grin on his father’s corpse. He cashes the ticket but wakes up to find his mouth frozen into similar smile .
Now he can’t close his mouth and must subsist on broth and water until he can find a cure. Worse he threatens to have his servant slash the Mrs. so she’ll have a matching smile unless Cargrave cures him. The doc accepts out of love for Maude and concocts a scheme to cure Sardonicus using a combination of poisonous elements and reverse psychology. His cure is not all that it seems and Sardonicus finds out the hard way that his cruel demeanor has wrought him an even crueler fate than rocking a “Joker” face.
This one is a corker . It is rife with atmosphere and talented actors thanks to director William Castle. He was that rare showman who actually read books and hired good writers to adapt them . Here he uses Ray Russell (who wrote the novel as well). Russell actually tones down some of the sexual tension form his book (which had Sardonicus threaten to consummate his marriage if the doc didn’t cure him). Castle was the king of the gimmicks and this one has the “Punishment Poll.” The film pauses before the finale and Castle appears and asks the audience to decide if Mr. S deserves even more misery. The audience would then hold up cards ,they got in the lobby ,saying yay or nay. Then the ending would be shown based on the response. Turns out Castle was having fun . No matter how audiences voted there was only one ending and it wasn’t a pretty one for Mr. Sardonicus. this one should have achieved cult status but it was resurrected in a storyline for the hit series ‘Wiseguy” wherein the hero ran into a bad guy who idolized the film and forced him to recreate scenes from it.
Best line: “This time, the leeches will get better acquainted with you.”