Thursday, June 29, 2017 02:02

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) is a young doctor who has successfully pioneered a treatment for atrophied muscles – his career seems destined for great things. He is startled one day, however, at being personally handed a letter from his former fiancee, now married to one Baron Sardonicus, begging his urgent attendance at her home in Eastern Europe. Together with the Baron’s servant Krull – the type of mildly disfigured, unquestioning manservant you might warmly expect in a film like this – they set out for the Baron’s house.

But all is not well Chez Sardonicus. Sir Robert has walked into an ersatz medical testing unit, where servants are tormented with leeches, and where the now Baroness, Maude (Audrey Dalton) is by turns evasive and distressed. The Baron himself is even more of a mystery: he receives nubile young houseguests who ‘disappear’, and his sinister manner is only outweirded by the mask he always wears in company. Sir Robert is determined to find out quickly why he has been called there; as soon as they are alone, the Count obliges, with a ghastly bit of Gothic storytelling…

Once a simple peasant, the now-Baron was bought a lottery ticket by his elderly father who died shortly thereafter. Nothing seemed unusual about this, as the old man frequently gambled, but one day a visitor from the city tells them that their ticket was a winner. And where was the winning ticket? In the buried father’s waistcoat pocket. The Baron retrieved the ticket by disinterring the old man – but the sight of his father’s retracted, putrefying grin generated enough shock to cause a ‘hysterical rictus’ – and ever since, the Baron had been wealthy, but horribly disfigured with a hideous grin of his own. Now, the doctor must help him, or Maude will be similarly disfigured…

This is high Gothic campery from William Castle, but it’s not limited to that: Mr. Sardonicus has atmosphere, good, if slightly stagey performances all round, and some genuinely grotesque moments. It is aware of its limitations, but it doesn’t sacrifice too much by being occasionally tongue-in-cheek. Of course, there is some typical Castle gimmickry in the form of an ‘audience poll’ at the end, but it’s all in good fun and doesn’t derail the film. Recommended for any fans of ‘The Old Dark House’-era horror.

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