William Castle’s deliriously goofy Mr. Sardonicus doesn’t quite reach the dizzying brilliance of either The Tingler or Strait-Jacket, but it’s a gem in its own right; a preposterously insipid B-movie with the gothic grandeur to match. Taking place in an Old Europe only a comfortably stateside studio set could provide, as well as the sort of cold, isolated estate you’d expect to find in a cheapie Nosferatu remake, the film might very well be confused for an old fashioned morality tale, if not for the fact that Castle himself makes an appearance to delight in the villain’s suffering. Under the guise of a “punishment poll” (a particularly clever Castle gimmick), the director emerges from a dry ice fog to ask the audience whether or not the nasty Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) should be given a last-minute reprieve. Given that only one possible outcome was actually filmed, and that Castle is one of cinema’s most gleeful, smirking sadists, we are delighted to have our baser instincts confirmed. The Baron, in fact, will be destroyed at last. But that’s for the conclusion. The journey to that indelible moment is so engaging and bizarre that we can’t help but wish our current hacks had Castle’s wicked regard for cheap, satisfying entertainment.
The story itself is all Castle: Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), a respected doctor with the power to heal every conceivable ailment with what amounts to a gentle massage, is summoned by the creepy Krull (Oscar Homolka) one evening to visit the home of Mr. Sardonicus. All is shrouded in mystery, but the bait is sweetened when Cargrave is informed that his former love, one Maude Sardonicus (Audrey Dalton), is also in dire straits. Of course it’s a trap, but who knew that in the end, Cargrave would be asked to use his medical knowhow and revolutionary techniques to give Sardonicus a new face. You see, the Baron has lived for years with an unholy grin (imagine the Joker with wax lips and Mr. Ed’s set of choppers); a curse laid upon him after he dug up his father’s grave to retrieve the winning lottery ticket he accidentally placed in his pocket. Who knew the old man would finally have a run of good luck, even though it took dying to see it through. And so we flash back to that fateful night in the cemetery, when the Baron’s life forever changed after coming face to face with his rotting husk of a dad. We too see the body, and it isn’t that revolting, but apparently the guilt is too much for poor Sardonicus, and his new-found riches are soon tempered by Hollywood’s worst-ever make-up job. No wonder they shroud the actor in shadow most of the time (that is, when he isn’t wearing a mask).
In some ways, we can’t blame Sardonicus for his methods (he tells Cargrave that if the “surgery” fails, he will be swiftly killed by Krull), but he’s soon established as an even bigger bastard by kidnapping pretty women for sick experiments. Under the guise of a “night with a millionaire,” Sardonicus selects a single beauty among many to submit to unthinkable torture. It is claimed that these women are dying to help Sardonicus lose the smile, but we know he’s just a bad, bad man. To dispel any further doubt, he hangs people by their thumbs and keeps a secret room under lock and key, where disobedient victims are sent so that they can spend some quality time with the Baron’s dead father. An added quirk is the Baron’s insistence that while picture frames dot the estate, no pictures will be found within them. As Krull explains, “The baron is an unusual man, of unusual convictions. In such frames, ordinary men would honor the portraits of their forefathers. But the baron has disowned his forefathers in one magnificent gesture.” It’s the kind of dialogue that would have made Ed Wood proud.
In the end, the doctor is successful in removing the grin (he seems to have used an experimental muscle relaxer and more vigorous massage), but in the spirit of The Twilight Zone, Sardonicus’ face has so relaxed that he can no longer open his mouth. The irony! Watching the nasty Baron attempt to eat and drink after realizing his new curse is a comic highlight, though one filled with unexpected pathos. Not really. It is then that Cargrave reveals his own secret: he used a simple placebo, while the grin (and locked mouth) are both psychosomatic afflictions that could have been reversed with simple will power. All those riches, and no way to save himself. And so Sardonicus will die alone, afraid, and at the hands of an angry Krull, who uses the Baron’s weakness as an opportunity to get revenge for losing an eye to his master’s savagery. If only Castle had found a way to sneak in Vincent Price before the credits rolled.