It's a Universal horror movie, starring Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff. It's not one of their famous ones, but that's partly because it's eschewing the regular monster fare and instead perhaps trying to be a bit like Val Lewton. It's also based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, The Sire de Maletroit's Door.
We begin with Charles Laughton, who's looking for a villain. What's more, he's found one. He's played by Richard Stapley and he's a womanising layabout who has fights in bars and shoots a man within the first five minutes of the movie. This is perfect. Soon a elaborate trap is closing around Stapley, who's about to find himself plumbing new depths of eccentric sadism at the whim of Laughton. Suffice to say that what's about to unfold is one of the most perverse schemes for revenge I've ever seen, complete with grand guignol trappings like the machines of a long-dead medieval torturer. (The story's set in 18th-century France, by the way.)
What's great about the story is the way it's so wrong. Laughton's scheme is a masterpiece of lurid pulp villainy, as you'd expect from the master, Stevenson. What's more, it's a battle of wits between rival bad guys. At the start I was cheering on Laughton and merrily wishing the worst on Stapley, but that was before I'd discovered just how staggeringly vile the fat guy was. The entire staff of his castle are crooks and traitors, for instance. He likes it that way. "Could you tolerate an honest man in this house?" The whole lot of them are scum, but Laughton's like an Ernst Starvo Blofeld of self-satisfied depravity. Look at the scene that ends with "I am still your servant" and tell me that's not twisted.
Anyway, it's great seeing Stapley and Laughton unleashed on each other. One of them's going to lose and it's not going to be pretty, so the audience wins!
Fortunately the entire cast isn't unlikeable. There are three noble characters here, although in saying that I'm including the reptilian, murderous Karloff. Of the other two, one has been in Laughton's dungeon for twenty years while the rest of the world thinks him dead, while the other is a kind, beautiful girl (Sally Forrest) who means no harm to anyone. Laughton's plans involve her, too.
So that's the story. The acting's the other reason why you might watch this, with two screen titans up against each other in Laughton and Karloff... and perhaps surprisingly, Karloff wins. He was 65 years old by this point and in a class above the rest of the cast put together when it comes to screen presence, including Laughton. I haven't always been the greatest fan of Karloff, who's occasionally a bit two-dimensional in his movie performances, but here he's awesome. He's playing a particularly servile servant who also happens to have hidden loyalties, a knife and cockroach-like powers of survival. He's Troughton-esque, of all things. This is cool. He also kills a lot of people.
Meanwhile Laughton's a ham. It's rich Laughton ham, carved from the finest pork, but every so often I'd wish there was a little more detail layered into the overacting. Ah well. He's still glorious, capable of making me laugh just with a "hmmmm". Alternatively, look at his scene with the red-hot poker. Wonderful stuff.
Those two are the headline stars and almost any film would be worth watching with them in it. The supporting character actors are also pretty good, with one interesting name being Alan Napier, aka. Alfred in the 1960s Batman series and a cousin of Neville Chamberlain. However the youngsters are less impressive. Richard Stapley's okay, fulfilling the job's requirements without in any way transcending them. Sally Forrest though is bad. She's convincing and basically competent, but she has three scenes where acting was required and she fails to deliver in all of them. I laughed at her delivery of "my father", and not in a good way. Look her up on imdb and you'll see she's really a TV actress who also did some movies in her early years.
Incidentally the director, Joseph Pevney, was TV-level too. He turned out a lot of work, I'll say that for him, but he's probably best known for doing lots of Star Trek episodes and the Lon Chaney biopic, Man of a Thousand Faces. He gets some lavish production values on the screen here and makes a very nice-looking movie, but he doesn't make it creepy.
This film is a lot of fun. It's probably less classy than the original Robert Louis Stevenson story, with Laughton camping it up like nobody's business and occasional glitches like... well, Sally Forrest. The romantic angle fails, for instance. However it's mad, overripe and full of stuff you'd have to be dead to fail to appreciate. Karloff's near his best, I think, in an unusual kind of role for him. Charles Laughton has been given a special opportunity to go over the top and of course goes apeshit with it, which is in itself something to treasure. The film looks delicious. It's a black-and-white Universal horror in a historical setting with lurid villainy, favourite actors and a script adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson. What's not to love?