The Terror Drug That Wakes the Dead!
Basil Rathbone comes to mind for most as the definitive Sherlock Holmes or perhaps to a smaller and more dedicated set as the foil to Errol Flynn’s Peter Blood or Robin Hood. What true die-hards will also know is that Rathbone is often considered among the big four of American International Pictures’ horror pictures, with the others being Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff.
After Rathbone opted to walk away from the highly successful Universal Sherlock Holmes series, he found the roles offered him changed. As a result, he leaned more towards Broadway and television, though he continued to make frequent feature film appearances. Frequently however, his roles on the big screen were spoofs of characters he had become famous for earlier in his career.
Perhaps partially to capitalize on an upcoming television syndication deal involving most of the original classic ‘movie monster’ films, United Artist distributed what at first seems a trite rehash of classic horror elements, 1956’s The Black Sleep.
In a twist on the classic mad scientist plot, Rathbone is neurosurgeon Sir Joel Cadman. He has not only discovered an Indian herbal concoction which mimics death in those who imbibe it but has also developed an antidote to bring on our of the resulting comatose state. As the picture opens, he uses this process on Gordon Ramsay, one of his former medical students who is facing the gallows for murder.
As we progress a bit further we learn that there are a few oddball folks around to periphery of Rathbone’s madness. First there is Mungo, played by Lon Chaney, Jr. Mungo is mute, prone to violent outbursts, and is one of Cadman’s patients. His muteness is the byproduct of surgery to correct his previously paralyzed left side. A few minutes further on we learn that Mungo is actually Dr. Monroe, a former colleague of Dr. Cadman. Also he is the father of one of Cadman’s current nurses.
Ramsey and Mungo’s daughter head down into what can only be described as a recovery room to discover a plethora of Cadman’s former patients, all with a variety of ailments induced purely by Cadman’s experimental surgeries. Alarmed and scared, the duo are discovered by Cadman and his gruesome household staff and escorted back upstairs.
The Black Sleep is a really good imitation of a horror film. But things start to fall apart at the start. It is hard not to sympathize with Rathbone’s character. He isn’t some psychopath on a rampage of random violence, but rather is guided by a very specific (and perhaps laudable) goal.
Though the cast is strong, it is clear that The Black Sleep was viewed by the studio as a ‘B’ picture in the clothing of an ‘A’ film. Though creative lighting helps to hide their shabbiness, it is clear that the sets are thin and often lack more than even tertiary depth. Take note especially of Cadman’s recovery room, deep in his castle’s dungeon- there is no definition to the stonework outside of the mortar-work between the stones.
Outside the sets the other serious flaw is the casualness with which the film steps on most standard aspects of then-contemporary horror films. We have the loud and sorrowful music of Lex Baxter. Cadman’s secret hideaway is of course a castle complete with a dungeon and a secret door hidden behind a fireplace. That, coupled with the menagerie of lost souls, all of which lack any real definition, is what keeps The Black Sleep from reaching a more prominent place in horror movie lore.
Though The Black Sleep fails in most every aspect to do more than merely imitate the genre, it rises far above simple crassness. Basil Rathbone is his usual charismatic self and even though no one would count this among his greatest performances, his usual staccato diction almost exclusively drives the picture into respectability.