The Black Sleep (1956) with Basil Rathbone

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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 Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) comes around, Cadman explains the situation. Though glad to be alive and having escaped the gallows, Ramsay has concerns about being Cadman’s secret surgical assistant. After participating in an initial surgery, it becomes apparent that Cadman is operating on living specimens to research brain function. With an oddly labeled diagram of the brain, Cadman demonstrates what he has learned. In a final surprise, we learn that the ultimate goal of these surgeries is to cure Cadman’s comatose wife, who has been stricken with a brain tumor.

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.

The second historic sidekick is Bela Lugosi as Casimir, Cadman’s mute doorman. Presumably he is also one of Cadman’s former patients. Having met these two characters, Ramsey is able to discern that each of the mysterious labeling on the brain diagrams correspond to what was learned through surgery on a particular patient.

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.

After Cadman’s body-snatcher Odo (Akim Tamiroff) botches a grab and brings back a corpse, the dam breaks and Cadman forces Ramsay to help him one last time in a dual surgery on both Mungo’s daughter and Mrs. Cadman. Somehow the creatures from down below rise up at the critical moment and, backing away, Cadman steps off the edge (literally) and falls to his death.

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.

Another key shortfall is the use of two legendary stalwarts of horror films. Both Bela Lugosi (in his final film) and Lon Chaney Jr., are entirely mute, and it seems hard to explain how this isn’t a lost opportunity. Though Akim Tamiroff is adequate as the body-snatcher, it is hard not to see Peter Lorre excelling in the role which was planned for him. Sadly Lorre and the production had a dispute over his fee which precluded his starring in the film.

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.

That said, all is not lost. The film is an enjoyable and fast moving romp, though there is perhaps too much dialogue for today’s desensitized viewership. Those with the proper mindset will find this an enjoyable if not overly taxing piece of entertainment.

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.

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Orson DeWelles :