When I saw the cast list, I wondered why I'd never heard much about The Black Sleep. Not only does it feature Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Bela Lugosi, but one of the roles was intended for Peter Lorre. Now, after finally watching it, I realize it's a lesser effort in which these great horror legends appear only briefly. The movie rests squarely on the shoulders of Basil Rathbone, and they're not quite strong enough to hold it.
Actually, that's not exactly true. Rathbone is perfectly mysterious and malicious as the mad doctor, Sir Joel Cadman, who's performing all kinds of unauthorized brain surgeries in hopes of learning how to cure his wife's brain tumor. His delivery is dry, though, and there are quiet scenes that depend solely on his intense stare. Consequently, there are entire passages that seem longer than they really are, supporting the illusion that the overall movie runs slow.
I much less like Herbert Rudely, the actor who plays the leading man/hero, Dr. Gordon Angus Ramsay. Perhaps he's miscast, because he's not very good in the role. As a colleague of Cadman's who's set up for a crime he didn't commit, then sentenced to be hung, it's like he never quite wakes up from "the black sleep," the drug Cadman uses to fake his death so he can free him and trick him into helping with his experiments.
The Black Sleep plays much like an imperfect version of a Universal Monsters classic. However, it was produced by Bel-Air Productions for distribution by United Artists. If it's any indication of what to expect, Bel-Air produced Voodoo Island with Boris Karloff a year later. Director Reginald Le Borg made that film, too, as well as a quartet of Universal horrors in 1944 (Calling Dr. Death, Weird Woman, Jungle Woman, and The Mummy's Ghost).
There are two interesting camera angles in The Black Sleep. With one, from the foot of a coffin, we see Ramsay sit up in it toward us. With the other, from his point of view, we see Mungo's (Chaney) hands outstretched as he threateningly approaches Laurie Monroe (Patricia Blair). In a third interesting shot, although it's not due to the camera position, we see a fairly realistic view of an exposed brain, with a big flap of head skin pulled back.
While the story is familiar, the screenplay by John C. Higgins (Robinson Crusoe on Mars) pays attention to some details I wouldn’t have expected. For example, when the aforementioned brain surgery is completely bloodless, dialogue makes a point of explaining why. That wasn't necessary; I would have assumed it was because of studio standards or something. On the other hand, it was 1956 when this type of story, set in 1872, would soon be old-fashioned.
Back to the stars. Chaney, Carradine and Lugosi are all (SPOILER ALERT) victims of Cadman's experiments. Two of the three don't even speak… they can't, and the third delivers what must have been the first of many animated rants of a crazy man. I'll let you guess who is whom. In his final movie, Lugosi's performance is the saddest. He looks good, but is relegated to the background, reacting to the action instead of taking part in it.
Lugosi's "buddy" from the Ed Wood days, Tor Johnson, plays Curry, another victim of Cadman's. With all-white eyes, his image is perhaps the most familiar to be associated with The Black Sleep, and provides it with one of its charms. In a way, this movie provided better-respected jobs for both Lugosi and Johnson. Compared to Bride of the Monster, it sends Lugosi out on a high note, but is a quality blip for Johnson, who then returned to Ed Wood.
Written by John C. Higgins (story by Gerald Drayson Adams)
Directed by Reginald Le Borg
Starring Basil Rathbone, Herbert Rudley, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson
Released June, 1956
RT 82 min.
Home Video Kino Lorber