Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Black Sleep (1956)

The Black Sleep was released just one year before Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Hammer’s cycle of gothic horror movies would soon make black-and-white horror movies like The Black Sleep look very dated. The Black Sleep does indeed look back to the past, to the great Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s, but today that no longer seems to be such a great problem. We can judge this movie by its own standards and accept that it is a worthy successor to the Universal movies.

The casting is another feature that makes this movie’s debt to the past very obvious. Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr had all starred in Universal horror films. In 1956 that might have been a weakness but to modern fans of classic horror movies it’s a distinct plus.

Basil Rathbone is Sir Joel Cadman, famous as a very distinguished surgeon, but in reality a mad scientist. It is 1872. Dr Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) had been a pupil of Cadman, but now he lies in Newgate Prison awaiting execution for the murder of a money lender. Cadman visits him in his cell the night before the execution and gives him a drug to drink in the morning. He tells him it is a strong sedative that will allow him to endure the horror he is about to face.

When next we see Dr Ramsay he is in his coffin, but he is not dead. Sir Joel revives him and informs him that it is the morning after his execution. The sentence had not been carried out because Dr Ramsay had been fund apparently dead in his cell. But he was not dead. The drug Sir Joel had given him was the Black Sleep, a drug that produces a state of suspended animation indistinguishable from death. He has saved Dr Ramsay’s life, and Dr Ramsay is now to be his assistant.

Cadman is conducting experiments on the brain. He is unquestionably a genius and has gone further than any previous researcher in unlocking the secrets of the brain. Apart from his scientific curiosity he has another reason for his zeal to discover the brain’s secrets - his wife lies in a coma, the victim of a brain tumour. Cadman hopes to use his knowledge to save her. Cadman is aided by the gypsy Odo (Akim Tamiroff) who supplies him with subjects for his experiments.

The secret laboratory of Sir Joel Cadman is soon revealed to be a chamber of horrors, inhabited by the pathetic shells of men and women who had been subjects of his experiments. Men like the great Dr Munroe, now a shambling murderous monster known as Mungo (Lon Chaney Jr). There are other secrets hidden in Cadman’s laboratory, secrets that have great relevance to Dr Ramsay’s own awkward position.

Dr Ramsay had initially been grateful to Cadman for saving his life, but after discovering the nature of Cadman’s researches he is filled with horror. But what can he do? He cannot go to the authorities since that would mean that he would face execution. He must continue to aid Cadman in his experiments whilst hoping for an opportunity to escape from this nightmare.

While Lugosi, Chaney and Carradine share top billing with Rathbone and Tamiroff, the real star is Basil Rathbone. He has by far the most important, and also the most interesting, part. He makes a splendid mad scientist. It’s an understated performance, which makes it all the more chilling. Sir Joel Cadman is a man of science, a humane and civilised man, who also happens to be quite mad.

This is classic mad scientist stuff, with Sir Joel Cadman belonging to the sub-category of mad scientists who started out as sincere seekers after knowledge who somewhere along the way lost the plot and became, without realising it, monsters.

Tamiroff has fun as the gypsy. Lon Chaney gets little to do apart from shuffling about and trying to strangle people. Poor Bela Lugosi gets little more than a non-speaking bit part. In 1956 he had to take any work he could get but it’s still sad to see him reduced to such insignificant roles. John Carradine’s role is also small but he makes the most of it, overacting outrageously as one of Cadman’s patients who is convinced he is Bohemond the crusader, on the way to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens.

Director Reginald Le Borg does a competent job. The visual style of the movie is clearly inspired by the classic Universal horror movies, and that’s no bad thing. The sets look reasonably impressive and in general the movie looks better than you’d expect given its low budget.

The Black Sleep has been released by MGM as a made-on-demand DVD. It’s shamefully overpriced but it’s a nice enough print although it would have been even nicer if they’d released it in its correct aspect ratio. As it is this is probably the only opportunity you’re going to get to see this movie so such minor annoyances have to be overlooked.

The Black Sleep is thoroughly entertaining gothic horror and is highly recommended.

1 comment:

Kho said...

I really emjoyed this one. I was unaware of the film before it was made available as a DVR. Even with the high price, it was a pleasant surprise. Rathbone and all of his major costars are favorites of mine.