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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Black Sleep (1956) review



Basil Rathbone (Dr. Joel Cadman), Herbert Rudley (Dr. Gordon Ramsay), Akim Tamiroff (Udu), Lon Chaney Jr. (Mungo/Dr. Monroe), Bela Lugosi (Casimir), John Carradine (Bohemond), Patricia Blake (Laurie Monroe), Phyllis Stanley (Daphne), Tor Johnson (Curry)

Directed by Reginald LeBorg

"I, who have been knighted by my Queen for my achievements in surgery... doctor, I would put my knife into the brains of a hundred men, a thousand, to destroy them all... if I could restore her to me for just one day."

The Short Version: This bizarre quasi-exploitation obscurity is a Frankenstein movie in all but name only. Basil Rathbone is the leader of the bloody band that includes extended cameos by Lon Chaney, John Carradine, Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson in a wild, 82 minute monster mash. It's Rathbone's party and you'll die if he wants you to in an attempt to revive his comatose wife by performing brain experiments on hapless victims via his 'Black Sleep' drug. Of course, this being a horror movie, all his brain poking and prodding lead to a number of deformed madmen and madwomen. Some will be put off by the limited screen time of so many terror titans, but others will evade a 'Black Sleep' from boredom and enjoy this slight, but efficient little shocker.

Dr. Ramsay awaits his hanging when he's visited by the esteemed surgeon, Sir Joel Cadman. Requiring the condemned man's services in his experiments, Cadman offers Ramsay a way out -- by consuming a drug he calls 'the black sleep' that prevents the subject from feeling any pain, and gives the appearance of death. Resurrecting Ramsay a short time later, Cadman takes him to his castle where he will assist in brain experimention allegedly to cure insanity. Unknown to Dr. Ramsay, Cadman has other insidious plans, and is willing to do anything to further his work all the while keeping a menagerie of deformed, failed experiments in his dungeon.

Seeming out of place in 1956, THE BLACK SLEEP feels like it belongs to a decade ten to twenty years earlier -- till it gets to the last 15-20 minutes when the picture plunges into a wild cornucopia of insanity. Other than a few moments of gruesome brain surgery, it's fairly reserved till then. At any rate, it's slickly directed by Reginald LeBorg; and Clarence Steenson's (ROCKETSHIP X-M [1950], DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE [1965]) set design captures the Gothic ambiance of the 1872 English setting. However, there's one major selling point that will either be the 'make it, or break it' with genre fans.

Possibly the single most damaging thing about the movie is how talky it is; and while it's populated with a flurry of horror icons, so few of them get to utter a bounty of the dialog. Bela Lugosi plays the mute servant, and Chaney Jr. never utters a line, either. Carradine gets some lines and goes suitably overboard when he finally appears towards the end. Tor Johnson is simply window dressing, and looks virtually identical to the way he did in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959). It's all left to Rathbone, which is fine, as he carries the film off to his laboratory and turns himself into a monster.

Rathbone is thoroughly evil here. We already know he couldn't possibly be up to any good right from the beginning; but the film builds up to the moment where he reveals himself to be little more than a knighted Dr. Frankenstein. In fact, LeBorg's movie could easily be a Frankenstein movie -- the difference being that Cadman works on LIVING subjects. In another parallel, the plot detail about Cadman experimenting over and over again, and failing each time in his quest to revive his comatose wife Angelina is akin to the later EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1959).

LeBorg's movie spends a great deal of time with Cadman and his increasingly hesitant assistant regarding the usage of 'The Black Sleep'. It occasionally teases in fleeting moments -- as memorable as they are -- with its magnificently morbid cast of horror greats. They mostly shine during the finale where the picture picks up a great deal of steam. It's in the last 10 minutes when Cadman's mutants and crazed, failed experiments escape their bondage and kill off a handful of the cast members. Cue a wide-eyed Carradine shouting "Kill! Kill! Kill the infidels!" as he wallops people over the head with a crutch. A few years later, Carradine would essay a more gentle, but no less wild-eyed zealot in 'The Howling Man' episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Meanwhile, Chaney's insane, foot-dragging madman is double teamed by Tor Johnson's brain-dead zombie and a deformed maniac.

Going back to the PLAN 9 reference, it's hard to watch this movie and Ed Wood not spring to mind what with Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi (who had just been released from drug rehab before appearing here) putting in what are ostensibly extended cameos. THE BLACK SLEEP could be viewed as the most polished, wonderfully acted movie Wood never made.

Reginald LeBorg was no stranger to strange movies. He followed up THE BLACK SLEEP with the equally daffy VOODOO ISLAND (1957) starring Boris Karloff. Over a decade earlier, he helmed THE MUMMY'S GHOST and JUNGLE WOMAN (both 1944), the first sequel to CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943).

Some viewers might find this 82 minute shocker plodding, especially considering the brief screen time afforded the level of talent on hand. The trailer does the film no favors in this respect. You're led to believe they are a bigger part of this fear feature than they actually are (they all receive prominent billing, too). Aside from Rathbone, the other big names are essentially supporting roles. On the other hand, some viewers will still have a lot of fun with this one especially as Rathbone is so good at playing an inhuman bastard in this movie. Far from a classic, THE BLACK SLEEP is a minor gem that promises more than it delivers; but it's quite a bit of wacky fun just seeing so many of horror's heavyweights together in the same movie.

This review is representative of the MGM MOD DVD.

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