A host of old-school horror stars can’t awaken one from The Black Sleep
The Black Sleep is a United Artists picture from 1956, during the later part of Universal Pictures monster films, and it does suffer from the association; though it features horror greats Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugosi, their presence is stifled because of their older age. They’re present in The Black Sleep more for their names than any importance to the plot.
Reginal Le Borg directed the film, who was no stranger to horror pictures in a similar vein. Likewise, Basil Rathbone stars as the mad doctor Sir Joel Cadman, a man who has developed a new anesthesia called the Black Sleep that causes the user to appear quite dead to regular eyes. The catch is that the antidote to the serum must be administered within 15 minutes or the patient actually dies.
It works out well for Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley), who is about to be sentenced to death after the murder of a man named Curry. He claims he’s been wrongly accused, and Cadman believes him, so he slips in some Black Sleep and manages to steal Ramsay’s body back. Ramsay wakes up a free, undead man, but he’s forced to take part in Cadman’s experiments in his dark castle.
There’s no way that this quid pro quo is actually going to be legal, and Ramsay soon finds that out: an assortment of strange people live at Cadman’s estate, including Mungo (Chaney Jr.), an ape-like man who has lost his ability to control his rage, and Casimir (Lugosi), a mute. The rest of the odd ones are kept in the secret basement under the house, a horror show that Ramsay uncovers as he stays with Cadman. It is Cadman’s scheme that causes these monsters; not only does he administer Black Sleep to people suckered in by Cadman’s friend Udu the Gypsy (Akim Tamiroff), he also performs dangerous surgeries on them to figure out how to eliminate a tumor in his wife’s brain.
The Black Sleep is your standard mad scientist affair, structured with all of the requisite parts you’d expect. While Cadman seems nice enough, there’s certainly an underlying motive to his charities that the viewer will pick up on; it shows the naivety of Ramsay and the others that stick around to help with the debauchery. Le Borg works with the comfortable mold of many other films before The Black Sleep about the abuse of science.
This means it’s a familiar movie, but not one without its merits. It’s nice to see people like Tor Johnson show up as mutilated peoples, and the climax of the film allows the house of monsters to team up to kill the man who crippled them. However, there’s a black humor to the monsters that is somewhat offensive; it’s all hammed up to the point where the monsters themselves are ineffectually scary, more like caricatures of mentally ill people.
There are worse United Artists films from this era, but The Black Sleep is a Lugosi/Chaney, Jr./Rathbone film that doesn’t match the sum of its parts. Highly derivative, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better in earlier Universal pictures, and in the right setting, it most likely will put you into a deep slumber.
Connection to Halloween: Other than the stormy shots of giant castles, dimly-lit basements with walls bearing torches, and the connection to the old-fashioned movies that TCM and AMC used to like to show on Halloween night… Nada.