Synopsis: Dr. Gordon Angus Ramsey (Herbert Rusley) has been convicted of murder. On the eve of his hanging, he is visited by one of his old medical school professors, Sir Joel Cadman. Ramsey swears to Cadman that he didn’t commit the crime, and Cadman seems sympathetic. He gives Ramsey a vial of powder and instructs him to mix the powder with water and drink before dawn on the morning of his hanging. This, Cadman promises, will put him in a such a state of torpor that he will not be aware of the hanging at all. He also assures Ramsey that his body won’t be turned over to the medical college for dissection, as is normally done with convicts’ bodies; instead, the body will be turned over to Dr. Cadman himself.
When the guards come for Ramsey the next morning they find his dead body lying in the cell. The body is transferred to Dr. Cadman, who once back at his lab gives it an injection. At once the body goes into convulsions; minutes later, Dr. Ramsey has come back to life.
This, Dr. Cadman tells an astonished Ramsey, is the work of an ancient drug known as the Black Sleep; it perfectly simulates death; and as long as the antidote is given within 24 hours, the patient can be revived. A grateful Ramsey agrees to assist Dr. Cadman with his brain research.
While at the Cadman estate, Ramsey witnesses young Laurie (Patricia Blair) being attacked by a wild-eyed patient, Mungo (Lon Chaney, Jr). Mungo seems deranged and is apparently carries a visceral hatred for Laurie. Ramsey tells Cadman that Mungo reminds him of someone he once knew, Professor Monroe, who was one of his instructors in college. Cadman tells him that Mungo is indeed Professor Monroe; moreover, Laurie is his daughter.
Dr. Ramsey assists in experimenting with the brain of a cadaver when he notices cerebral fluid running down the surface of the brain. How can this happen on a cadaver? he asks Cadman. It isn’t a cadaver, Dr. Cadman replies. The man they are experimenting on is alive, kept in a state of suspended animation by the Black Sleep.
When Dr Ramsey protests, Cadman tells him that this is the only way to conduct the research that will benefit all mankind. He reminds him that Dr. Monroe will benefit when he is able to unlock the mysteries of the human brain; so will Dr. Cadman’s wife, who has been in a trance-like state since a brain injury.
But little does Dr. Ramsey know that Cadman was the one who arranged for him to be tried and convicted of murder, in order to recruit him as an assistant in his ghoulish experiments….
Comments: The Black Sleep is often called a throwback to an earlier era of horror, for two reasons. First, it is the sort of gothic mad scientist picture that was popular in the 1930s, but decidedly unfashonable when it premiered in 1956; and second, it boasts an impressive number of washed-up horror stars in its cast, giving the strong impression of an homage to the glory days of Universal horror.
Unfortunately, while the actor’s names might have been useful in generating box office, the actors themselves don’t fare well. Bela Lugosi walks through his mute servant role with a pained expression and a palpable sense of physical frailty; the good humor that he displayed in such unfortunate productions as Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire has utterly evaporated here. He’s reached the end of the line and seems to know it — and in fact, this would prove to be the last time he worked on a movie set. (Plan 9 From Outer Space is technically his final screen credit, but that hardly counts — Lugosi died after shooting less than a minute’s worth of home-movie-quality footage).
Lon Chaney, Jr’s drinking problem had more than caught up with him by this time and he looks sallow and unhealthy, no longer able to memorize dialogue and therefore appearing here – as he did in most of his late film roles — as a rampaging brute. John Carradine, who always seemed quite comfortable in the most dismal settings, seems no less comfortable here; and Tor Johnson, the new kid on the block, upstages the old guys somewhat with his trademark blank-eyes-and-gaping-mouth performance.
While he wasn’t a horror star per se, Basil Rathbone had played the title role in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein nearly 20 years earlier. He had moved on to bigger and better things in the meantime, and appearing in this film must have felt like a big step down for him.
But throwback that this is, The Black Sleep is also something of a missing link. While aping Universal’s golden age of horror, the movie anticipates the Hammer cycle of horror films that defined the genre for the following decade. The old Universal films almost entirely implied their ghoulishness and anything grotesque occured offscreen*. In this film, we see a patient laid upon an operating table, a flap of skin folded back and his brain exposed, and we’re treated to a close-up of cerebral fluid dribbling down the brain’s convoluted surface.
This icky detail must have been quite lurid for its time, and it is treated with the solemnity of acolytes wishing to impress the master. Hammer, by contrast, used blood and gore with the barely-concealed glee of prankish schoolboys. The Black Sleep was made in a time when Universal’s golden age was remembered fondly, even though its characteristic restraint was seen as a bit old-fashioned. By the time Hammer studios got into the business, Universal’s horror films seemed much creakier, and movies like The Black Sleep, which wanted to be seen as daring and innovative, were quickly forgotten.
* In fact, James P. Hogan’s The Mad Ghoul we never see a single drop of blood — even though it’s a movie about a man turned into a zombie, who can only return to normal by digging up freshly-buried bodies and eating their hearts.