Friday, May 26, 1972: The Black Sleep

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: This is the third broadcast of The Black Sleep on Horror Incorporated, and I don’t really have much more to say about it than in my previous posts on the film.  I looked up external reviews on IMDB to see if I could find a contrary opinion that I might argue with, but there seems to be a drowsy consensus on this mid-50s indie production: it’s seen as a clear homage and throwback to Universal’s golden age of horror, but nevertheless a rather dreary production that comes up short on delivering the goods.

Dave Sindelar notes its similarity to The Unearthly, which also featured  John Carradine and Tor Johnson; he also expresses a dislike for Akim Tamiroff’s performance, which he called “a little over-the-top”, which is quite an accomplishment for someone in the same movie as John Carradine.

Richard Scheib found it “talky and static”, allowing that the early scenes “create a (relative) sense of medically grounded realism” but that before long the movie is undermined by its own cliches – “the ethically-challenged scientist; a madman (Lon Chaney, Jr) in the house; a mute retainer (Bela Lugosi); deformities of failed experiments kept in the cellar; a scientist’s innocent daughter needing saving; laboratories improbably hidden beneath swiveling fireplaces in the library.”

The only participant who gets away relatively unscathed is Basil Rathbone, whose authoritative delivery made him a natural for these late-period mad scientist pictures; one can imagine him stepping into one of Hammer’s Frankenstein productions had Peter Cushing been unavailable. In fact, Scott Ashlin does imagine it, saying:

[I}t’s too bad Rathbone got pigeonholed so early on as Sherlock Holmes. He had a commanding elegance about him akin to that later displayed by Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and which nobody else on the 30’s and 40’s horror scene could match. Lionel Atwill and John Carradine came close on occasion, but Atwill was always a little too foppish and Carradine a little too homespun to play the depraved Old World nobleman with Rathbone’s authority; neither of them would have been up to the challenge of Tower of London’s Richard III, for example. As Joe Cadman, Rathbone simultaneously prefigures the Cushing Frankenstein, and hints at all the brilliant mad movie scientists that might have been if only Rathbone hadn’t been so busy chasing Nazi agents all over the English moors during the years of the second Hollywood horror boom.

Interestingly, Scheib claims that Lugosi worked on The Black Sleep after Ed Wood shot his home-movie-esque footage for Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959); I’m not sure of the timeline myself, but either way it seems clear that this was Lugosi’s last screen role, and not Plan 9, as is often claimed.

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2 comments

  1. Hero Herbert Rudley was such a comic presence on television that I found him hard to take in this role. Lugosi and Chaney serve as little more than window dressing, while Carradine at least gets to rave as only he can. For all the star power assembled, only Rathbone has a good part. Akim Tamiroff apparently came cheaper than Peter Lorre, who certainly could have done better as the gypsy Odo (his only other genre film was 1967's embarrassing THE VULTURE).

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  2. Yes a waste of talent for what was the last roundup of the classics, Lugosi, Chaney, Carradine and Rathbone all together. Still, its an ok movie but could have been soooo much better. As has been noted before, it was heading toward Hammer territory with the exposed brain and sawing skulls etc.

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