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Oct 12, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 11: THE BLACK SLEEP (1956)


In The Black Sleep (1956) we have a mad scientist performing illegal brain surgeries in a tower, while keeping a dungeon full of the mutated freaks he's messed with. It's in black-and-white with an impressive classic horror cast that includes Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, John Carradine and Akim Tamiroff and it's directed by Reginald LeBorg who has an impressive list of film and television credits in his filmography.  There is also a score of creepy, foreboding organ music. Combine all these elements and you have the perfect midnight movie or Saturday afternoon horror matinee.

I hope you enjoy your coffin. Excuse me I have some more corpses to steal.

Dr. Gordon Ramsay (played by Herbert Rudley, and is nothing like the temperamental Television Chef) has a problem. He's been convicted of a crime he hasn't committed and is a day away from hanging for it. He's visited by Sir Joel Cadman (Rathbone) who gives him a "sedative", an East Indian concoction he calls 'The Black Sleep', to help him get through the hanging. The next morning Ramsay is found dead in his cell from an apparent heart attack and his body is handed over to Cadman. Of course he's not really dead as the Black Sleep only simulates death - although an antidote must be administered within twelve hours or the deceased will become actually deceased. Go figure.

Human Skulls make great paperweights.

Cadman takes Ramsay to his home to assist him in experimental brain surgeries. There, the first indication that something is not right occurs when an enraged Mungo (Chaney) comes charging after a screaming woman (Patricia Blair) and tries to kill her. It could be one of the best entrances ever as Chaney in the usual grotesque makeup plays it to the hilt, gets a POV with his hands stretched out and grasping in front of the camera, then shuffles away afterwards in shame complete with dragging his dead leg behind him. There is also a mute servant Casimir (Lugosi) who faithfully carries out his master's bidding. Odo, the gypsy (Tamiroff), is Cadman's professional 'body snatcher' (I'd like to see that resume) who carries out his work way too eagerly. This Cadman guy surrounds himself with a creepy assortment of employees.

Remember in the old days when you sucked blood and I grew hair and fangs during a full moon?

Soon Ramsay is taken to Cadman's private operating room and watches as he cuts into a specimen's brain and experiments with the various areas of it. There are plenty of direct shots of the skin peeled back and the brain exposed, yet oddly this 'patient' doesn't have a skull protecting his like the rest of us (hopefully) do. Ramsay is shocked to discover that the specimen is still alive and rendered unconscious thanks to the Black Sleep. Cadman convinces him that his experiments are important and that he takes the human life he holds in his hands very seriously.

Come on, it's not like it's brain surgery...oh wait...it is.

Ramsay kind of buys into it but after saving Blair from another Mungo attack, discovers that Mungo - once Cadman's respected and brilliant associate - was transformed into his current state thanks to Cadman's tampering. Ramsay realizes that he had been set up on those murder charges by Cadman, and that his supposed 'victim' also went under Cadman's knife is quite probably still alive somewhere on the premises. If he finds the guy, he can be cleared of all wrong doing. Of course he and Blair go exploring and find more horrors than they bargained for which puts them in danger from the mad Cadman who reveals the reasons for his evil experiments. Yes, it's a slightly justifiable reason but it has also driven him mad.

Maybe this guy can tell us where the restroom is.

While Lugosi, Chaney and John Carradine are stuck in some pretty thankless roles here (neither Lugosi or Chaney have any lines - Lugosi is a mute and Chaney grunts) their presence adds to this film thanks to their iconic horror status. Rathbone is near perfect as the 'mad' scientist who you would never believe he was mad at all, even when he's justifying and carrying out his dastardly deeds.  He plays it as straight and as sane as humanly possible. Patricia Blair does what her role demands - and that is run around and scream, convince the 'hero' of what is really going on and then of course, get into serious jeopardy. Tamiroff really chews up the scenery here, and it is obvious he is having a blast. He gets a lot of screen time, and the movie is better for it. I can't forget to mention Tor Johnson who just needs to show up on film to be awesome. For his brief appearances here, he fills that bill perfectly.

They keep running away and screaming. What's up with that?

As mentioned above, this is a perfect midnight movie and I would also recommend that it would be ideal for a 'scary movie' marathon as it's just the right length and it knows exactly what it is and milks that for all it is worth. So turn out the lights and make sure you have popcorn for this one.