Name: The Black Sleep
Release Date: 1956
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Writers: Gerald Drayson Adams (story); John C. Higgins (screenplay)
Basil Rathbone: Sir Joel Cadman
Akim Tamiroff: Odo the Gypsy
Lon Chaney Jr.: Mungo (aka Dr. Monroe)
John Carradine: Borg aka Bohemond
Bela Lugosi: Casimir
Herbert Rudley: Dr. Gordon Angus Ramsay
Patricia Blair: Laurie Monroe
Phyllis Stanley: Nurse Daphne
Tor Johnson: Mr. Curry
Run-Time: 82 mins.
Unapologetically schlocky, shot on a shoestring and made to be forgotten almost as soon as they were released, Hollywood used to crank these babies out with the same regularity that snack bar clerks dished up buckets of overly buttered movie theater popcorn.
Clocking in at a spare 82 minutes, “The Black Sleep” bats for the cycle when it comes to the classic tropes of B-Movie Hollywood: the paper-thin plot; acting that, when it’s not gloriously hammy is terrifically wooden; a house with a poorly lit dungeon and at least one secret door, and (my personal favorite) an all-star cast.
But where George Clooney and his rakish, late-period Rat Pack pals might make this kind of movie for modern audiences with a knowing wink and a nod, the all-star cast assembled for “The Black Sleep” plays their respective roles absolutely straight.
Practically twirling his moustache with every utterance, the legendary Basil Rathbone anchors the film as Sir Joel Cadman, a Victorian-era scientist (later found mad, natch), who’s obsessed with the functions of the human brain.
Cadman, the viewer soon learns, has a disturbing proclivity to slice into the noggins of still-living subjects to find out how the organ works. The motivations for this sadism in the name of science are initially a little murky, but become clear in the film’s absolutely rushed finale. I don’t want to give too much away, but will say the reason rhymes with “schmick schmife.”
The trio of all-star hitters is rounded out by a frail, elderly and barely recognizable Bela Lugosi, as well as Lon Chaney Jr., a master of disguise whose only costume here is a set of tortured eyes and a pronounced limp.
The sonorously toned Lugosi plays a mute in this flick, while Chaney, rendered a near zombie by Rathbone’s experimentation on his Medulla Oblongata, mostly just grunts and tries to strangle people.
The repertory company is completed by Herbert Rudley, as Dr. George Angus Ramsey (who ably fills the role of the lantern-jawed leading man) and Patricia Blair as nurse Laurie Monroe, an apparent honors graduate of the Fay Wray School of Leading Lady Screaming.
Because when she’s not clasping her hands with worry or making goo-goo eyes at Rudley’s Ramsey, Blair lets loose with horrified wails that few starlets can pull off with any sort of conviction anymore. They start deep at the center of her and sort of doppler past you as they head straight for the upper registers.
The plot here is almost beside the point, but I’ll run it down anyway. Rathbone’s evocatively named Cadman spends the opening act performing a series of gratuitous and increasingly gruesome operations on his live subjects, who have been rendered inert by a mysterious eastern herb called “The Black Sleep” (there’s the title for you). And, oh, did he mention that his patients will die unless he administers an antidote within 12 hours of their going under? And there’s this gypsy guy who procures the bodies for him (the scenery-chewing Akim Tamiroff).
Rudley’s Ramsey assists on these procedures. And, for reasons again not made clear until the film’s jumbled final moments, Cadman has seen fit to spring him from prison just hours before Ramsey’s executions on trumped-up charges that he murdered a money-lender.
Gradually, Rudley’s Ramsey, with the aid of his doe-eyed leading lady, gradually works out why Cadman is performing these operations, which leads him on a tour of the obligatory dungeon behind the secret door I mentioned earlier.
The pay-off here is a tour through a chamber of botched surgery victims that includes a guest-appearance from the late wrestler Tor Johnson.
Extra-credit film trivia: Johnson, like Lugosi, was also a stock player in the performing company of another 1950s schlockmeister, Ed Wood.
Suffice to say, Cadman gets his in a death scene that happens so quickly that you’ll miss it if you turn away from the screen for too long.
The end of the movie plays as if the filmmakers realized that they were running out of cash and celluloid and needed to wrap up affairs before the studio figured out what they were doing.
Despite these glaring weaknesses, “The Black Sleep” is enormous fun — just the sort of flick that makes a sleepless night or slow Saturday afternoon pass more quickly.
That’s mostly because “The Black Sleep” doesn’t aspire to be anything more than it is: Namely, 82 minutes of straight-up entertainment, the sort made before Hollywood realized it had to deliver this kind of material to jaded audiences with a ladleful of irony and knowing self-mockery.
And that is its own form of craftsmanship.