The Black Sleep

The Black Sleep 5There are certain movie actors who have come to be known as horror icons. From Lon Chaney to Robert Englund, these are actors who, despite working in many genres, are always thought of for their horror roles first. Our film today features not one, not two, not even three…but four horror icons. Oh, plus one other who is a welcome sight for lovers of Z grade horror and sci-fi. Do you think you can handle 1956’s The Black Sleep?

We begin by meeting Doctor Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley). He is in prison for a crime he did not commit, about to be put to death. He is paid a visit by Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone), another doctor who consoles Ramsay. While there, Cadman put a substance in Ramsay’s drink, telling him it will make it so he will not know what is going on when his sentence is carried out. Just before the execution is to happen, Ramsay is found dead in his cell. His corpse is delivered to Cadman who then revives him. It seems that Cadman has discovered a drug that makes it appear that a person is dead. He calls it “The Black Sleep.” Ramsay is now free, but Cadman needs his medical skills to further his own experiments.

The Black Sleep 1It turns out that Cadman is doing experiments on the brain in his strange castle home. He also has several strange people there with him. This includes his mute butler Casimir (Bela Lugosi) and a brute called Mungo (Lon Chaney Jr.). Cadman soon shows Ramsay his work. He uses The Black Sleep to subdue his patients and then cuts into their skulls to experiment with what areas of the brain control which functions. We later learn that he is doing all this so that he may one day remove a brain tumor from his wife who lays in a coma without risking brain damage. Cadman uses a local gypsy tattoo artist named Udu (Akim Tamiroff) to secure victims for him.

The Black Sleep 2Ramsay eventually learns from one of the servants in the home, Laurie (Patrica Blake), that Mungo is actually her father, who was once a noted doctor himself. She is desperate for Ramsay to help her bring an end to Cadman’s madness. They end up finding the underground dungeon where the former test subjects are kept.. Among them is a man called Bohemund (John Carradine) who thinks himself some sort of prophet, and a man named Curry (Tor Johnson) who is the individual Ramsay was imprisoned for murdering. But just Ramsay is on the brink of stopping the mad doctor, Laurie finds that she is next in line for the operating table.

The Black Sleep 6As I watched the opening credits of The Black Sleep my excitement grew. Four great horror icons…Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine. Then throw in Tor Johnson, who is not as iconic but a great go to monster guy. This looked like it was going to be good! I was sadly disappointed.

The Black Sleep 7The story has pretty big potential. We have a doctor who will resort to any sort of evil if it means saving the woman he loves. Not to mention that Rathbone is great in that part. However, it pretty much stops there. Once that premise is set up, the film kind of sloshes around for awhile before it finally decides it needs to resolve things and roll the credits. What’s most disappointing is that we have these fantastic horror actors who are given nothing to do. Chaney’s part here actually reminds me a bit of the part that Tor Johnson played in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. He’s just the big guy who grunts a lot. He’s supposedly a doctor who’s mind has been destroyed by Rathbone’s character. Yet there’s no hints of the man he once was, no connection with his daughter…so much lost potential. The misuse of Lugosi is an even bigger crime. I found myself drawn to his character quite a bit simply because he’s Bela Lugosi, but ultimately the character contributes almost nothing to the story. Only Carradine is given a great over-the-top moment in the film’s conclusion, all be it very short.

The Black Sleep has both story and acting potential that falls way short of being fully realized. It won’t put you to sleep, but it won’t leave your satisfied either. These great horror actors deserved much better.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark

Elvira 2One of the things we just don’t see much of anymore is great locally produced television programs. I grew up in the Chicagoland area, which was the home of many great locally produced shows. A favorite of mine was our local horror host, Son of Svengoolie. He’s still on the air today, known simply as Svengoolie. The TV horror host is a great American tradition. Of course, one of the most famous was Elvira. Her show originated in Los Angeles, but eventually went to several stations around the country before she hit the big screen in 1988’s Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Elvira 1Elvira (who is actually named Casandra Peterson) has just left her show after a new owner has taken over the TV station. She has big plans to open a show in Las Vegas, but she needs money to do it. Luckily, she gets word that she stands to inherit some of her great aunt Morgana’s fortune, but she must head to Massachusetts for the reading of the will. Upon arriving in Fallwell, MA she quickly starts to upset the locals, especially one Chastity Pariah (Edie McClurg). The local teenagers quickly take a liking to her, however.

At the reading of the will, Elvira learns that she has inherited her aunt’s house, a dog, and a recipe book. Her Great Uncle Vincent (W. Morgan Sheppard) is none too pleased with this and is anxious to try and get the book for himself. See, unknown to her, he’s actually a warlock who has big plans for the book of so-called recipes. At first Elvira is perfectly willing to sell it for a few bucks, but the dog manages to hide the book making that deal fall through.

Elvira 5Meanwhile, Elvira’s involvement with the local teens isn’t going over well with the others in town. She’s even got them going to midnight screenings of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. She pulls this off thanks to getting close with the theaters hunky owner, Bob (Daniel Greene). The prudish locals continue to cause trouble for her, though, even going so far as to tar and feather her at one point. Having had enough, Elvira uses the recipe book to cook up a spell which she serves to locals at a potluck dinner. This, however, opens the door for Uncle Vincent to snag the book by having the townsfolk go after Elvira and try to burn her at the stake for the crime witchcraft.

Elvira 6Like many horror hosts, Elvira’s brand of comedy is a bit corny. That sort of thing works when you’re introducing a late night showing of The Head with Two Things…uh, I mean The Thing with Two Heads, but can it carry a film? In this case no. Don’t get me wrong, I think Elvira is a fun character, but the film just isn’t that funny. The majority of the jokes all have to two with one subject…her breasts. It doesn’t take long for that to wear pretty thin.

Elvira 7It isn’t until the end of the film that we get a glimpse of where there may have been some solid potential for a big-screen Elvira vehicle. The last 15 minutes or so get pretty dark considering the tone of the rest of the film. After almost being burned at the stake, she then has to battle her warlock uncle who seems to be gradually turning into a demon of some sort. He shoots blue lighting out of his fingers, has a strange orange fire breath, and when he loses a hand in the heat of battle, it starts crawling around on it’s own. In other words, the host of tons of cheesy B horror films suddenly ends up in a cheesy B horror film. I dare say the film would’ve been more successful had that been the premise all along.

Elvira, Mistress of the Dark may not be the most entertaining film, but it is an interesting curiosity. I mean, Elvira is the only TV horror host I know of to have starred in her own movie, that’s got to count for something.

Minnie the Moocher

Minnie the Moocher 5The title of today’s film does not seem like it fits in a Halloween series. It’s a Betty Boop cartoon from 1932 called Minnie the Moocher. You may recognize that as the title of the signature song for singer Cab Calloway. Most likely you’ve at least seen his performance of the song in The Blues Brothers. While this short subject may not have a particularly scary title, the images that the Fleischer Studios put in it are definitely of the Halloween variety.

Minnie the Moocher 1The film begins with Betty and her parents involved in a bit of a family spat. Whatever the problem is, it’s got Betty upset enough to decide to run away. So, she calls up her buddy Bimbo who decides to join her. The two head off and eventually end up walking into a dark corner of the forest.

Minnie the Moocher 2Things quickly start to turn spooky and they duck into a cave. There the ghostly figure of a walrus materializes. Yes…I said the ghostly figure of a walrus! With Cab Calloway’s voice, the walrus begins to sing the song “Minnie the Moocher.” As he sings, various other ghoulish characters start to appear. There are some hard-drinking skeletons, some jail-bird ghosts who get strapped to some electric chairs, and an assortment of other flying witches and demons. Eventually Betty gets so scared that she runs back home and ducks under the covers.

Minnie the Moocher 6Why exactly did this classic song conjure up images of ghosts and ghouls for the Fleischer team of animators? Who the heck knows!?! For that matter, why on earth a walrus ghost? Ultimately, I don’t care…the animation is just so darn fun. The walrus is animated by actually rotoscoping over footage of Calloway himself, who puts in a brief appearance over the film’s credits. Let’s face it, it would be a monumental task to get anywhere close to duplicating Calloway’s moves through pure animation. The rotoscoping here works wonderfully and gives the walrus a great flare.

Minnie the Moocher 3Some of the other Fleischer Studio signatures are featured here as well, especially their knack for turning inanimate objects into characters. In the first minute or so of the film alone, a flower talks to betty, a statue comes to life, and Betty’s father’s head turns into a phonograph. I’m not sure what those Fleischers were on, but I want some. The other creepy characters are very well done as well. The skeletons especially have a great detail to them and could give Ub Iwerks’ characters from the Disney classic The Skeleton Dance a run for their money.

I always have a lot of fun with the Betty Boop cartoons and this one certainly is fun. Though it’s not obvious from it’s title, it has lots of crazy creepy images that make it a perfect Halloween cartoon.

All the Colors of the Dark

They're coming to get you 4Just last night I had a pretty scary nightmare. Most people wouldn’t consider it a nightmare, but to me it was. I dreamt that I was back in college trying to find my dorm room and scared out of my mind that I wouldn’t fit in with the others on my floor. All the fears I had all those years ago going were suddenly feeling very real all over again. Compared to the nightmares the main character in today’s film has, mine are nothing. There are some sinister forces at play for sure in 1972’s All the Colors of the Dark, or as it is sometimes known: They’re Coming to Get You.

They're coming to get you 1The film starts with a very bizarre dream sequence featuring a mysterious blue-eyed man with a knife and a naked pregnant woman on a delivery table…feet in the stirrups and everything. These are the dreams of Jane Harrison (Edwige Fenech). These dreams have both her and her lover Richard (George Hilton) quite upset. Richard believes that the nightmares are stemming from that fact that Jane suffered a miscarriage do to a car accident they were both in. Richard is totally against seeing a psychiatrist however, though Jane’s sister Barbara (Susan Scott aka Nieves Navarro) works for a doctor who she thinks can help.

They're coming to get you 2Barbara soon agrees to see the doctor when she starts seeing the blue-eyed man when she’s not sleeping. At the same time, she also meets a new neighbor who lives downstairs named Mary (Marina Malfatti). She suggests that Jane meet with some people who had helped her out with some problems she suffered. The two head to a mysterious mansion and then we meet the other guests. They are led by a strange bearded man with long creepy fingernails (Julian Ugarte). Soon Jane’s clothes are off and they’re all drinking blood. What do you expect out a freaky cult?

Given Jane’s unstable mental state, however, she’s unsure as to whether what she has experienced is real. However, her nightmares seem to be getting better and she willingly goes back to the house. On her next visit, after some more naked ritual stuff, Jane is made to hold a knife while Mary falls on it. Turns out, Mary’s only way out of the cult was death, but first she needed to bring them a replacement…that’s Jane. When she learns she is now bound to the cult, Jane panics. She tries to escape, but now, wherever she turns to get away from the cult, others around her end up dead.

They're coming to get you 3All the Colors of the Dark is an Italian film with a story that takes place in England. The version I watched was dubbed into English. I have to say, I found this bizarre little film quite intriguing. The film starts with this totally whacked out psychedelic dream sequence that leaves you just a bit unsure of what you’ve gotten yourself into right from the beginning. The feel of the film does not stay as bizarre as that opening, though it does have a few more out there moments as things progress. The film also has fair degree of creativity when it comes to the shot composition that gives the whole thing a very unsettling atmosphere.

The evil cult aspect of the story is genuinely creepy. They’re part zombies, part vampires throwing their own little Eyes Wide Shut sort of party with their leader who looks a bit like Alan Rickman with long blue fingernails. That probably doesn’t sound all that intimidating but I found them to be an effective bunch of baddies.

They're coming to get you 6I’ve also got to give high marks to the very beautiful Edwige Fenech. She’s not just some ridiculous scream queen here. Her terror is very palpable. What her character is going through may be somewhat outlandish, but her performance has a certain realism to it. I think had her performance not been so strong, the material may have come off as much more cheesy.

Some viewers today may struggle a bit with the early 70’s feel of the film and the subject matter is certainly not for everyone. However, the film has some solid scares as well as a bizarre creativity that sets it apart from more standard horror offerings.