There 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.
It 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.
Ramsay 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.
As 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 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.