Prime Cuts: The Black Sleep (1956)

Note: This was written for a roundtable on another site that fell through due to lack of outside response, so I have graciously stolen it back for your Halloween reading pleasure. With all the great older genre stuff that is turning up on Amazon Prime, it was suggested that everyone pick something suitably weird and do a writeup in hopes of finding a hidden gem (or a horrible warning, whatever works).

large-screenshot2When the illustrious Kenneth Begg suggested a reader roundtable on movies available on Amazon Prime, that was a pretty damned broad remit. So, while sorely tempted to just finally finish that review of Scooby Doo and KISS: A Rock and Roll Mystery (It’s on Prime. It counts!) that I’ve been threatening the blogosphere with for several years, I gave myself some further guidelines: It should be something produced prior to 1970, that I had never seen, and which aligned with the aims of the site as a whole, i.e. reviews of bad and/or low budget (primarily genre) films. It also had to be reasonably short as I’d put off finding a film until far later than planned. With those goals in mind, I turned on the ROKU and started scrolling though the Science Fiction section of Amazon Prime in hopes that something would catch my eye.

While the notorious (but generally entertaining) stinker Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) is often touted as Bela Lugosi’s final film, it really only contains a few minutes of Lugosi test footage from a feature abandoned at his death, with a new plot constructed to take advantage of what was already on celluloid. His final completed film was The Black Sleep (1956), another cheap-o potboiler, but one with, for this sort of thing, a reasonable budget (250k) and an all-star cast.  In addition to Lugosi, we have a slumming Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr. (not yet at the nadir of his career, but well on the slippery slope), John Carradine (making yet another appearance to class up the joint in exchange for a cash infusion to his perpetually struggling Shakespeare troupe) and Tor Johnson (pre-Plan 9, but post-Bride of the Monster). I have no idea how I made it to this point in my B-Movie watching career without at least having heard of this, but it’s entirely new to me.

The movie starts with the inevitable voiceover giving a brief history of Punjabi “living death” drug Nind Andhera also known as The Black Sleep. All of which we will both see and hear reiterated several times throughout the film. This is representative of the level of trust the filmmakers will have in the audience throughout. The titles appear first in Hindi then dissolve into English. Incidentally, the titles look really good for a film of this type. That is also true of the costumes and sets throughout. The film may be a bit static, but it never actually looks cheap. I presume they had access to sets and costumes from a more prestigious production but if so, I have been unable to determine which. And the prolific Les Baxter (who would go on to do sterling work on AIP’s Poe productions) provides the score.

We open at Newgate Prison in 1874, (that’s actually the Tower of London in the shot, but nobody is going to notice that, right?) where unjustly condemned prisoner Dr. Gordon Ramsey [Herbert Rudley] (no, not that Gordon Ramsey, not an F-Bomb in sight) awaits his coming execution in the morning. Famed neurosurgeon and Ramsey’s former teacher, Dr. Henry Cadman, [Rathbone] enters and assures Ramsey that while the death sentence stands, he has been able to procure special clemency allowing the body to be taken for Christian burial instead of to the cadaver lab at the local medical school for dissection. Cadman spikes Ramsey’s drink with a mysterious black powder and tells him to drink it in the morning. It is a sedative to alleviate suffering during the execution. And if you believe that after the opening voiceover, um…

Come morning, the crowds at the gibbet are vocally disappointed to be denied their hanging by the inconvenient overnight death by heart attack of Dr. Ramsey. The body is claimed by Gypsy tattoo artist Odo [Akim Tamiroff, doing his best to channel Peter Lorre when the latter decided he wasn’t being paid enough to do this sort of thing] who delivers it to the castle (natürlich) of Dr. Cadman, who injects the “corpse” with a mysterious fluid, only to see Dr. Ramsey fully restored to life and health. You see, Dr. Cadman needs a capable assistant, familiar with his work and methods, to help him complete his research and Dr. Ramsey, now legally dead and beholden to his liberator, exactly fits the bill.

movie-the-black-sleep-1513400043-bigIt is at this point I realize that, instead of an old-fashioned pre-Romero zombie film, we have a fairly sedate mad scientist story that will unfold in an entirely predictable fashion over the remainder of its 82 minute running time before ending abruptly when the budget (and film) runs out. You see, rather than a zombie drug, The Black Sleep is a super-anaesthetic, producing a death-like state of suspended animation under which brain surgery (or any other, I suppose, but for the purposes of this film definitely brain surgery) can be carried out with complete confidence in the patient’s non-awareness. But woe if the antidote isn’t administered within 12 hours or living death will become plain old regular death.

There are a few nice bits here. The sets are appropriately grandiose. I like the care taken to make sure that the fake funeral takes place in the proper denominational church (apparently, Ramsey’s a Presbyterian). And we finally get the first glimpse of Bela Lugosi as the good doctor Cadman’s Butler. He does have the proper appearance of a frail old retainer, such a shame some of Cadman’s experiments have left him mute.

belastandingThis is quickly followed by the introduction of Lon Chaney Jr. as man-mountain-monster Mungo, who lumbers into the room while threatening beautiful young assistant Laurie [Patricia Blair]. Mungo in turn can only be controlled by Obviously Evil™ surgical nurse Daphne [Phyllis Stanley]. Then a prompt trip upstairs to meet the beautiful Angelina [an uncredited Louanna Gardner], a comatose woman with a brain tumor who looks awfully damned good for someone who’s been in a coma without supportive care for eight months.  We learn the full extent of her identity via some lovely expository dialogue where Cadman tells his comatose wife that she’s his wife, all while he explains his plan to fix her, to her.  All the major players having now been established with ridiculous efficiently, we can get down to actual mad scientist shenanigans.

From here on out you can more or less write the script yourself. Ramsey will continue to pepper in God’s lomein with reckless abandon until a key dropped in the wrong place turns loose all his really failed experiments (yes, by these standards, Mungo could be deemed a success) and both Karma and Scotland Yard will arrive just in time for an extremely abrupt Happy Ending™.

image-w448Along the way we get some surprisingly not inaccurate, but certainly anachronistic and overly-simplified, medico-babble. There are some pretty great brain surgery scenes as well (captured by dint of having an actual neurosurgeon provide the hands for the close shots).  The instruments are even correct, although again anachronistically modern. The medicine worsens as the film goes on, of course, with brain damage eventually causing such ridiculous results as causing one’s face to melt off, but at least it starts out grounded in real theory.

There are also a whole list of Mad Scientist film tropes on display. Cadman lives in a castle, with his secret lab, down a secret passage attached, naturally, to the secret dungeon, where he keeps the cases that really went wrong. He has a beautiful, ill. wife to drive his madness, and there’s the lovely daughter of a victim to provide Dr. Ramsey with the hero’s requisite love interest.

I wasn’t kidding when I said you could write the script yourself, it is rather like they had a mad scientist film checklist to go down and worked their way through in order. And this could work if the filmmakers had simply embraced the absurdity and pushed everything just a tiny bit over the top from the beginning. Unfortunately, what we have instead is a horror picture that is clearly made by people who disliked horror pictures. Everything that is the slightest bit unrealistic has to have a reasonable explanation. At one point, they stop the film in its tracks to offer an explanation for why a reputable surgeon would do all of his work in a secret room. I mean it’s a great secret room, but I don’t care that it was built by monks during a contentious period of British history. He works in a secret room because he’s a mad scientist. Duh.

The fact that they actually work so hard in the early part of the film to make the science plausible ends up being more of the same. Way too much talking about the science, (so the audience will understand that this is a realistic film, not one of those tacky, ugh, horror things) not enough actual mad science-ing. This distaste for the very genre it exemplifies had me first suspecting the film was British, that sort of conflicting vision was par for the course in British horror pictures right up until Hammer came along.  Any suspicion in that direction was proven false by the entrance of a character with what is literally the worst fake Cockney accent ever committed to celluloid. Seriously, her “Cocklyn” accent makes the lady in From Hell It Came sound like Queen Elizabeth II.

Fine Jane, I hear you asking, but we were promised not three, but five horror icons, what about Tor Johnson and John Carradine? Unfortunately, despite prominent billing on Amazon’s listing for the film, they are merely bit players, previous subjects locked in the lab’s dungeon, although we do get to see a great photograph of Mr. Johnson with hair when Scotland Yard starts poking into things (this bit will also make Ramsey’s false conviction hilarious in hindsight, as you’re supposed to believe a jury convicted the rather weedy doctor of beating Tor Johnson to death and then hiding the body so well it was never found). In the end, Carradine comes out the best of the lower-billed horror cohort, he gets minimal screen time, but at least it’s a speaking part, which is more than any of the others manage.  Admittedly, it’s mostly wild-eyed ranting about infidels and Saladin, while gesticulating broadly towards those in the cheap seats, but he is refreshingly entertaining after the slow pace and ambivalent tone of everything that has gone before.

Lugosi ends up even worse than in Plan 9 when it comes to minutes of screen time, he has perhaps four or five brief scenes, all played mutely, (something it has in common with the latter film) though with a great deal of evocative physical and facial acting that reminds you that the man was, in fact, an accomplished theater actor for years before Dracula. Chaney is mostly here to be big and threatening and a dangerous object of pity, he’s given no more to do than Bela, but at least he gets to groan a bit. Rathbone is the star, and makes the most of the opportunity to play the brilliant, self-possessed, and utterly amoral Dr. Cadman. Rathbone is always a professional and demonstrates an air of understated and cerebral menace while never giving in to the temptation to the hysterics that seem to overtake so many mad scientists when the wheels come off.

Overall, I’d describe this as a competent, if sometimes rather dull, piece of low-budget filmmaking. No lost classic here, but certainly not the worst use of 82 minutes. The visuals show none of the corner-cutting you’d expect in a budget production and the sets are rather too good. The acting by the main cast is solid, but the direction is staid at best and the ending abrupt, leaving a number of characters unaccounted for. Nevertheless, it’s a generally satisfying little flick, not least because of the interest provided by having so many famous golden age horror names in the cast, no matter how underutilized all but Rathbone turn out to be. If you take it for what it is, a minor mad scientist picture with a gimmick cast, it stands pretty well. Just don’t go in expecting the “Famous Schlock Classic” promised by the overwrought copywriters at Amazon, and you should be just fine.

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