The Black Sleep (1956)
I would think that if this mad doctor tale had been filmed in the heart of the horror run of the late thirties and early forties by Universal Studios, then history would recall this star studded tale with more affection.
“The Black Sleep, it wakes the dead.”
Had this been a classic era release, Boris Karloff would probably have been cast as the mad scientist, Dr. Cadman. As it is we have another legendary aging star, Basil Rathbone taking on the lead duties with a scalpel in hand. It’s London of 1872 and like the Burke and Hare story, Basil is experimenting on bodies, the problem is that those he experiments on are still living and breathing.
Basil rescues Herbert Rudley from the gallows to open our macabre tale. Rudley is also a doctor and Basil could use the skill of another surgeon to aid in his operating room. Rudley has been convicted of a killing on circumstantial evidence and we will see later on that Basil just may have played a part in the outcome of Rudley’s sentencing. As it is, Basil visits Rudley before the hanging and gives him a drug known as the black sleep. It’s effects are one of catalepsy, when the body by all appearances is dead.
Rudley will awake at Basil’s castle like home and at first is more than willing to help Basil in his research until he realizes that the brain experiments and research are not being done on cadavers but the living. The results on the victims leave them in a somewhat lobotomy like state.
“What happens to them is unimportant. They’ve served my purpose.”
The victims include Lon Chaney Jr. as a mute, Lenny like strong man who does Basil’s evil bidding when needed. Also turning up is an ill looking Bela Lugosi as Basil’s servant. He too is a mute character though it is never made clear if Bela too was a victim of Basil’s experiments. While Bela may have turned up in Plan 9 From Outer Space, this Reginald Le Borg directed feature is really his final movie to be fair. According to legend, Bela would ask for lines on the film and to have a voice. Might there possibly be some undiscovered outtakes? Legend has it that Le Borg filmed some clips to appease the ailing Bela. Le Borg was no stranger to the stars having worked on some of the Universal efforts including The Mummy series.
Serving as Basil’s recruit artist for victims is Akim Tamiroff in the Burke and Hare like role. He’s a tattoo artist who supplies the victims for payment. Akim gets a wonderful scene when he lures a prostitute into his parlor with the promise of money for posing. He’s rather charming as he seduces her with a few coins, all the while plotting her demise.
Did I mention there’s a female lead at the castle played by Patricia Blake? Should I bother to mention that she and Rudley look like a perfect match that could live happily ever after if they can escape the evil clutches of Rathbone? I didn’t think so.
When Rudley and Blake make there way to the dungeon beneath the castle, both we the viewer and them the actors are in for a surprise when they find John Carradine and Tor Johnson as victims chained to the walls just looking for their revenge against the good doctor. Carradine is in full beard looking like a bedraggled Moses and spouting his theatrical ramblings capped by, “Kill! Kill! Kill the infidel!” Poor Tor has been blinded but when the time comes, he’ll engage in a battle of strongmen, facing off against Lon. That’s a battle I might have paid to see had it occurred in Wrestlemania circa 1956.
If your a fan of the classic days of horror it’s hard not to like this silly effort that features Basil, Lon, Bela, Tor, John and Akim. All we’re really missing is Boris and Peter who were still active at this time in other thrilling adventures.
Sure this may have been released a few years too late but think of it as an Expendables like horror title made after the glory days have come and gone.
Thankfully The Black Sleep (aka Dr. Cadman’s Secret) has finally been given a home video release on blu ray from Kino Lorber with a few extras as well including a commentary by the always informative Tom Weaver and David Schecter. Also added are trailers of both the Black Sleep and a Joe Dante introduced Dr. Cadman’s Secret trailer from the 1962 re-issue.