“Beyond any terror ever known, The Black Sleep, it wakes the dead, plunging you into a reign of terror.”
London, 1872. Dr. Cadman (Rathbone) has discovered an ancient drug that mimics death in every way. It puts the person in a deep sleep he refers to as the black sleep. He considers it to be an important step in his surgical experiments. He needs a capable assistant. Dr. Ramsay (Rudley) has been convicted of killing a man. He is about to be executed when Cadman uses his drug to help the condemned man escape the noose. Now using the alias of Dr. Gordon he is taken to Cadman’s secret laboratory. There he discovers that Cadman has been experimenting on unwilling subjects and turning them into deformed creatures he keeps chained in a dungeon. Cadman believes that anything is justified in the name of science, particularly when he’s trying to learn all that he can about the functions of the human brain so that he can cure his wife, 8 months in a coma brought on by a brain tumor. Ramsey wants no part of the hideous work and tries to escape with the help of Cadman’s young assistant Laurie (Blair).
The Black Sleep is probably one of those cheap little movies that you haven’t even heard of before. It wasn’t much of a box office success and is a pretty good candidate for the MGM Limited Edition Collection. There just aren’t going to be a lot of takers for this one. Still, while you might not have heard of the movie, I bet you a year’s supply of DVD-R’s that you’ve heard of a few members of the cast. This was Bela Lugosi’s second-to-last film just before working on Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space. Lon Chaney, Jr. had pretty much run his course at Universal and was already playing in whatever B pictures that came along by 1956. For the two of these Universal Monster originals, this was a low point in their careers. Both would end up with non-speaking parts. Chaney would play a once brilliant scientist who has been reduced to a moaning hulk of a violent beast. Lugosi would argue with director Reginald Le Borg for lines and was actually given a few, but they ended up on the cutting-room floor. The result is a rather pitiful example of the end of an incredible career as a mute house servant. Basil Rathbone, of course, achieved fame at Universal, but not for playing in monster films, although he would do a number of those, as well. He was best known for his portrayal of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes in 14 films. Here he carries most of the weight of the film in the mad-scientist role, one he once played so well in The Son Of Frankenstein. John Carradine played Dracula in the two Universal House films and had a remarkably long career in the traditional creepers. Here he plays another tragic result of experiments gone horribly wrong. Coincidentally his madness causes him to believe he is a Crusader defending the City Of Jerusalem against the invaders, the same year he played Aaron, brother of Moses in The Ten Commandments. Tor Johnson was a wrestler turned actor who was also known for his work with Ed Wood. He would appear in both of these last two movies with Bela Lugosi. His imposing frame made him quite an intimidating creature without the need for much makeup.
So how is it that such an illustrious cast could have come together for a movie lost to obscurity? Unfortunately, all of them were pretty much at the end of their careers and were used more for their nostalgic value than anything else. Le Borg really didn’t know how to use them, and with the exception of Rathbone, their talents were largely wasted in short “scare” moments without much meat to sink their thespian chops into. The cast made the best of a bad situation and appear to have had somewhat of a good time with the exception of Lugosi who didn’t always appreciate the light mood on the set. He was the butt of one of those moments in an infamous incident where Chaney lifted him over his head. He took it well on the outside, but Lugosi’s ego was severely bruised by the whole affair. In an attempt to show their respect, Rathbone and Chaney had a leather-bound copy of the script prepared and got everyone to sign it. The script was presented to Lugosi at the end of shooting.
Again, this is where this collection can really shine. Fans of this amazing cast might be interested in seeing the effort. Now that’s finally made possible. To keep even a relative stinker like this one from being seen would be “criminal, monstrous”.