Monday 15 January 2007

The Black Sleep (1956)

At Newgate prison in 1872, Sir Joel Cadman visits his former student Dr Gordon Ramsey, who has been imprisoned for murder and will hang, even though he claims complete innocence. Cadman slips him some of the black sleep of the title, an Indian drug, which puts him into a trancelike state approximating death. Thus he escapes the hangman's noose by virtue of being proclaimed legally dead and proceeds on to assist Sir Joel in his experiments to further the science of brain surgery.

Sir Joel is played by Basil Rathbone, who looks as old here as he did a decade later in Queen of Blood, and he's far from the only classic horror star here. The initial list of credits reads like a who's who of dark cinema: Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, even Tor Johnson when we get to the second page. Tamiroff plays Odo the Gypsy, an artist of various talents, with an indecent amount of charm and he comes close to stealing whole portions of the film.

To demonstrate his rank in the great ladder of stardom, Lugosi is Rathbone's mute servant, and he looks even older than Rathbone. In fact this was the last real film he ever made, after Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster and before his posthumous appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Chaney, credited only as Lon Chaney, plays a former doctor reduced to a monstrous shadow of his former self. Carradine is a wild eyed prisoner who only appears briefly but notably, raving about the saracens and the infidels, as he believes he's in the Holy Land in the year 1090. Tor Johnson is blind and of course ominous just in appearance.

Of course Sir Joel is a little less sane than we initially believe, and what he describes as somewhat unorthodox practices are the domain of the mad scientist, all to save his beloved wife who is suffering from a deep seated brain tumour. Ramsey only finds out when he and Cadman experiment on a subject he believes is dead, only to discover that it's that black sleep again and they're really carving into the brain of a live human being. Sir Joel is certainly mad but he's also aiming at a lofty and laudible goal. The intent is fine, it's the methods that transcend sanity.

There are other names here beyond the stellar cast. Exotica composer Les Baxter provides the music, which is suitably eerie, and the director is Reginald Le Borg, who surprisingly wasn't really a horror director, given his decent work here and in other films like The Mummy's Ghost and Diary of a Madman. His credits run the gamut of genres and based on his horror work, they ought to be decent at least. This one would have been routine if not for some superb performances to raise the quality.

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