Directed By: Reginald Le Borg
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr.
Tag line: "The Terror Drug That Wakes the Dead!"
Trivia: The hands performing the brain operation are those of an actual neurosurgeon at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, hired by the producers to make the operation look authentic
There’s nothing quite like an old-time, star-studded horror film, and even though The Black Sleep came a bit late in the game, it still featured some of the genre’s biggest and brightest.
London, 1872. Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) is a day away from being executed for murder, though he has no memory of actually committing any crime. His mentor, brain surgeon Dr. Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone), pays him a visit, and during their short time together slips a drug into Dr. Ramsay’s drink, telling him it’s a sedative that will dull his senses when he’s taken to the gallows. The next morning, Dr. Ramsay is found dead in his jail cell, the victim of an apparent heart attack, and per the instructions of the court, his body is turned over to Dr. Cadman’s assistant, Odo (Akim Tamiroff).
But Ramsay is not dead; the powder that Dr. Cadman put in his drink was, in reality, a drug from the east known as the “Black Sleep”, which shuts down the body’s main functions, making it appear as if the person has died. Once Dr. Cadman and Odo administer the antidote, Ramsay immediately wakes up, and, thankful for his life, agrees to accompany Dr. Cadman to a laboratory on the coast, where he will help the noted specialist develop a new type of surgery. If successful, this revolutionary procedure could make fatal brain tumors a thing of the past, but as it turns out, Dr. Cadman is actually looking for a way to cure his wife Angelina (Louanna Gardner), whose own tumor has kept her in a comatose state for several months. And after meeting some of the “survivors” of Dr. Cadman’s experimental surgery, including Mongo (Lon Chaney Jr., The Wolf Man) and Casimir (Bela Lugosi, Dracula), both of whom have suffered major brain damage, Dr. Ramsay begins to believe that his benefactor is quite insane.
Released in 1956, The Black Sleep is a decent horror flick with an interesting premise and at least one fairly graphic operation scene, in which the two doctors slice open the brain of a sailor (George Sawaya). But what makes this movie a must-see for genre enthusiasts is its extraordinary cast, starting with lead actor Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Son of Frankenstein), playing a man who fully believes that nothing, not even human life, should stand in the way of medical progress. In addition, The Black Sleep features Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil) as Odo, the gypsy assistant who “finds” the men and women that serve as Dr. Cadman’s guinea pigs (the role was originally written for Peter Lorre, but was recast when Lorre’s salary demands were too high); and Herbert Rudley, who’s damn good as the sole voice of reason, Dr. Ramsay.
When it comes to the genre’s big-name stars, however, some fare better than others. Lugosi, in what would be his last completed film, isn’t given much to do as the mute servant Casimir, while Lon Chaney Jr. shines as Mongo, who, when he isn’t lurking in the background, usually has his hands around the throat of Dr. Cadman’s nurse, Laurie (Patricia Blair).
Toss in John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath) as a loud-mouthed preacher and Ed Wood regular Tor Johnson (Bride of the Monster) as a blind giant, and you have a film that’s sure to please any fan of classic horror.