Tuesday, February 06, 2018

The Black Sleep

THE BLACK SLEEP is not very good — United Artists played it on double bills with the superior THE CREEPING UNKNOWN — but horror fans have a soft spot for it because of its cast. Not that its horror icons are treated well. Not counting the silent footage Edward D. Wood Jr. spliced into PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE after the actor’s death, Bela Lugosi makes his final film appearance in THE BLACK SLEEP, but in a relatively minor part as a mute butler, meaning he is given no dialogue. He died a few weeks after the film was released.

Faring little better than Bela in the dignity department is Lon Chaney Jr. (THE WOLF MAN), also playing mute as a hulking idiot named Mongo. The star is Basil Rathbone (TALES OF TERROR), playing a once-respected surgeon trying to cure his wife’s brain tumor by kidnapping unwilling test subjects for experiments that leave them drooling mutants and locked up in his basement dungeon. He uses an Indian drug called “the Black Sleep” to simulate death in his guinea pigs. Rathbone’s performance is very good, finding sympathy buried in the John C. Higgins (BORDER INCIDENT) screenplay and playing it more subtly than a horror movie about drooling mutants would suggest.

Filmed at Ziv Studios on a $230,000 budget by director Reginald LeBorg (THE MUMMY’S GHOST), the picture also features John Carradine (HOUSE OF DRACULA) as a raving nutcase, Akim Tamiroff (TOUCH OF EVIL) as Rathbone’s Gypsy assistant (a role intended for Peter Lorre, who priced himself out of it), and PLAN 9’s Tor Johnson as, what else, a monster. LeBorg shoots a remarkable scene (for the era) in which Rathbone and his new assistant Herbert Rudley (THE SILVER CHALICE) expose a patient’s brain and cut into it with clear fluid pouring out.

Despite its small budget, THE BLACK SLEEP is not a bad-looking picture, shot in black and white by Gordon Avil (KING DINOSAUR) on decent Ziv sets and given a nice Les Baxter (HOUSE OF USHER) score. It was Lugosi’s first picture after leaving rehab for his drug habit, and the producers milked it for a great deal of publicity. It must have worked, as THE BLACK SLEEP was a money maker that earned a theatrical re-release in 1963.

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