England, 1872. The night before he is to be hanged for a murder he did not commit, young Dr. Gordon Ramsey is visited in his cell by his old mentor, eminent surgeon Sir Joel Cadmund. Cadmund offers to see that Ramsey gets a proper burial and gives him a sleeping powder to get him through the night, which Ramsey takes, unaware it is really an East Indian drug, "nind andhera" ("the black sleep"), which induces a deathlike state of anesthesia. Pronounced dead in his cell, he is turned over to Cadmund, who promptly revives him and takes him to his home in a remote abbey. Cadmund explains he believes Ramsey is innocent and needs his talents to help him in an project, which he is reluctant to immediately discuss further. In fact, Cadmund's wife lies in a coma from a deep-seated brain tumor, and he is attempting to find a safe surgical route to its site by experimenting on the brains of others, whom Ramsey comes to learn are alive during the process, anesthetized by the "black sleep", and ... Written by
Rich Wannen <RichWannen@worldnet.att.net>
From what I've heard about this one, I expected an Ed Wood style farce. What I got was a surprisingly literate and well-acted classic horror. The flaws are definitely present, but this flick has some genuinely chilling moments and boasts 3 outstanding performances.
Dr. Cadman, the mad scientist behind this whole house of horrors, is superbly played by Basil Rathbone. This was probably the last good horror role Basil had. He portrays Cadman as a supremely self-confident and utterly controlled man who has willingly tossed aside all ethics and morality in pursuit of his goal. Rathbone's command of dialog and smooth diction brings this human monster to life. And yet, in the scenes with his paralyzed wife, we feel some of the love and devotion that underlies his horrific crimes.
Cadman's partner in crime is the sly Udo the Gypsy, wonderfully brought to life by Akim Tamiroff. What a great character actor this guy was! His every facial expression and physical movement conveys what a greasy, unprincipled character Udo is. And yet his quick wit makes him roguish and likable in a way. It would be a mistake to consider Udo just a humorous character,though. The scene where he easily disposes of a prospective subject for Dr. Cadman to save his own hide is chilling. Great bit of character acting from Tamiroff!
The hero of the piece is Dr. Ramsay, whom Cadman has saved from the gallows to aid in his illicit research. Ramsay is played by Herbert Rudley, who I have not seen in any other roles. Rudley fits the part perfectly and more than holds his own in his scenes with Rathbone. I like the way he carefully tries to weigh all sides of the argument against Dr. Cadman before finally takes action against him. Rudley's revulsion against the crimes of Cadman seems heartfelt and authentic.
Those three strong performances anchor the movie, but not all cast members are so fortunate. A sickly looking Bela Lugosi is wasted completely as the mute butler Casimir. This was Bela's last "official" movie role not counting the stock footage that appeared in Ed Wood's "Plan Nine From Outer Space", which is a shame. His acting ability and speaking voice is wasted on a part that could have been done by any bit player. Lon Chaney Jr. comes across somewhat better as the moronic Mongo because of his physical size and truly crazed look, but he still deserved better. Mongo was originally a cultured professor and associate of Dr. Cadman until Cadman botched an operation on him. It might have been better to have Mongo as a "Jekyll-Hyde" character that veered between the man of science and the maniacal killer...more pathos that way and a better test of Chaney's acting.
A couple of scenes here are still capable of making the viewer queasy. The open brain surgery scene on the hapless sailor had to be shocking at the time...complete with fluid leaking from the brain. And the "tour" of Cadman's dungeon is right out of a carnival haunted house. John Carradine is crazed and over the top are the "crusader" Bohemund but he's in good shape compared to his cell-mates: the shrieking, laughing female with tufts of hair sprouting all over her body; the luckless sailor whose face has melted into slag; and hulking Tor Johnson, made blind and voiceless by Cadman's experiments. This is a nutty crew of mutants indeed and when they finally appear, "The Black Sleep" turns from a literate thriller of medical horrors into a sleazy, spook-house romp. "Kill, kill, kill!" yells Carradine crazily, and kill he does, bringing a visceral end to the movie.
If you don't require "Dr. Zhivago" or "Lawrence of Arabia" in every film, "The Black Sleep" should keep you awake for a while!
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