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William Cameron Menzies
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>
A major revelation and treat for fans of classic horror cinema
The Black Sleep is a film I have only just seen for the first time, thanks to TCM. I'm a die-hard devotee of vintage horror films. As such, I have known about this movie for decades from the occasional reference to it in those dear old monster magazines of the 1960's and 1970's. Now that I've finally seen it, wow.
The ensemble of noir horror film stars assembled for this feature is unparalleled. I got pretty excited just to see the line-up during the opening credits. And I'm happy to report that none of them are wasted, each has a pretty cool character role to play, and puts in a good, sometimes great performance.
After the tantalizing title credits, the story gets underway quickly. The plot is taut and well-conceived, but what really got to me was the vivid characterizations. In fact, this film has given me a whole new clue about where those clever script-writer blokes at Britain's Hammer studios might have gotten their radical new concept of Dr. Frankenstein (with his riveting mix of elegance, obsession with his vision of what he's trying to do, and ruthlessness of determination to not let anyone or anything stop him). "The Black Sleep" features Basil Rathbone in a role that clearly foreshadows Peter Cushing's Frankenstein. It strikes me as ironic because in 1939 Rathbone played Dr. Frankenstein (in "Son of Frankenstein") but his characterization in that film was more consistent with the Universal Studios concept of the character (as originated by Colin Clive). The unscrupulous manner in which a medical assistant is recruited (by deception, blackmail, or whatever) to the mad scientist's cause, the sheer strength of will and personality dominance of the mad scientist, the refined sense of style and taste that contrast so dramatically with the psychopathic lack of conscience--all this and more appears in Rathbone's character, as it did for the first time the following year in Hammer's Frankenstein films. But "The Black Sleep" adds one extra motive and personality element we never saw in the Hammer Frankenstein films: the mad doctor's anguish over his comatose love, hidden away from prying eyes.
Lon Chaney Jr. probably drew upon his previous portrayal of Lenny ("Of Mice and Men") for the role he plays here. But after Basil Rathbone steals every scene, it's John Carradine who steps up to challenge him for scene chewing. This is an actor who has been in so many horror films, quite a few of them as undistinguished as can be, too often wasting his talents. If you're a Carradine fan and have ever lamented this, I'm pleased to prescribe "The Black Sleep" as the cure--his part and acting in this film are must-see. For my price of admission, this film has the best-acted, best-realized roles ever played by Carradine and Rathbone, both. Their greatest moments on screen may well be right here in this little, under-seen low budget masterpiece.
This is a surprising, unsung classic, highly recommended for lovers of the old black and white horror films.
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