The Black Sleep
MGM // Unrated // $19.98 // March 15, 2011
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 3, 2011
Highly Recommended
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Both prescient and a throwback to an earlier age, The Black Sleep (1956) is a wonderfully entertaining horror film with an all- (genre) star cast, including Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and big Tor Johnson. It's a lower-budgeted effort ($225,000, a 12-day schedule), uneven and somewhat marred by casting/character issues, but there's also a sincere attempt to make this a kind of spook show extravaganza. It delivers the goods despite a few dull stretches, and this obvious affection is conveyed to its audience.

Part of MGM's "Limited Edition Collection" movie-on-demand program, this DVD-R seems derived from an older full-frame transfer done about ten years ago. The film was obviously shot for 1.85:1 framing and its compositions are vastly improved when zoomed in on widescreen TVs. A trailer, with slightly better resolution, is the only extra feature.

Color in this one-sheet poster really improves upon the rather ugly DVD cover art

The story is set in 1872 Britain where Dr. Gordon Ramsey (Herbert Rudley), about to be hanged for a murder he did not commit, is visited in his cell by respected surgeon Sir Joel Cadman (Rathbone). He gives Ramsey a drug that induces the "black sleep," a deathlike state that fools his executioners. The lifeless body is delivered to Cadman for burial, but Cadman secretly revives Ramsey, whisking him away to a remote abbey on the east coast of England.

There Cadman makes Ramsey his surgical assistant in a series of exploratory procedures on the brains of various corpses, hoping to pinpoint a surgical route with which Cadman can then safely operate on his coma-stricken wife. Ramsey is initially impressed with Cadman's accomplishments until he realizes that the corpses being operated on are in fact living subjects in a state of "black sleep." What's more, after each surgery they invariably transform into insane monstrosities locked away in Cadman's cellar.

The Black Sleep is something of a missing link between Universal's second cycle of horror movies from 1939-46, and the renewed interest in Gothic horror films and classic monster characters simultaneously begun by Hammer's Curse of Frankenstein, AIP's teenage monster romps (I Was a Teenage Werewolf, etc.) and the first release of Universal's classic monster movies to television, all during mid-to-late 1957. The Black Sleep features stars associated with the earlier Universal films (Rathbone, Lugosi, Chaney, and Carradine) and in some ways filmed in that style, but it also anticipates the more lurid, graphic approach of Hammer's horrors.

For instance, the film features a shot of a scalpel cutting into brain tissue and "cerebral fluid" gushes out. One can now see this sort of thing any day of the week on CSI and similar shows, but back in 1956 this level of gore was unprecedented and shocked audiences of the period. Near the end of the film Cadman's monstrosities are unveiled one-by-one and, according to genre historians like Bill Warren who saw the film when it was new, audiences ran out of the theater in clusters with each shocking reveal.

The biggest complaint about The Black Sleep is that Chaney and Lugosi (in his final acting role) are wasted in smallish parts - both of which are mute. Reportedly Chaney's alcoholism had gotten so bad he couldn't remember lines, but Lugosi's muteness is baffling. Chaney's role as mindless brute Mungo is spot-on casting, but the character's past existence before Cadman's surgery, as a "brilliant intellect" is fairly preposterous. John Carradine gets fourth billing, two clicks ahead of protagonist Herbert Rudley, but turns up only near the end and then we see (and hear) far too much of the hammy actor.

Second-billed Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil), as Cadman's gypsy assistant Odo, ironically has the biggest supporting part and was billed in the ads as one of the film's five great horror stars, but Tamiroff made no horror films at all before this. The reason is that part was written for Peter Lorre, who bowed out of the film at the last minute. Though Tamiroff makes the role his own, the dialogue is clearly written for Lorre's familiar persona.

Rathbone, apparently quite vocal in his distaste for films of this type, nevertheless gives an excellent performance, a big improvement over his shamelessly hammy one as the Son of Frankenstein (1939), his best remembered genre film. He's quite subtle here, expressing a sincere desire to help mankind (however morally corrupt his means), and though the monster stuff is pure fantasy, his theories about brain activity are advanced and fairly accurate medically. Best of all, Rathbone is quite touching at the end, a sad resignation in his face as he gently cradles his unconscious wife, knowing all is lost.

Video & Audio

A disclaimer states, "This film has been manufactured using the best source material available," but that's disingenuous, implying that a better transfer is technically impossible. In truth it's an excuse to explain the use of older and sometimes greatly inferior transfers, and to avoid spending the money on a new, high-def one. Filmed for 1.85:1 projection, The Black Sleep is incorrectly presented in full-frame format, and it appears to be an older transfer dating from the late-1990s or earlier. Still, it's okay and the image doesn't suffer too badly when zoomed in on widescreen TVs, where the framing is significantly improved. Part of MGM's movie on demand program - billed under the "Limited Edition Collection" banner - The Black Sleep is a DVD-R with no-frills menu screens (this having only a "Play Movie" options) and chapter stops every 10 minutes. The mono audio is adequate. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options.

Extra Features

Included is a wonderfully lurid trailer, in good condition.

Parting Thoughts

A must for horror fans (and '50s sci-fi, too, though these elements are slight), The Black Sleep is a title long-desired and that's good news - even if it's in the wrong aspect ratio. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.

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