Retro Review: ‘The Black Sleep’


During the 1950’s the horror genre had a solid explosion in popularity. With new advancements in visual fx, increasing cheapness of production, and a solid fanbase of teens with disposable income for the first time, scary movies were booming. This ensured that a number of the actors tied to the genre were constantly on a set even if they were not always giving their all. In 1956, independent producers Aubrey Schenck and Howard Koch, had agreed to make a horror film for United Artists. The strategy they used was that if one big star from the realm of the boogeymen could drive box office numbers then a whole bunch of them would mean a bigger box office take. For their film the Black Sleep they put together an ensemble consisting of; Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Tor Johnson, and John Carradine. An all-star cast of genre icons for a movie which sadly did not benefit from their work.

With an appointment with the gallows looming, Dr. Gordon Ramsay (seriously) volunteers to accept the drug known as the Black Sleep from his colleague Sir Joel Cadman to fake his death. In exchange, he has to assist Cadman in his freakish experiments to explore the human brain. The castle owned by the mad scientist proves to be a pure nut house, and Ramsay quickly forms a bond with Laurie Munroe, a reluctant medical assistant and the only other normal person around. Unsurprisingly the work being conducted by Cadman has led to an evil secret laying in wait in a dungeon beneath the castle.

It is quite obvious that the foundation of the Black Sleep is entirely on its stunt casting. Sadly, the director Reginald LeBorg and screenwriter John C. Higgins did not seem to know how to utilize their embarrassment of terrifying riches. Some things were obvious; Rathbone was a dangerously intelligent mad scientist, Tor Johnson was a hulking silent mutant. But they truly dropped the ball hard elsewhere. Bela Lugosi, owner of one of the most iconic voices in cinema was put into the role of a mute servant. Granted, in true Lugosi fashion he acted the hell out of this relatively small role. Chaney’s character Mungo, was simply a large simpleton was roamed the halls of the castle trying to strangle people. John Carradine did not even appear until the end as a wild-eyed crazed leader of the mutants, but he at least seemed to have fun running around yelling “Kill! Kill! Kill!”.

There is no denying this film was meant for the drive-in crowds with its exploitative B-grade horror. There are attractive leads running in terror for mutants, some comic relief courtesy of Oscar nominee Akim Tamiroff as an undertaker, and some gruesome surgical scenes. Once again the filmmaker does not seem to know exactly what to do with everything. True, there are some great moments, and the ending is great fun, but the overall pacing and tone seems all over the place. Plot points are introduced and shuffled off to the side only to be brought back when the screenwriter remembered. That being said, the lack of discipline showed by LeBorg at the helm of this film is responsible for a good amount of the fun of the Black Sleep.

For dedicated horror fans and lovers of silly B-movies, I would recommend the Black Sleep but I do not think the film would appeal to anyone outside of that. It was initially released on a double bill with the Hammer classic the Quatermass Xperiment, which needless to say, made a far greater impact on fans and is much better remembered. But at the end of the day, this movie is entertaining and Basil Rathbone truly deserves all the credit in the world for turning in a great performance.