• Black Sleep, The



    Released by: MGM
    Released on: 3/15/2011
    Director: Reginald LeBorg
    Cast: Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Tor Johnson, Akim Tamiroff
    Year: 1956
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    The Movie:

    Reginald LeBorg’s 1956 film The Black Sleep, also known under the alternate title of Dr. Cadman’s Secret, begins in 1872 when Dr. Ramsey (Herbert Rudley) is to be hanged for a murder of which he is completely innocent. His friend and colleague, Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone), administers a strange drug called The Black Sleep to Ramsey that will allow him to fake his own death and escape the hangman’s noose, while Cadman will talk wise and convince the powers that be to let him take his departed friends corpse to deal with. This works and Ramsey begins to help Cadman with his research using The Black Sleep to put patients into a death like state so that they can perform brain surgery on them in the deep reaches of Cadman’s creepy old castle home, which also happens to be where Cadman imprisons those who he operated on with varying degrees of success. In essence, he has a basement full of lobotomized mutants.

    The reason that Cadman is so obsessed with his work is so that he can find a way to bring back his wife, Angelina (Louanna Gardner), who lies dormant in a coma and who has been that way for some time now. But Cadman will soon learn that experimenting on people’s brains isn’t quite so free of consequence as he would like it to be.

    Notable for supporting performances from the likes of Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Tor Johnson, and Akim Tamiroff The Black Sleep may not be the most original horror film ever made but it’s still a whole lot of fun. Carradine is unintentionally hilarious here, playing the part with as much camp and overzealousness as he cold possibly muster, while Tor Johnson lumbers around in that way that only he could. Lugosi doesn’t get as much screen time as his fan base might have hoped and his character is mute but he’s good here too, while Akim Tamiroff has an unusually sleazy quality to his screen presence that works in the film’s favor. Rathbone shines in the lead as the mad doctor, while Reginald LeBorg keeps the film moving at a good pace and makes the most of the creaky, creepy, castle locations.

    Some nice cinematography and a good melodramatic score help things a bit, though there’s an air of sadness here for some when you think that this would be the last picture Lugosi would make (he shot this after the footage for Plan 9 From Outer Space was shot and then edited into Wood’s picture after Lugosi’s death the year The Black Sleep was made), and he’s noticeably in poor health here. That said, this is a film in which John Carradine runs around with a caveman beard and lights a maid on fire and beats people with a giant club (the screen lights up when he and Tor Johnson go nuts towards the end...) – you can’t get too saddened when you’ve got that going on. Throw in a still surly Chaney and an awesome scene in which he goes nuts and chocks a character, and some neat ‘mutant’ make up effects in which human characteristics are blended with animal features and you’ve got a pretty great mad scientist monster movie.


    Video/Audio/Extras:

    The 1.33.1 fullframe transfer appears to present the film in an open matte presentation. The quality of the image isn’t bad at all, with reasonable detail and fine contrast levels. There aren’t any compression artifacts of note and while some minor print damage and softness come into play here and there, everything is perfectly watchable here.

    The Dolby Digital Mono mix, in English, isn’t fancy but it gets the job done. A bit of hiss is there if you listen for it but odds are you won’t be and it’ll go unnoticed. Some scenes are a bit flat sounding but this is likely the result of the elements available.

    Most of the MGM Limited Edition DVD-R releases have been barebones, but this one actually includes the original theatrical trailer for the feature, which is a nice touch.

    The Final Word:

    More extras would have been a nice touch but at least the film is available in a decent presentation. The movie is a good one, lots of quirky fun thanks to an amazing cast and some solid direction. It’s low budget and prone to the pitfalls of plenty of other similar monster movies, but you can’t help but have a blast with this one.