Black Sleep, The (DVD Review)28 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Available via Amazon.com’s CreateSpace
Stars Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi.
Let’s establish right off that veteran director Reginald Le Borg’s mundane mise-en-scene in this medical atrocity camp fest will never be a likely candidate to receive, say, a lifetime “rattled our derrieres” award from the Cinematheque Francaise. And yet … in terms of casting genius, attention has to be paid when Bela Lugosi’s “official” final film (prepare for convoluted annotation) also boasted the participation of Tor Johnson, Lugosi’s co-star (of sorts) in Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 from Outer Space. To say nothing of a full gallery of well-known featured players plucked from low-budget cinema’s hall of fame.
On one level, of course, it is good old Plan 9 itself that ended up becoming Lugosi’s goodbye appearance — by virtue of the brief footage that writer/director Wood shot of the famed horror actor just days before his death and then utilized a couple years later in that legendary Vampira screen debacle when financing (such as it was) materialized. But if one agrees to the argument that Plan 9 can’t count as a final film because Lugosi never knew he would ever be in it, then Sleep wins the goodbye title by default. As it turns out, both films have something in common beyond their hauntingly cheesy demeanor. In neither one does Lugosi speak; it has been said that he lost his ability to memorize lines.
In any event, this standout curiosity from MGM/Fox’s new on-demand lineup was originally part of a national double feature that became fairly profitable for United Artists in the summer of 1956 (around the time of Elvis’s own “45” double feature: Hound Dog and Don’t Be Cruel). UA put Sleep on the bottom half of a twofer with The Creeping Unknown — the U.S. release title of Britain’s The Quatermass Xperiment, with Brian Donlevy. Unknown was the better movie, and, in fact, one can still recommend it without apology. But Sleep has a cast of the ages and some irresistible elements.
For one thing, it deals with something close to grave robbery perpetrated by megalomaniacal surgeon Basil Rathbone —who’s desperate to experiment on real human beings in his efforts to bring a young wife out of a tumor-induced coma that has afflicted her for more than 200 days in 1872 London. For another, it deals with a cool-to-see secret passage in Rathbone’s home that opens up into an operating facility — and not just a secret passage but a secret passage located behind a fireplace. And, further intensify things, not just a fireplace but a burning fireplace. So much for quick escapes if you need them.
Rathbone feeds his guinea pigs a potion or elixir from which the movie gets its title — momentarily stunning them but not killing them. The next step is to slice off the tops of their heads in very un-1956-like movie fashion. And indeed, the footage of exposed brain tissue is almost as graphic as the payoff in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal, what with close-ups of oozing liquid must have caused quite a ruckus with any patron who wandered into the wrong ’56 theater expecting to see The King & I or The Eddy Duchin Story. As the story begins, Rathbone abducts his latest victim (Herbert Rudley) for professional reasons because even “genius” needs a medical assistant. Rudley is himself a doctor — but one who’s been framed for murder in a scheme perpetrated by Rathbone (it gets complicated, so let’s just get to the casting).
Lugosi is a servant (who, again, can’t talk). Akim Tamiroff is an oily, unctuous associate who procures bodies for Rathbone’s experiments — an acting role it has been said Peter Lorre turned down because this entry from frugal “Bel-Air Productions” (for cross references, see also Bop Girl Goes Calypso or singer Tony Martin’s career-inverting Quincannon, Frontier Scout) couldn’t afford his price. Lon Chaney, Jr., who also never speaks, plays a once brilliant surgeon (uh huh) who has gone by the name of “Mungo” ever since Rathbone’s experiments turned him into an imbecile. (His daughter, though, is the comely love interest who’s a member of Rathbone’s surprisingly elaborate staff; say, what did mom look like?)
But there’s more. Languishing in the bowels of the laboratory is John Carradine, who sports an R.V. Winkle beard and Biblical demeanor that suggest prep work for his role as Aaron in The Ten Commandments, which would come out later in the year. And his dungeon roomie is, as promised, Tor Johnson, with the same zombie-like walk as in Plan 9. He, per usual, doesn’t speak, either. All of this looks and plays like a decent episode of TV’s "Thriller" — talky and borderline plodding, yes, but with a cast from whom it is impossible to avert one’s eyes. And the print here is better than expected.
Seen here just after his classic villainy as the nasty Sir Ravenhurst in The Court Jester, Rathbone manages to have it both ways. You can take his performance seriously — or as giggle fuel, if this is the way you prefer to go. As someone once said of Rathbone or George Sanders around this time (I can’t recall which), no grapefruit would dare squirt in his eye. This is the dead-on demeanor he expertly brings to the assignment, and it’s enough to make one watch this late-in-the-game creeper with a tiny degree of appreciative sentiment. Oozing brain tissue or not.