Basil Rathbone is one of the true original movie stars. Starring in a bevy of films starting in the ’20s all the way through the late ’60s, he’s known not only for traditional classics like Adventures of Robin Hood and Romeo and Juliet, but he’s also got a foot firmly planted in the mysterious and spooky, as he’s the first person to take on the mantle of Sherlock Holmes over the course of 15 films and two seasons of a radio serial. Beyond that, he dabbled in more straightforward horror films, even popping up in the Universal Monsters realm with a stint as Baron von Wolfenstein in Son of Frankenstein. In this month’s selection, we’ll take a peek at another genre film Rathbone starred in later in his career, the 1956 B-movie The Black Sleep.
The Black Sleep comes from Reginald Le Borg, who directed a string of low-budget horror movies for Universal during the 1940s (my favorite title, The Mummy’s Ghost, appears to have been created via Mad Libs). Released as a double bill with the Hammer film The Creeping Unknown, The Black Sleep is something of an Expendables for horror’s Golden Age, as it stars several, let’s say… “seasoned” icons from the genre. Leading the charge, of course, is Rathbone, who stars as Sir Joel Cadman, a renowned surgeon who we meet as he’s saving wrongly accused colleague Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) from the gallows by faking his death with help from Nind Andhera, a fictional drug from India that induces a deathlike stasis.
He takes the grateful young doctor on as an assistant for research he’s conducting at his mansion, where he’s performing some controversial (re: unethical and highly dangerous) experiments on mapping the human brain that he hopes will give him the key to successfully removing his comatose wife’s (Louanna Gardner) brain tumor without destroying her motor functions. Along with young nursing assistant, Laurie (Patricia Blake), Ramsay soon figures out that Cadman’s obsession is running up quite the body count and decides that he has to stop him.
Now, as you’re watching the film, you might think, “Hey, Cadman’s elderly house servant looks a lot like Dracula!” And you’d be correct, as this is Bela Lugosi’s final film if you don’t count Ed Wood’s use of archival footage for Plan 9 From Outer Space. You might also notice, “Hey, that fellow perpetually attacking people in Cadman’s mansion has a striking resemblance to Lawrence Talbot!” Correct, again, dear reader, as Lon Chaney Jr. forgoes the hairy prosthetics, but brings a lot of the rage and menace as a lumbering brute named Mungo.
Naming a character with limited mental capacity “Mungo” is, of course, pretty much on par with the kind of sensibilities you’d find in films of the middle of the 20th century. In fact, most of the patients affected by Cadman’s experiments are depicted more as sideshow freaks leveraged to terrify the audience more than to achieve anything resembling realism. I doubt, for instance, that a botched brain surgery would make a woman sprout patches of hair all over her body.
But within the film’s questionable science and depiction of people with brain trauma, Le Borg pulls off an interesting trick. The film’s title and description of Nind Andhera hint at a film focused on exotic magic from foreign lands. But the film shifts to something more akin to speculative fiction with the focus on Cadman’s use of these exotic drugs to further his own ends in the arena of brain surgery, and in the end the film pivots again into straight-up horror as those victimized by Cadman’s misdeeds wreak havoc throughout the mansion.
And while it may not be in the best taste to portray these characters as monstrous, Le Borg is careful to portray Cadman as the true villain, using his actions to explore the dangers of science run amok. By the ’50s, this was a topic heavily covered in genre films, with mutated monsters and mad scientists aplenty. But what’s interesting about The Black Sleep is how unapologetic it is about villainizing scientific arrogance, and how willing it is to bring Cadman’s actions to a tragic end for almost everyone involved.
By the time the credits roll (SPOILER ALERT), Cadman and his comatose wife are dead at the hands of his “patients,” who are still left with little to no hope of returning to something resembling normalcy. And poor Mungo, who we learn is Laurie’s father and was once also a brilliant doctor before one of Cadman’s surgeries, also falls at the hands of the rampaging patients without so much as a moment of clarity to give his daughter some closure (END SPOILER).
Cadman’s swath of destruction is widespread and almost total, but while the film uses him as the focal point to explore the dangers of scientific arrogance, he’s not the only one under the microscope, as it were. Even hero Ramsay has a moment where he condescends to Laurie, calling her delusional for her worries about Cadman’s intentions early in the film. While this type of attitude isn’t the least uncommon in movies of the era, it’s surprising that upon learning the extent of Cadman’s crimes, Ramsay apologizes to Laurie and admits that he was delusional for not wanting to see his mentor as capable of such things.
Interestingly, The Black Sleep has a great deal in common with a French movie that wouldn’t be released for another four years: Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (ICYMI, go here to read our previous retrospective on that film). If you’ve seen Franju’s film (which you 100% should), you’ll know it also features a scientist whose obsession becomes hazardous to everyone around him. In this case, surgeon Doctor Génessier is determined to perfect a procedure to transplant an entire face from one patient to another. Of course, like Cadman’s patients, Génessier’s donors are of the unwilling variety. Both films feature an element of hidden motivations, too, as instead of a comatose wife, Génessier is compelled by the need to replace his daughter’s face after it was maimed in a car accident.
But while Franju approaches the material by leaning into the dramatic elements and drawing from France’s complicated history with World War II to produce something narratively rich and complex, Le Borg is really all about hitting the audience with horror tropes. Think of the difference between the two as EWAF being a Michelin-rated restaurant where you’ll eat intricate meals complete with unique sauces and flavors. The Black Sleep, on the other hand, is more of a middle-tier steakhouse. You’re not likely to find many surprises, but you know what you’re getting and you’ll likely be satisfied.