(1956), 82 min. b&w

"The ancients who wrote in the Sanskrit tongue gave first mention of a strange drug called Nind Andhera. This drug was first introduced into the city of Lahore in the Punjab in the 703rd year after the death of the prophet -- praise his memory. This drug has the power to place a man's body into helplessness and his soul sleeps. Nor does he feel pain. He is as a dead man, yet is not of the dead."
 

 -- opening narration to "The Black Sleep"

As the film begins, amidst swirling clouds we hear Basil Rathbone's voice reciting the words above. The opening credits roll against an atmospheric backdrop of a spooky English castle.

The year is 1872. A young physician, Dr. Gordon Ramsay, is falsely convicted of murder, and sentenced to hang the next morning. His former professor, Dr. Cadman (Rathbone), helps Ramsay escape prison (and death) by giving him the "Black Sleep" -- a drug that causes a person to appear dead -- and then taking the "body" away. Cadman administers the antidote and then explains to Ramsay that he needs assistance with his research on brain surgery. Ramsay agrees, and they depart for the East coast of England.

Arriving at St. Givens, a spooky old abbey (and Cadman's residence, of course), Ramsay meets some unusual characters: a mute butler Casimir; a madman Mungo, who tries at every opportunity to attack and kill Laurie, his beautiful daughter; and Daphne, the surgical nurse, and the only person who can control Mungo.

The next morning Ramsay learns that "Mungo" is (or was) Dr. Munroe, a former colleague and Cadman's associate at St. Thomas'.  Dr. Munroe now suffers from a "brain condition," the result of a botched surgery by Dr. Cadman. Cadman discusses his theories with Ramsay; his goal is to reach a deep tumor without causing brain damage to the patient. Through a secret passageway Cadman leads Ramsay to his laboratory and operating room. (Cadman explains that the monks who built the abbey also built the secret passageways in order to hide from pirates.)

The two doctors begin their tests on a sailor, probing different areas of the brain to cause physical responses. Ramsay, who had assumed that Cadman experimented on dead bodies, notices cerebral fluid and suddenly realizes that the patient is alive! He's in "black sleep."


Drs. Cadman and Ramsey prepare to operate


Cadman and Ramsey observe how the subject reacts to brain stimulation

Ramsay: Alive? This might maim him and destroy some of his faculties.
Cadman: That's a risk I have to take. Why be short-sighted ? You must take the long view --the important view -- of what this might mean for humanity.
Ramsay: Humanity? To mutilate even one human being is ...  Monstrous!
Cadman: In the interest of science, anything is justified.

Cadman's "monstrous" brain surgery experiments on living patients are practice for surgery on the most important patient of all: Cadman's young wife Angelina. She suffers from a deep-seated tumor, and has been in a coma for nearly 8 months.  Cadman's practice surgeries have indeed maimed several patients, but he doesn't care about them; all that matters is that he learns from the mistakes and improves his skill.

Ramsay, on the other hand, is concerned about the "victims" of Cadman's botched surgeries. Also, Ramsay learns that Cadman had performed surgery on a money lender named Curry, and that Curry (the man Ramsay was convicted of killing) might still be alive. Ramsay and Laurie look for the secret stairway to the surgery to find records, but find a different secret stairway -- one that takes them down to a dark, dungeon-like place.  They find the victims of Cadman's surgeries -- victims who have become deformed and insane "mutants." They also find Curry, alive, but blind. Cadman encounters them and asks "What are you doing here? I'm sorry you saw fit to explore."


Ramsey challenges Cadman


Cadman, Casimir, Daphne, and Mungo

Ramsay: "Why do you keep these people chained to the wall like animals? . . . In the name of humanity, you must DO something for them!"
Cadman: "What happens to them is unimportant. They've served my purpose."
Ramsay: You've destroyed at least six human beings and lord knows how many others! You're a madman with an obsession!
Cadman: Nothing -- Nothing will stand in the way of my work.
Ramsay I will!

Cadman will not allow Ramsay to leave. "I'm at a crucial point in my work and I need your help." He shows Ramsay his comatose wife.  "Do you think it's been easy . . . to live with this? To take men and turn them into . . . those things? I, who have been knighted by my queen for my achievements in surgery. Doctor,  I would put my knife into the brains a a hundred men, a thousand, and destroy them all -- if I could restore her to me for only one day. I love her. I will not let her get away from me. I will reach out after her down the corridors of eternity, and I'll bring her back -- I'LL BRING HER BACK!"


Cadman with his comatose wife

Cadman carrying his wife to the operating room

Cadman plans to do one more practice surgery, and use Laurie as his subject. While Laurie is being prepared for surgery, the mutants escape from their prison. They knock Daphne into the fire, and she runs off screaming, her dress on fire. Ramsay is alone in the surgery, fending off an attack by Mungo, when the mutants come in, attack and kill Mungo. Carrying his wife, Cadman enters the surgery and is shocked to see the mutants, who now turn their attention toward him. He backs off, down the stairs, but trips, falls, and dies.  Ramsay revives Laurie, and they are okay, but the mutants have escaped and are walking the Earth!

"The Black Sleep" is an entertaining gothic tale, but not one of the Great horror films. It won't give anyone nightmares, but it has a spooky atmosphere and a good score. Rathbone and Akim Tamiroff (the gypsy) have the best parts in this film. Bela Lugosi's character (the mute butler) is boring, and a waste of an excellent actor. Lugosi died a few months after the film's release.

Watch the trailer for The Black Sleep:

 

 

Click here to see more pictures from "The Black Sleep."

Cast

 

Credits

 
Basil Rathbone .................... Sir Joel Cadman Production Co. ..................... United Artists
Akim Tamiroff ...................... Udo, the gypsy Producer ............................... Howard W. Koch
Lon Chaney, Jr. .................... Mungo (Dr. Munro) Executive Producer ............. Aubrey Schenck
John Carradine ..................... Borg (Bohemund) Director ................................. Reginald LeBorg
Bela Lugosi .......................... Casimir Asst. Director ...................... Paul Wurtzel
Herbert Rudley .................... Dr. Gordon Ramsay Screenplay ........................... John C. Higgins
Patricia Blake ....................... Laurie Story ..................................... Gerald Drayson Adams
Phyllis Stanley .................... Daphne (nurse) Cinematographer ................ Gordon Avil
Tor Johnson ........................ Curry Editor .................................... John F. Shreyer
Sally Yarnell ......................... Nancy Music ................................... Les Baxter
George Sawaya ................... K6 Set Decoration .................... Clarence Steenson
Claire Carleton .................... Miss Daly Art Department .................. Arden Cripe, Bob Kinoshita
Peter Gordon ....................... Investigative Sgt. Steele Visual Effects ..................... Louis DeWitt, Jack Rabin
Louanna Gardner ................ Angelina Cadman Sound Department ............ Charles Cooper, Joe Edmondson,
Clive Morgan ...................... First Bobby (Blevins) Michael Pozen, Sam E. Waxman
John Sheffield ..................... Scotland Yard Detective Redfield Costumes ............................ Angela Alexander, Wesley Jefferies
Make-Up Department ....... George Bau, Gordon Bau,
   Ted Coodley,
   Cherie Banks (hair stylist)
   

Images on this page, page 2 and page 3 are from the film "The Black Sleep," copyright United Artists.

The Black Sleep is available on DVD

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2013