THE BLACK SLEEP wastes one of the best casts ever assembled for a horror movie

#31DaysOfHorror — October 26th

This October, for the second year in a row, I’ll be reviewing one horror movie each day! Respected classics, trashy and forgotten B-movies, both new frights and old… I love ’em all. Well, some of them I’ll probably hate. We’ll see.

The Plot

Sir Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone) saves his former student Gordon Ramsey (Herbert Rudley) from execution by slipping him a healthy dose of an East Indian drug called “the black sleep,” which mimics death. In exchange, the doctor requests that his pupil accompany him to his castle, where he will assist in a number of exploratory operations meant to map the human brain. These operations have the unfortunate side-effect of leaving patients forever maimed, populating the castle with monsters like the rage-filled Mungo (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the mute servant Casimir (Bela Lugosi). Can Dr. Ramsey stop the mad scientist before another patient falls victim to his unethical experiments?

My Review

A horror movie starring horror legends Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. and Basil Rathbone and John Carradine? What more could you possibly want? …well, for one, how about a plot that actually uses all of them, and doesn’t reduce Lugosi and Chaney to mutes?

I’m generally a proponent of forgetting about advertising when you watch a movie. I understand that the marketing department is completely separate from the actual filmmakers, and more often than not, the marketing department doesn’t understand what makes a movie good, or what about it is worth showing to audiences to get them in the theater. The advertising for The Black Sleep, of course, revolves around that cast, billing the famous ones as co-stars, even though most of them are barely in the movie. The promotional photos, too, show the cast hanging out together, and it’s awesome to see such iconic people in one film. This movie is going to be epic!, any viewer would reasonably think.

But wow, I can’t conceive of any way that The Black Sleep could be received as anything less than a huge disappointment. How do you build and sell a movie around the fact that you’ve assembled the best cast in horror history, and then do absolutely nothing with 75% of the biggest names in your credits? Aside from Basil Rathbone, who does a pretty good job as the mad scientist character, the only one who’s given much to do is Lon Chaney Jr. as Mungo, a doctor-turned-mute brute who spends the whole movie rushing around the castle choking people. He’s really good at that, of course, but it’s not a particularly complex role — Mungo’s daughter is Sir Cadman’s assistant, and Mungo attacks her numerous times; never once does a single flicker of remorse or hesitation cross his face.

Lugosi in particular is rather underused. His mute character is a servant; he spends the film shuffling into rooms, gesturing sadly at people, and then shuffling back out, his eyes downcast. Chaney and Carradine are at least scary; Lugosi is just there. It’s depressing.

Aside from the overwhelming disappointment at how the cast is underused, I suppose most of The Black Sleep is fine. If you had no idea who any of the actors were, I could understand liking it. It’s a competently-told mad-scientist tale, not particularly memorable or unique, but enjoyable enough. And when Dr. Ramsay and Mungo’s daughter go exploring and stumble into the dungeon full of mutants, the film even approaches something resembling horror.

The Black Sleep, like many of the older film’s I’ve watched so far this month — The Fly, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, Invasion of the Bee Girls, etc — depends on an ever-growing unease about the role of science in society in the decade after the atomic bomb. It’s interesting to me, if not altogether unsurprising, that horror was the genre that was able to work through a lot of the anxieties about the events of WWII, and The Black Sleep echoes fear not only of the bomb but also the deranged experiments conducted by Nazi scientists in the camps.

The story technically takes place in the 1900s, and Sir Cadman is technically a brain surgeon, but his poking and prodding at his subjects’ brains results in physical changes to their bodies reminiscent of atomic mutations. One woman sprouts patches of hair all over her body after having her brain jabbed by the doctor; another man’s entire face seems to begin to melt, becoming deformed and grotesque in a matter of days.

The doctor says that “whatever happens to [the mutants] is unimportant;” all that matters is the advancement of scientific knowledge about the brain. Dr. Ramsey is horrified; he dramatically accuses the surgeon of having developed the ideal objectivity for a scientist. Oh no… the… horror?

The Black Sleep is streaming on Amazon Prime, if you’re really curious.