It’s 1872 in England, and Dr. Gordon Ramsey (Herbert Rudley) is about to be hung for a murder he didn’t commit. One of his old and most respected professors, Sir Joel Cadmund (Basil Rathbone) comes to visit him the night before he’s hanged. He gives him a powder that he snuck in, claiming it’s a sedative that will make his execution a far less painful and horrifying experience, but it’s really an East Indian drug called The Black Sleep, which will make one appear to be dead for up to twelve hours. If they go beyond twelve hours without receiving the antidote, they’ll actually die, but twelve hours was enough to certify that Dr. Ramsey had died in his cell, and to get his body out of there so Dr. Cadmund could bring him back to his mansion. The reason he needed him, was to use him as an assistant in his brain research. Dr. Cadmund is desperately trying to map out the areas of the human brain, because his own wife was thrown into a catatonic state by a deep seated tumor, and he needs to know the safest route into the brain so he can remove the tumor and return her to normal without damaging her brain. Unfortunately, he’s not choosy about who he experiments on, and with the help of a Gypsy named Odo who acquires test subjects for him who won’t be missed, he proceeds to create a group of brain damaged patients that he keeps in what amounts to a dungeon in his house. When Dr. Ramsey has ethical problems with what’s going on, Dr. Cadmund blackmails him into assisting anyway, but things take a bad turn when the former test subjects escape from their confinement.
The cast of this film reads like a who’s who of these kinds of films. Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Bela Lugosi, and Tor Johnson just to name a few. The only big names that had a huge part in it though were Rathbone, and to some degree Chaney and Lugosi. Chaney plays a fellow doctor who came down with a condition that paralyzed half of his body. He tried to help him and ended up turning him into Mongo, a caveman like creature, for lack of a better term, who seems to want his daughter dead and tries to kill her on sight every time he sees her. He’ll only listen to the doctor’s other assistant. A woman who’s voice seems to get through to him when no one else’s does. Lugosi plays a butler who the doctor also worked on. He’s fully functioning, except that his language centers were damaged and he can no longer speak, which made the role rather easy for him since he didn’t have any lines to memorize. Carradine, Johnson and others were relegated to a relatively small part closer to the end of the film, but they really stole the show with their performances. Carradine especially who played a madman who thought he was a crusader knight. He really took the performance over the top and did a marvelous job with it.
Speaking of marvelous performances, Basil Rathbone is one of my all time favorite actors, and this film was yet another example of why. I don’t think the man ever put in a bad performance in anything, and he could do everything from comedy to Shakespeare flawlessly. He was the primary reason I wanted to see this film, but with so many incredible names in the cast, it was a no brainer.
The story of the film plays out quite nicely. There’s nothing really outrageous or illogical about the way things happen except for what happens to some of the former test subjects. That was overly dramatized for effect, but everything else was scientific and made total sense within the context of the story. Dr. Ramsey’s struggle with his own conscience played out very well and added a lot of depth to the character, and even Dr. Cadmund’s willingness to do anything to save his beloved wife, whom he deeply and sincerely loved made his character far more sympathetic than it would have been if he’d have simply been doing the research to make a name for himself.
For special features, this new release from Kino Lorber includes audio commentary by film historians Tom Weaver and David Schecter, “Trailers from Hell” with Joe Dante and the original theatrical trailer.
With an incredible cast and a great story, The Black Sleep is definitely a film you’ll want to add to your collection, and with the new blu-ray release from Kino Lorber looking and sounding so amazing, there’s no reason to put it off. As of this writing, the film hasn’t been added to the Kino Lorber website, but it is currently available for sale at retail outlets.