Tuesday, October 28, 2008


A decent horror film which I found interesting to view as a prelude to the Hammer and American International shockers which would follow just a couple of years later. If it were in color, I would swear that it was, in fact, a lost Roger Corman film from the early 60's, which perhaps means that it was ahead of its time. In 1872, a doctor (Herbert Rudley) is about to be executed for murder, though we understand he was framed. His mentor, Basil Rathbone, visits him in his cell and gives him a drug which puts him in a deathlike state (the Black Sleep of the title); Rathbone then takes his body and revives him so he can assist with some unorthodox experiments on human brains. At Rathbone's mansion, Rudley meets Mongo (Lon Chaney Jr.), a violent hulking brute who can only be controlled by the housekeeper; Rudley soon discovers that Chaney was once a respected doctor who assisted Rathbone until he became one of the doctor's experiments and wound up the senseless brute he is now. Sure enough, the cellar is full of poor souls who have been turned into slobbering monsters due to Rathbone's handiwork; the doc is messing around in the brains of others in order to find a way to save his wife, who has fallen into a coma due to a brain tumor. Rathbone believes that anything is justified in the interest of science, and Rudley is with him to a point until he finds out that Rathbone is the one who framed him, and that the man he supposedly killed (Tor Johnson) is still alive in chained up in the cellar. When Rathbone decides to put Chaney's daughter under the knife, Rudley decides to fight back, leading to a climactic revolt of the "freaks," which, though it suffers from being done on such a low budget, is still worth sticking around for. The film has the look and feel of a Hammer period piece or a Corman Poe film, though the sets here are not as elaborate. One brief sequence of brain surgery is fairly graphic for the era. Rathbone is in fine form. Poor, tired-looking Bela Lugosi, in the last film he completed before his death, plays a mute butler. John Carradine has a small but juicy role as one of the damaged freaks, a bearded religious fanatic who thinks he's at the Crusades. Akim Tamiroff has his own subplot as a gypsy tattoo artist who supplies Rathbone with subjects using the Black Sleep drug. The make-up for the deformed freaks is quite good. At times, between the sparse sets and the sketchy script, the movie feels only half-finished, but it's not nearly as bad as its reputation would indicate. Just don't expect much out of Lugosi or Chaney. [TCM]

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