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The Black Sleep

The Black Sleep(1956)

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The Black Sleep (1956)

While the typical science fiction-horror film of the mid-1950s might be expected to feature some variation on giant atomic monsters, The Black Sleep (1956) appeared in mid-cycle to offer its own style of throwback, would-be chills. It is a period piece, featuring the type of mad scientist role typically seen in 1940s potboilers from Monogram or PRC. As in those earlier creaky spook shows, Bela Lugosi is present here, and yet he isn't the starring madman. Instead Lugosi is the most conspicuously non-spooky member of a team of bogeymen ranging from the raving Shakespearean John Carradine, to the Kharis-like foot-dragger Lon Chaney, Jr., to that empty-eyed lump of a Swede, Tor Johnson. The budget of The Black Sleep was large enough to allow for impressive sets and an atmospheric score (by Les Baxter), but the schedule was rushed enough to sabotage any further attempt at atmosphere.

In retrospect, however, The Black Sleep comes across as the missing link between something like Monogram's Voodoo Man (1944, with Lugosi and Carradine) and the slick mad-lab doings seen from England's Hammer Studios beginning in the late 1950s. The linchpin here is the sterling performance by Basil Rathbone. Surrounded by such a motley group of born scenery-chewers as Carradine, Lugosi, Chaney, and Akim Tamiroff, Rathbone could have tipped the scale and made the film a textbook for sorry thespian antics. Instead he gives a measured, intelligent reading (that helps to blot out the ham-fisted performance he gave in Son of Frankenstein, 1939). Many may feel that The Black Sleep only comes to life during the final 10-minute freak parade, but those waiting for the nutzoid ending fireworks should pay closer attention along the way to the silky-smooth Rathbone; he elevates Sir Joel's dark mission statements to a finely-etched study in inevitable tragedy, and in the process, he elevates some low-budget hokum to effective, watchable fun.

Producer: Howard Koch, Aubrey Schenck
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Screenplay: John C. Higgins, Gerald Drayson Adams (story)
Cinematography: Gordon Avil
Film Editing: John Schreyer
Art Direction: Robert Kinoshita
Music: Les Baxter
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sir Joel Cadman), Akim Tamiroff (Odo), Herbert Rudley (Dr. Gordon Ramsay), Patricia Blair (Laurie Munroe), Lon Chaney Jr. (Dr. Munroe), Bela Lugosi (Casimir).

by John M. Miller

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The Black Sleep (1956)

As producer Howard W. Koch described the arrangement with UA, the title of the picture came first: "We'd get a title, we'd show it to United Artists, and they'd say, 'Here's x number of dollars, go make it.' Then we'd write a script for it, check one member of the cast with UA, and then shoot the picture."

Allen Miner was the first scheduled director for The Black Sleep but he was replaced with Reginald Le Borg, because of Le Borg's previous experience in directing horror movies.

At the scripting stage, director Le Borg added the motivation for Dr. Cadman's experiments: "...I wrote the scene where Rathbone vows to his comatose wife that he is going to do everything he can to bring her back to life, even if he has to kill people to do it. You have to get empathy for a person like that. I think the scene helped the picture because it gave him stature - he wasn't just a madman."

The Black Sleep was filmed at Ziv studio in Hollywood, in February, 1956. The shooting schedule was just 12 days. The film was budgeted at $229,000. (Ultimately, the picture would come in $6,000 over budget, or at $235,000).

Producer Howard W. Koch on Lon Chaney: "...we really had a great relationship. He said to me, 'Look, I'll do anything you want. I know you guys have no money - just tell me how much and I'll show up.' Lon was also an amateur chef - he made the best chili in the world. If you loved his chili, he loved you."

Producer Howard W. Koch on John Carradine: "He was always a shifty kind of guy in life, and by 'shifty' I definitely do not mean that he was dishonest. But he lived the make-believe world of the actor. He really lived in a world of his own, in a dream world, and never faced reality."

While The Black Sleep is a bloodless movie, it does contain a very startling sight for a 1956 film: an exposed brain seeping cerebral fluid. Director Le Borg consulted with a neurosurgeon who described the fluid. On the set, "...we had a special effects man put a sponge and a hose beneath the operating table and, on cue, he had to squeeze the fluid out of the sponge through the hose and out the brain. That was a different type of horror..."

For the close-ups of Dr. Cadman's hands performing surgery on a prop exposed brain, an actual surgeon was used as a stand-in for Basil Rathbone.

The memorable makeups of Dr. Cadman's brain surgery victims were designed by California actor and artist (Nick) Volpe. As producer Howard W. Koch said: "He'd read the scripts and then he would draw the characters. Then we'd dress and make up the actors the way he drew them. A very interesting guy; he worked for no bucks, too, very inexpensively. But it helped us - we weren't the great talents of all time. We really needed his direction. we'd have gotten an award for best makeup, because it was made for spit."

The Black Sleep was Bela Lugosi's first and only complete film role following his release from a Los Angeles hospital for drug detoxification; he had been addicted to morphine since the mid-1940s. He hoped that the film would be just the beginning of a comeback. Speaking to a reporter on the set, Lugosi said, "I keep telling myself I must believe I will make the grade again. If I stop believing for even a minute I find myself sinking into despair. It's fighting this feeling - a thing that comes to all former drug addicts - that saps my energy....God has been good and given me this second chance, and I'll do my best not to fail."

Bela Lugosi was very frustrated at not having any lines to speak in the The Black Sleep. He would plead with the director daily to be given some dialogue, ignoring the fact that it was integral to the plot that his character be mute. Lugosi admitted to a reporter that "...even with no lines to speak it's tiring just getting to the set each day. But everyone is kind and it's good to be working with old friends."

To placate Bela Lugosi's pleadings for a bigger part, director Le Borg shot a few close-ups of the actor. They were not used in the final film.

Director Reginald Le Borg on his cast of horror stars: "...each one wanted to steal the scene from the others. When they were together in a scene, each one tried to overact, and I had to hold them down because that would have spoiled the picture. At the end, when the monsters escape into the tower with Carradine shouting 'Kill! Kill! Kill!' they were all overacting in some way, but I let it go because it was an exciting scene and the end of the picture..."

Of the horror legends in the cast of The Black Sleep, the greatest animosity on view was between Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. Some felt there was lasting resentment over Chaney having inherited the Dracula role at Universal in Son of Dracula (1943). Witnesses on the set often saw words exchanged between the two - Chaney consistently referred to Lugosi as "Pop." According to set visitor Forrest J. Ackerman, on one occasion Chaney "...grabbed hold of poor Bela, who was not much more than a bag of bones, and flung him over his shoulder like a gunnysack!" Director Le Borg had to admit, "We kept them apart quite a bit."

Director Reginald Le Borg recalled that Basil Rathbone would berate himself vocally if he blew a line. The cast and crew overheard Rathbone, after having problems during a long speech, angrily saying "Damn it, Basil! Get it right next time!"

Bela Lugosi's fifth and last wife, Hope, visited the set and later remarked that Lon Chaney "had big problems" with drinking, and, in fact, "They all drank like fish."

Director Reginald Le Borg later told interviewer Tom Weaver: "John Carradine I enjoyed working with, because he'd drink and then start spouting Shakespeare. When we finished shooting The Black Sleep, we had a party on the set and he imbibed quite a bit and started to do Shakespeare. I knew a little bit of Hamlet and joined in myself. He took me around and we spouted together. It was funny; he does become boisterous."

Compiled by John M. Miller



The Films of Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films by Michael B. Druxman

The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi by Arthur Lennig

Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews With 20 Genre Giants by Tom Weaver

The Horror People by John Brosnan

The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal

John Carradine: The Films by Tom Weaver

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The Black Sleep (1956)

The Black Sleep was one of several pictures produced in the 1950s by Howard W. Koch and Aubrey Schenck through their Bel-Air Productions, and distributed by United Artists.

Reginald Le Borg had directed several horror films at Universal in the 1940s, including The Mummy's Ghost (1944), and several in the "Inner Sanctum" series, such as Calling Dr. Death (1943), Weird Woman, and Dead Man's Eyes (both 1944). All of these films starred Lon Chaney, Jr. later a prominent co-star of The Black Sleep.

The screenwriter of The Black Sleep, John C. Higgins, wrote several low-budget crime movies in the late 1940s. Several of these films were directed by Anthony Mann and are now considered classics of Film Noir: Railroaded! (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949).

Peter Lorre was sought out for the role of Odo the Gypsy in The Black Sleep, but his asking price was too high. Akim Tamiroff played the part instead.

The torn and tattered shirt that John Carradine wore in The Black Sleep was from his own wardrobe collection; he had worn it in over 200 performances on the stage, as Jeeter in the play Tobacco Road.

United Artists turned on the publicity machine for The Black Sleep before the film was even finished. On February 23, 1956, the final day of shooting, a publicity stunt was staged in which John Carradine, Tor Johnson, Bela Lugosi, and other actors from the film's rogues gallery pulled up next to the Hollywood restaurant Tail o' the Cock, and proceeded to go in and dine in full horror make-up from the film, mind you in front of other lunchtime patrons. Photographers were in tow to capture the moment for the newspapers.

To further publicize The Black Sleep, a west coast tour was set up in early June, 1956, hitting San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. Horror TV-show hostess Vampira made personal appearances in theaters along with cast members Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, Tor Johnson, and Lon Chaney, Jr.

On the first night of the publicity tour, in San Francisco, Tor Johnson was sharing an upper-floor hotel room with Bela Lugosi. Lugosi had been drinking and was apparently despondent. He kept muttering that he just "wanted to die." The story, as related by Johnson and other witnesses, goes that Tor, growing tired of Bela's whining, grabbed the elder actor by the collar and hung him over the open hotel window several stories up, and asked, "Is this what you want, you miserable Hunkie?" Bela admitted that he wanted to live after all, so Tor brought him back in.

For the New York opening of The Black Sleep, life-sized wax figures were made of Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Akim Tamiroff, and Louanna Gardner (who played the comatose Angelina Cadman). The figures cost United Artists $20,000 to produce, and they were shipped to New York in individual coffins!

The Black Sleep had its opening in Los Angeles on June 27, 1956. Accompanying Bela Lugosi to the screening were his wife Hope and friend Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman later said that while Lugosi was "broken" and "decrepit" at the time, he saw a great change when a local TV camera crew appeared to interview the actor: "...the eye of Hollywood was upon him and the limelight was shining so right before my eyes he changed! ...It just seemed like he filled out and rose three or four inches taller. He was proud and strong as he strode towards the waiting television camera, and once again the magic and charisma of the great Count Dracula was pouring out for the public."

Bela Lugosi died less than two months later, on August 16, 1956.

United Artists released The Black Sleep on a double-bill with The Creeping Unknown (1956), which was the American re-edit of the 1955 British film directed by Val Guest, The Quatermass Xperiment. The double feature grossed more than $1,600,000 in less than a year of release. The earnings were impressive considering the production cost of the pair of films totaled less than $400,000.

A year after The Black Sleep was released, the same producers and director made Voodoo Island (1957), which starred Boris Karloff. Karloff was practically the only horror actor of the day that was not featured in The Black Sleep.

The Black Sleep was reissued in 1963 under the title Dr. Cadman's Secret.

Compiled by John M. Miller



The Films of Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films by Michael B. Druxman

The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

The Immortal Count: The Life and Films of Bela Lugosi by Arthur Lennig

Attack of the Monster Movie Makers: Interviews With 20 Genre Giants by Tom Weaver

The Horror People by John Brosnan

The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror by David J. Skal

John Carradine: The Films by Tom Weaver

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The Black Sleep (1956)

"Handling of the script... plays the horror tale fairly straight so what's happening is not too illogical until the finale wrapup, when all restraint comes off and the melodramatics run amok. ...Basil Rathbone is quite credible as the surgeon, enough so that the brain operations he performs will horrify many viewers."

"Seldom, if ever has the X certificate been so richly earned. ...The cast, which includes many specialists in Grand Guignol, really gets to work on the grisly malarkey and, except for an unintentional near slapstick climax, invests it with plausibility."
Kinematograph Weekly (Britain).

"Rathbone has a grand time as the mad scientist, assisted nobly by some of the best names in the horror field. Audiences should be frightened plenty, and past experience proves that this can mean good grosses... Sure, a lot of it is corny, but it is all good fun in a grisly, frightening manner."
Motion Picture Exhibitor.

"Never before (or since) have so many horror actors been brought together and told to act like mongoloids. Never have so many actors been so wasted. Only Basil Rathbone and Akim Tamiroff get to play semirational humans."
Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.

"Rathbone is splendid throughout. It's a typical role for him but, thorough professional that he was, he rises to the occasion. He even does something I didn't think was possible; in one brief, wordless scene, he indicates the depth of Cadman's passion for his sleeping wife, and the look on Rathbone's face and the slight gesture he makes will literally be with me the rest of my life. As he sees the deformed victims advancing on him, Rathbone sighs very slightly, and for a moment rests his cheek on that of his beautiful wife. In his eyes is a look of sad resignation, which may have been his attitude toward the film. But it's fine and touching, and almost validates The Black Sleep.
Bill Warren, Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties.

"Budgeted at approximately two hundred-fifty thousand dollars, the production's strongest asset was its cast, which included three performers (Chaney, Carradine, and Bela Lugosi) closely associated with the horror genre. Their talents were sadly wasted, as no overall mood of terror or suspense was created in the film."
Michael B. Druxman, Basil Rathbone: His Life and His Films.

"The film ought to be required viewing for Hammerheads who like to boast that that company's The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was the first film to break a number of 'taboos' that were actually already broken by The Black Sleep. The sounds of stabbing and sawing are heard as Basil Rathbone cuts open the sailor's scalp; close-up shots of his exposed fluid-seeping brain are seen; there's also some strong on-camera violence, including a close-up of Phyllis Stanley's screaming face as she's held down in the blazing fireplace. ...Among the 'horror stars,' all acting honors go to Rathbone, who gives a fine performance as Cadman. Peter Cushing has the reputation of inaugurating the character of the tilted, elegant, silver-tongued but single-minded monster maker, but Rathbone did it first and did it much better..."
Tom Weaver, Midnight Marquee Actors Series: Bela Lugosi.

"Film lacks acting character but has plenty of character acting. ...Film is in dire need of atmosphere you would be wise to give it the air."
John Stanley, Creature Features Movie Guide.

"Only Tamiroff gives a decent performance, and his work is all that gives Sleep any real worth. Certainly the by-the-numbers direction and the dreadful script don't help matters, nor does the obviously cheap production. Diehard horror aficionados may enjoy The Black Sleep, but most others will be disappointed and then irritated by it."
Craig Butler, All Movie Guide.

"Le Borg's direction is pedestrian and the script by Higgins (best known for his series of hard-edged thrillers for Anthony Mann in the forties) is surprisingly plodding. Rathbone gives an evocative performance, as does Lugosi who is silent throughout."
Phil Hardy, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies.

"Big horror cast cannot save dull, unatmospheric tale of doctor doing experimental brain surgery in remote English castle. Laughable."
Leonard Maltin, Classic Movie Guide.

Compiled by John M. Miller

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The Black Sleep (1956)

"The ancients who wrote in the sensory tongue made first mention of the drug we call Nind Andhera. This drug was first introduced into the city of Allaha in Punjab in the seven-hundred-and-third year after the death of the Prophet, praise his memory. This drug has the power to place a man's body and limbs 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

"Hammering... They're going to hang me in the morning. I keep trying to face that fact, but I... I just can't believe it. Yet I'm here, wearing the broad arrow of a convict. Chained... chained up like an animal." Dr. Gordon Ramsay

"It's merely a sedative, to help you through the ordeal. You'll be completely unaware of what's happening to you." Sir Joel Cadman
"What is it?"
Dr. Gordon Ramsay
"Nind Andhera. An East Indian drug. I call it the Black Sleep." Sir Joel Cadman

"A hundred and fifty years ago you would've been the world's most famous body snatcher." Sir Joel Cadman
"A hundred and fifty years ago I WAS, sir. In a former life, of course. I robbed graves to get rings and trinkets for my beautiful gypsy maidens, but the police have no sense of romance. No, I was Guillotined." Odo the Gypsy

"Odo the Gypsy P.A.B.O. Yes, p.a.b.o. Professor of the Art of Body Ornamentation." (holds out his tattooed arm) Odo the Gypsy
(Dr. Ramsay grabs the arm) "Alive too." Dr. Gordon Ramsay
"Of course! No one in London is more alive. Of course I wouldn't want it to become common gossip." Odo the Gypsy

"Surely you've read of frogs, Dr. Ramsay imprisoned for years in hard, dry clay, and then dug up a little moisture, a little sunshine, and they're alive and kicking again. Well, I am able to produce the same suspended animation in higher organisms. And also, may I say, to terminate it at will." Sir Joel Cadman

"I don't believe that any government has the right to take human life. Only should life be taken when unavoidably necessary. For example, in the furtherance of medical science." Sir Joel Cadman

"Angelina, my darling wife I have the skill, soon I will have the knowledge, and the courage to free you from the prison of unconsciousness, and bring you back to life. To the world. To me." Sir Joel Cadman

"This is the beginning of my theory. If I can prove it, brain surgery will be advanced tremendously. My contention is that each of the motor, sensory and reason reactions has its seat in a minute cell fiber in some area of the brain." Sir Joel Cadman

"How does the surgeon reach that tumor to remove it, without damaging those parts of the brain he must pass through to get to it? That is my goal. And that is why I snatched you from the noose and hangman, my friend." Sir Joel Cadman

"This may seem a little medieval to you doctor, but I'm guarding my researches very carefully. And some of my methods might be considered a little unorthodox." Sir Joel Cadman

"Sir Joel! That's cerebral fluid!" Dr. Gordon Ramsay
"That's right. Please let go of my hand." Sir Joel Cadman
"But that means this man is..." Dr. Gordon Ramsay
"Of course he's alive. He's in Black Sleep. He doesn't feel anything." Sir Joel Cadman

"To mutilate even one human being is Monstrous!" Dr. Gordon Ramsay
"In the interests of science, doctor, anything ANYTHING is justified! Now, let's continue the operation." Sir Joel Cadman

"Before the operation my father was himself, except for paralysis of the left side of his body. The operation relieved that but it also destroyed his mind turned him into the thing you call Mo... [Mungo]." Laurie Munroe

"Dr. Cadman is the monster in this place!" Laurie Munroe

"In my zeal to help a friend and a colleague, I created a sub-human." Sir Joel Cadman
"May I ask sir, why do you allow him at large? Dr. Gordon Ramsay
"To remind me of my failure. To remind me to work and study even harder. So that such... such surgical disasters can be prevented." Sir Joel Cadman

"Odo never fails. The only failure is death itself. I will fill your order. You'll see." Odo the Gypsy

"Poor sad angel. The police want you alive to question you. Dr. Cadman wants you alive for his reasons. But I, I cannot let you stay alive you talk too much. You could get me into a great trouble." Odo the Gypsy

"In the name of humanity, you must do something for them!" Dr. Gordon Ramsay

"What is the news from the Holy Land? Has Jerusalem fallen to us yet or doth the vile Saracen still defile her streets with his presence?" Bohemund

"I would put my knife into the brains of a hundred men, a thousand - and destroy them all if I could restore her to me for only one day." Sir Joel Cadman

"Kill! Kill! Kill the infidel!" Bohemund

Compiled by John M. Miller

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