Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone) is a well-known, well-respected surgeon living and practicing in England in the late 19th century. He’s so well-known and well-respected, in fact, that he’s been knighted!
With the prefix “Sir” attached to his name, one may assume that Cadman lives a charmed life, but no such luck. He’s actually dealing with great emotional anguish, as his wife rests in a coma caused by a brain tumor.
Cadman wants to operate on his wife and save her from the tumor, but he isn’t sure how to do so without killing her or causing irreparable brain damage… so he begins to experiment secretly, on the brains of living subjects, with the help of a man named Odo (Akim Tamiroff). He gives them a drug from India known as “Nind Andhera” — “The Black Sleep” — and then operates on them.
Not all of his patients survive these trials, and those who do are left in a damaged state. To quell suspicion of himself, Cadman keeps these survivors (including Mungo, Borg and Casimir, portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine and Bela Lugosi, respectively) locked in his remote English countryside estate.
Reginald Le Borg (Diary of a Madman) directs 1956’s The Black Sleep, a horror tale of mad science and its horrific effects. The screenplay was written by John C. Higgins (Border Incident), based on a story by Gerald Drayson Adams (Kissin’ Cousins).
The Black Sleep opens with some very spooky narration about the origins of “Nind Andhera,” accompanied by a dark and smoky screen. Fantastic atmosphere is built by this opening, though unfortunately it is not maintained throughout most of the film’s remainder. That’s not to say the film is dull at all. It has a few great moments of suspense, but it doesn’t have a huge spook factor like one might expect from such a great beginning.
Still, the film is worthy of a horror fan’s time. Rathbone is wonderful as Sir Cadman, working against the audience’s expectations of his character. This isn’t your typical mad scientist, all wide-eyed and cackling. It’s easy to see why his community would respect him so much and why other doctors would go so far as to want to work with him. His experiments are clearly crazy on paper, but his smooth temperament and lack of wacky mannerisms make him seem trustworthy despite everything we know about what he’s doing.
Rathbone leads the film as a mad scientist with the facade of a calm genius, but the whole cast is fantastic, with Rathbone’s strong characterization easily matched by each of his supporting players. Chaney Jr. and Carradine are particularly impressive.
Carradine rocks a long beard and wild hair for his role as a cellar-dwelling man who sees himself as living in some sort of alternate universe. He’s created a delusion and completely bought into it to cope with his life as a human lab rat stuck in Cadman’s awful world. He steals many scenes in the film’s final quarter.
Chaney grabs the viewer’s attention from his first millisecond on screen. We meet his character as he lumbers down the hallway, chasing a pretty young lady (who turns out to be one of Cadman’s nurses) into a corner, attempting to choke her. He soon retreats, his expression turning to one of shame and guilt as he’s chided by a second nurse, Daphne (Phyllis Stanley — another stand-out supporter of the film, providing her character with a stern sense of authority).
Chaney has no dialogue in this scene. In fact, Cadman’s “monsters” have very little dialogue throughout the entire film, as his surgeries have turned them mute — but their faces say a million words. From his first appearance, before we know anything about him, we can see that Chaney’s character of “Mungo” is a badly damaged and in many ways childlike man. We soon learn that he’s been doomed to a life trapped in his broken state by Cadman’s experiments, having lost his former life of glory as a well-known doctor and lecturer (and having lost all recollection of it), which makes his character’s current state all the more heartbreaking to the viewer.
Undoubtedly, the driving forces here are the characters and performances. With the stellar cast composed of Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Bela Lugosi and other veterans of classic horror, The Black Sleep is a fun watch. It’s a gaggle of legends sharing the screen, which is reason enough to tune in, despite the general lack of spookiness which doesn’t match the film’s potential for a huge creep factor.
This review was written for the Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies, Silently and The Last Drive In. Check out their blogs to find more contributions to this fantastic celebration of Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney, Jr.!