Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present 1956’s “The Black Sleep,” now available on DVD as part of MGM’s Limited Edition Collection. Directed by Reginald Le Borg (whose “Diary of a Madman” helped kick off the line), the film stars Basil Rathbone (arguably the best of the big-screen Sherlock Holmeses) as surgeon Joel Cadman.
At the start of the picture, set in London of 1872, he rescues his former student Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley, “A Walk in the Sun”) from prison, where the young chap is sentenced to be hanged for a murder he didn’t commit. To get Ramsay out of his pickle, Cadman administers the East Indian drug of the title, whose anesthetic effects mimic death. (Speaking of Sherlock, wasn’t that part of the solution in the Robert Downey Jr. version?)
Once Ramsay comes to, free as a bird, Cadman seeks reciprocation, asking, “Won’t you come work for me in my spooky-ass castle?” (I may be paraphrasing.) Said work involves mapping every cell fiber of the brain to its exact function — by gum, he’s even found the one that controls posture! Cadman tells Ramsay it’s so he may cure his lovely wife’s brain tumor; what he doesn’t share is that he’s got a basement full of failed experiments chained to the wall.
Does Ramsay get mad scientist assistant’s remorse? Of course! Because it’s a veritable freak show. Specifically, there’s John Carradine, looking like a malnourished Moses! And there’s Tor Johnson as Tor Johnson! And hey, it’s Bela Lugosi in the midst of a smack attack!
Up above, the normal people look weird, too; Cadman’s scrub nurses dress as if they’re more suited to churn butter than assist in cracking open skulls. That old-school visage, black-and-white atmospherics and chintzy makeup add up to a decent-enough 80 minutes. Yes, it occasionally drags, which is to be expected; patience is rewarded with some weirdo bits.
It’s obvious the career-waning icons considered this a blip on their résumés, if they considered it at all, and you should do the same. If you’re a fan of any or all of them and harbor completist tendencies, this no-brainer is a no-brainer. For everyone else, it’s not essential viewing, but I won’t steer you away from it, either. —Rod Lott