As one of the staple characters of the classic horror film, the mad scientist has been subjected to more than his share of stereotyping. When one thinks of the mad scientist, the image of Colin Clive in Frankenstein instantly comes to mind, the man screaming “it’s alive” excitedly over and over again while collapsing onto the ground. As colorful as the picture of Clive’s Henry Frankenstein is, there are many other crazed doctors in the horror world. In 1956, director Reginald Le Borg (Diary of a Madman, The Mummy’s Ghost) brought his entry to the mad scientist genre to the table with The Black Sleep.
The Black Sleep begins with Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley from “The Mothers-In-Law”) on death row, convicted of a murder that he did not commit. On the eve of his execution, his friend and medical mentor, Dr. Joel Cadman (Sherlock Holmes himself, Basil Rathbone) comes to visit him and gives him a potion to drink. The potion causes what Dr. Cadman calls “the black sleep,” a heavy trance that is a perfect imitation of death. When the authorities come for Gordon in the morning, they believe that he is already dead. Dr. Cadman commandeers the body and, with the help of his assistant, Odo (Touch of Evil’s Akim Tamiroff), revives Gordon. Dr. Cadman explains to Gordon that he saved him because he needs his help; using the black sleep as a sedative, Dr. Cadman has been experimenting with a very unique and dangerous method of brain surgery, and would like for Gordon to assist him in his research. Gordon initially agrees, but is told stories of failed operations by another of Dr. Cadman’s assistants, a young woman named Laurie (Patricia Blake from “Daniel Boone”). Gordon’s suspicions of wrongdoing are confirmed when he stumbles upon the victims of Dr. Cadman’s previous experiments imprisoned under the lab, and he and Laurie are left to find a way to stop Dr. Cadman from doing any more surgeries…but, to do so, means risking not only Gordon’s freedom, but his very life.
With an unfortunate title that confuses it with other classic horror flicks like The Black Cat and The Black Room as well as film noir films like The Big Sleep, The Black Sleep tends to fly under the radar with film fans and horror aficionados alike. The script was written by John C. Higgins (He Walked by Night) from a story by Gerald Drayson Adams (famous for writing Elvis vehicles such as Kissin’ Cousins and Harem Scarum). Reginald Le Borg takes the well-crafted narrative and sticks his creepy fingerprint on it, resulting in a film that both pays tribute to the past while forging ahead into the future. The Black Sleep is a transitional film, marking the change from the classic monster movies of the thirties and forties to the more human, psychological horror of the sixties.
Dr. Cadman is not a run-of-the-mill mad scientist. At first, he doesn’t seem mad at all; he’s just a devoted doctor, dedicated to perfecting his craft and breaking new ground in his field. His motivations are pure yet selfish – he has a comatose wife whom he intends to cure with his research. Even the saving of Gordon’s life seems altruistic at first, his real motivations of needing a capable research assistant clouded by his rescuing of an innocent man. However, as the story goes on and his living failures are revealed, his sanity is questioned. Like most mad scientists, Dr. Cadman believes he is in the right, but Dr. Cadman also has a skillful way of convincing others of his righteousness, and that is what makes him such a great antagonist.
The cast of The Black Sleep seems almost like a who’s-who of horror history. The stars of the film are indisputably Herbert Rudley and Basil Rathbone, and although Rudley has no long legacy in the horror world, Rathbone played key roles in The Black Cat and Son of Frankenstein. However, the real horror legends are found in the supporting cast of The Black Sleep. Bela Lugosi (Dracula) plays Dr. Cadman’s mute servant. Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man) wanders the halls as one of the doctor’s failed experiments. Horror icons John Carradine (The Howling, House of Dracula) and Tor Johnson (Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Beast of Yucca Flats) both play additional failed operation patients locked up underneath Dr. Cadman’s lab, with Carradine especially having fun with his small but exciting role. All that’s missing from a full-blown monster party is Boris Karloff and Claude Rains. Nevertheless, it is a lot of fun to watch the assembled cast of recognizable faces work together on the same screen in The Black Sleep.
The musical score for The Black Sleep was written by prolific B-movie composer Les Baxter (who scored many of Roger Corman’s films, along with other classics like The Beast Within and Pharaoh’s Curse), yet it does not have the same sound or feel of his other work. The score is less jazzy and more cinematic, making it a typical film score but an atypical Baxter score. Although the horns in the orchestration are front and center, the music for The Black Sleep is subtle and low-key, providing more mood than groove to the film. It may not be at the forefront of the film, but Les Baxter’s score for The Black Sleep is nevertheless essential.
Between the clever narrative, the first-rate direction, and the dream team ensemble cast, The Black Sleep is more than just a mad scientist movie; it’s an important film in the historical archive of horror films. It’s also highly entertaining and without a doubt worth a look, especially to fans of the classic Universal horror films.