THE BLACK SLEEP (1956) Blu-ray
Director: Reginald LeBorg
Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Also known as DR. CADMAN’S SECRET, THE BLACK SLEEP was part of a trio of horror films in the 1950s made by Bel-Air Productions (the others being PHARAOH’S CURSE and the Karloff vehicle, VOODOO ISLAND) and released thru United Artists. It’s probably the first genre picture to use as its selling point an “all-star” cast of renowned horror stars all together in one outing (years before AIP made it a common practice), in this case the assemblage of Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, John Carradine and… Akim Tamiroff. A crown jewel for anyone growing up watching “Creature Features” type programming in the glory days of the boob tube, THE BLACK SLEEP now makes its Blu-ray debut, just in time for its 60th anniversary, courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

In 1872 England, Dr. Ramsay (Herbert Rudley, later a regular on the ’67-’69 sitcom, “The Mothers-In-Law”) is to be sent to the gallows for a murder he didn’t commit. His mentor Dr. Cadman (the legendary Basil Rathbone, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN) comes to the rescue, giving him a powdered East Indian drug he calls “The Black Sleep”, enabling him to fake death, with Cadman convincing the authorities to let him accept the supposed cadaver. Ramsay is then successfully revived, assuming a new identity and assisting Cadman in his work, which mainly focuses on experimental brain surgery performed on living victims under the Black Sleep’s spell. Cadman’s enormous castle also serves as an asylum/prison for a number of failed experiments, most of which are mutated beings kept chained up in the hidden dungeon. Naturally, Cadman is a madman, and he's obsessed with reviving his beautiful wife Angelina (Louanna Gardner) who has been in a helpless comatose state for eight months.

Shot in glorious black & white with plenty of Universal-style gothic atmosphere and an imposing abode complete with a mad scientist’s laboratory and a dingy dungeon, THE BLACK SLEEP has more than just its “who’s who” of horror cast going for it. It was directed by Reginald LeBorg, something of a long-time monster movie specialist (having helmed THE MUMMY’S GHOST, JUNGLE WOMAN and some of the “Inner Sanctum” series, all for Universal Pictures), and he adds a number of interesting point-of-view shots and haunting nightmare sequences to the proceedings, all which must have been shot very quickly. Producer Howard W. Koch at this time was primarily known for low budget exploitation (he even directed FRANKENSTEIN 1970), but later graduated to blockbusters such as THE ODD COUPLE and AIRPLANE, among many others. The appropriately eerie music score is provided by Les Baxter, years before his tenure as the house composer over at AIP.

Although some of the sets look cheap and the matte paintings are unconvincing, this only adds to THE BLACK SLEEP’s low-budgeted charms. Even though the film is primarily bloodless, scenes of an exposed brain being sliced by a surgeon’s scalpel (with clear cerebral fluid oozing out as a result) pre-date the shocking gore (for the time) found in Hammer Film’s gothic Frankenstein and Dracula entries, which were still several years away. It’s mostly Rathbone’s show, and he does a fine job of playing an outwardly classy and caring doctor who proves to be totally callous and possibly mad as the film progresses. Rudley is also good as the younger doctor who is involuntarily propelled into a house of extreme terrors, even though he’s probably a few years too old for his part. It’s strange that second-billed Akim Tamiroff is hyped with his co-stars as a kind of king of horror, as he’d hardly done any genre films before this (he would later essay the title role in the incredibly awful THE VULTURE). In a part which was reportedly intended for Peter Lorre (which would make far more sense), Tamiroff plays Odo, a smiling, sleazy gypsy and tattoo artist who supplies living victims for Dr. Cadman.

As for the other legendary stars, Bela Lugosi looks frail and is at the end of his life (he died the year the film was made and released). As the mute servant, he doesn’t have any dialog and doesn’t do much else but open and shut doors, perform some sign language, shrug his shoulders and make an exasperated face in reaction to the bad weather. Many have commented how Lugosi was wasted in this film, but Lugosi as part of an ensemble cast is better than no Lugosi at all. Also having no dialog, Chaney plays a former doctor, now a messy-haired hulking menace named Mungo who spends most of his screen time trying to strangle his daughter (Patricia Blair, CAGE OF EVIL). Chaney still looks quite menacing in a 1950s era, “Indestructible Man” sort of way. John Carradine shows up during the last third as one of the dungeon dementos, a long-haired bearded nut screaming a lot of gibberish. It’s fun to see him causing a housekeeper to be set on fire and clubbing poor Chaney with his crutch. Tor Johnson (THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS) is also present, resembling his familiar “Lobo” character and looking massively threatening with his albino pupils. Johnson was not hyped in the film’s advertising as one of big horror icons, probably since his efforts for Ed Wood had not yet become cult fodder, and it would be some years before he received accolades in monster mags and such. The other creatures are made up of a sailor (George Sawaya, THE DEVIL’S RAIN) with a sagging face and cranium scars, and a cat-like woman (Sally Yarnell) with half a bald head and clumps of hair all over.

Previously released by MGM as a manufactured-on-demand DVD as part of its Limited Edition Collection, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has now licensed the film for this new Blu-ray, mastered from a recent HD transfer. The 1080p black & white image is very impressive; it’s crisp (especially in its close-ups on facial features), natural and film-like, with fine grain structure. Black levels are solid, with no evidence of compression or other digital artifacts, and the grey scale is well maintained, with nice density. Some print source blemishes are evident, but they’re fleeting and non-distractive. For the first time on home video, the film has been presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, so the compositions look far better and far more cinematic than the boxy, open matte transfers we’ve been subjected to in the past. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is clear as a bell, with no noticeable hiss or distortion. No subtitle options are included on the disc.

An audio commentary is included with film historian Tom Weaver who begins by stating that THE BLACK SLEEP is to horror as what IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD is to comedy. Having encountered many who were involved in this film over the years (all who have now passed away), including producer Howard W. Koch, executive producer Aubrey Schenck, assistant director Paul Wurtzel, stars Herbert Rudley, Patricia Blake (he only talked to her briefly, as she was impossible to get a hold of and passed away before he could nail down an interview) and Louanna Gardner, Weaver was the perfect choice to do the talk. He covers a lot here, including that it was shot at American National (the former PRC Studios) at a time when Hollywood wasn’t making these kinds of horror films; he describes the differences between an early draft of the script and the final movie; he shares on-the-set tidbits about Lugosi (Tor Johnson carried him to the set each day) and the other cast members; he tells how the film was ahead of its time even though it harkens back to 1940s mad scientist films; he describes how censors were concerned about the surgery scene (especially in the UK); and tells a tragic anecdote about a boy with a heart condition who died while watching the film’s co-feature, THE CREEPING UNKNOWN on the original theatrical run. Soundtrack expert David Schecter is heard on the commentary for about 17 minutes, discussing the film’s composer Les Baxter and the possibility that didn’t do the score for this film (he was rumored to have used ghost writers for some of his earlier work), something he describes here in great detail. A “Trailers From Hell” segment is narrated by Joe Dante (over the “Dr. Cadman’s re-release trailer) and the original trailer (presented here full frame) never shows the film’s title during its duration. Rounding out the extras are an animated still gallery (featuring some nice production photos) and trailers for DONOVAN’S BRAIN and THE MAGNETIC MONSTER. (George R. Reis)