Directed by Reginald Le Borg [Other horror films: Calling Dr. Death (1943), Weird Woman (1944), Jungle Woman (1944), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), Dead Man’s Eyes (1944), Voodoo Island (1957), Diary of a Madman (1963), House of the Black Death (1965), So Evil, My Sister (1974)]
In some ways, The Black Sleep feels quite a bit like a Hammer film, despite being an American production. It does have a good story, solid cast, and pretty tense ending, but I couldn’t absolutely find myself in a position to love it come the credits.
Recommended to me by an online friend who knows I dabble in the more classic entries of the genre, much in this movie certainly came across a pleasant surprise. The story is pretty fun, and has a twist thrown in there too. Some scenes, such as the dungeon sequence, were rather frightening, and felt more out of a 60’s or 70’s horror film than a 50’s (in fact, some of this movie reminded me quite a bit of Mansion of the Doomed from 1976).
The cast is superb. Basil Rathbone and Herbert Rudley did well as the main characters, Rathbone of course being a rather well-known actor (as he played Sherlock Holmes in quite a few films, including the 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles, a classic), and while I don’t know Rudley, he was convincing in his role. Lon Chaney Jr. (who needs no introduction) didn’t have a big chance to showcase his abilities here, but still exceeded in the role he was given. The same is true for Bela Lugosi, who played a mute, but given that this is his final movie performance before his death later in the same year, that can be excused.
Tor Johnson (perhaps most infamously known from The Beast of Yucca Flats) gives a strong performance here, despite not really appearing until near the end of the film. Patricia Blair isn’t a name I’m familiar with, but I liked her as the main female character in the film. Lastly, both Akim Tamiroff and John Carradine were notable in their roles, though Carradine probably was the most forgettable.
It’s hard for me to say where the downsides of this movie arise from, given that so much of the movie (from the cast to the story) is pretty good. Suffice it to say, maybe the bulk of the film, dealing with a scientist who is above the morality of mere mortals, felt more akin to a 30’s or 40’s throwback film than to the 50’s. At the same time, I could easily see Hammer looking at this movie as a way to influence their Curse of Frankenstein, which came out the following year.
Whatever my personal shortcomings of the film are, I won’t deny that this is a classic that unfortunately seems to be overlooked by many nowadays. I didn’t know much about it before jumping in, but I was mostly pleased by the film overall, and if you’re a fan of the classics of the genre, given the cast this film has, I’m somewhat sure you’ll be pleased also.