BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE BLACK SLEEP

By • Mar 17th, 2011 •

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My memory of this from age twelve was of something frightening and disgusting. Gross makeup effects, including a brain exposed in someone’s head and electrodes probing it, creating movement in the patient/victim. Also, although I hadn’t been exposed to Shock Theater yet, with all its Universal prizes, a mute Bela Lugosi, a rampaging Lon Chaney Jr, an obese Tor Johnson with opaque eyeballs, a raving, bearded John Carradine, and a very creepy, threatening Basil Rathbone, all worked their black magic on me, and images of them were blasted into my brain, occasionally surfacing from my subconscious over the decades since, making me wonder whether the film would hold up in any way other than those which torture a pre-adolescent mind, and if it would prove to be a lurid kin to Ed Wood, to most of the early Cormans, and the like.

Late to find its way to DVD, as part of the nascent MGM Archives, I finally got to view THE BLACK SLEEP again, and was surprised to find an intelligent-if-quickly-made ‘B’ awaiting me. (At one point Rathbone is handing Akim Tamiroff some money, and a few bills fall to the floor – neither actor takes notice, or if they did, they just kept on with the scene, because this was probably one-take city.) Something not quite up to Val Lewton’s wondrous output, but definitely in line with his aspirations. I lay the praise for this on the Spartan shoulders of director Reginald Le Borg, who inspired his cast, for the few days he had them, to focus on the truth of their roles, no matter how inarticulate their characters might be. Chaney is actually as good in this – by turns grimacing with psychotic rage, then cowering like a guilty dog – as he was in OF MICE AND MEN or THE WOLFMAN franchise. I believed every frame of his performance. And Lugosi, in his last completed film, rail-thin, his mellifluous tones denied him by the script, is still creepily effective. Rathbone is given good dialogue, and he delivers it with Shakespearian gravitas. And Akim Tamiroff, two years before TOUCH OF EVIL, has a grand old time playing the notes of his colorful character. I could easily see Peter Lorre in this role, which would have made it a full hand of hardcore horror cast members – and later learned that Lorre was indeed targeted for the role, but held out for too much money.

As the bland-but-earnest Lewtonesque male cast member thrust into this simmering madhouse of medical malpractice, Herbert (stage-trained) Rudley at first feels off the mark. But he grows into synch with his fellow thesps, acquitting himself admirably once he joins Rathbone in the old abbey where the experiments take place. And Patricia (tons of TV) Blair, as Chaney’s daughter, forced to reluctantly do Rathbone’s bidding, is strikingly beautiful and capable of a decent emotional range.

In other words, all of them are up to the task of investing unexpected and consistent levels of reality into this low-budget exercise, and it’s a treat to have it on my shelf after all these years. Nothing is sloughed off by the filmmakers – neither the props, nor the effects, and certainly not John C. Higgins’ screenplay, which goes after period detail and intelligent dialogue in a way that would have made Lewton proud of the effort.

A serviceable score, and during a scene featuring Chaney, which goes from menacing to pitiful, I could detect a note or two from the old Universal library being lifted, possibly from a scene with Lawrence Talbot which also had a mournful air. Could Les Baxter have intended it, or are those Universal cues so embedded in composers’ collective consciousness that it came to him as if it were his own?

Eager to see more of Reginald Le Borg, I tracked down a Universal limited release of the six “Inner Sanctum” ‘B’ features Chaney made in the mid-40s. At that time, despite his extremely limited range both as an actor and as a personality, he was the studio’s major horror icon. And that is fitting, since in the 40s, Universal went into factory mode, churning out likeable but formulaic fright flicks, and Chaney was more appropriate for the assembly line than the major horror stars of the Golden Era.

I didn’t remember the “Inner Sanctum” mellers being exceptional, and they haven’t been remembered fondly by horror historians. But to my surprise, the first two – CALLING DR. DEATH and WEIRD WOMAN, are stylish little chillers, worthy of the best that the “Thriller” TV series had to offer, which is essentially what they were – quickie productions with the kind of schedules hour-long TV productions would be given, except that Universal had a pristine feature-film-making studio at its service, and Le Borg, who helmed the first three, made superb use of the facility. Moody lighting, nice camera moves and angles, and robust art direction characterized these first installments in the series. And clearly, from the way the series degenerated creatively after Le Borg departed following the third entry, it was his energy, commitment, and resourcefulness that made them shine.

Chaney was the center of these mini-films, and there was no getting around the predominant character elements he lugged from each to the next – he is oafish and boorish throughout. He also hits his thespian mark competently from time to time, when being put upon, when doubting his own beliefs, etc. He’s not bad, really, he’s just…Lon.

1944’s WEIRD WOMAN, in particular, was a blast. It’s the earliest version of Fritz Leiber’s 1943 novel “Conjure Wife” which was later made again as a full-length feature – BURN, WITCH, BURN, in 1962, written by horror royalty Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt, and starring Peter Wyngarde and Janet Blair. A tale of witchcraft on a college campus, it mirrored in symbolic terms the intense politics that exist in the academic world. I think Le Borg’s version is as good as the ’62 effort, and the IMBD voters seem to agree. I read in Michael & John Brunas’ and Tom Weaver’s definitive McFarland book “Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946”, that WEIRD WOMAN is considered a camp classic, guaranteed to bring a crowd to paroxysms of laughter. I saw it alone, and found it great fun but not unintentional self-parody. However I’d be glad to roar with delight if that’s the way it goes over with a group. Most of the six films in the collection have fun supporting casts, and this is one of the best, featuring not only Anne Gwynne and Evelyn Ankers, but Simone Simon’s creepy cultural cat sister, Elizabeth Russell. The 63-minute film moves like mad, and is admirably well made.

CALLING DR. DEATH is just a tad behind WEIRD WOMAN in entertainment value. This time we’ve got J. Carrol Naish as a rude, pesky police detective, and it’s one of his better performances in a long, distinguished career. The third entrée – DEAD MAN’S EYES – features Acquanetta (the ape woman of JUNGLE CAPTIVE), who was promoted by the studio as The Venezualan Volcano, whereas in reality she was The Apathetic Arapaho. Nonetheless she’s minor iconic, and voluptuous, and while her deadpan slinking around brings the film down a notch from the other two, it’s still great to have her aboard.

After these three, Le Borg departed the series, and the remaining three are nowhere near as entertaining or stylish as the ones over which he presided. J. Carrol Naish even reappears in one of the others, and is not as good.

I was sold. Reginald Le Borg was an unheralded “B” auteur, up there with the likes of Edgar Ulmer, Roy William Neil, and others who may have exhibited greater or lesser degrees of talent, but who routinely gave potentially degraded material their all, elevating it by dint of creative energy.

I decided to give him yet another look, with 1957’s VOODOO ISLAND, starring none other than Boris Karloff, the one aging horror great outside of Lorre who didn’t appear in THE BLACK SLEEP. This title is on an MGM ‘Midnite Movies’ Double Feature along with THE FOUR SKULLS OF JONATHAN DRAKE.

Unfortunately, I’d gone one film too many with Reginald. Nicely produced like the others, VOODOO ISLAND is so littered with inner logic problems that it isn’t even fun. There’s a little potential lesbian activity that seems promising as a subplot, acted by Jean Engstrom (who later appeared in a few episodes of “Thrilller,”) She ends up getting smothered by phallic plant life in a scene that rivals Lugosi’s death in BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, where he had to assist the absurdly inanimate monster to kill him (a scene lovingly recreated in Tim Burton’s ED WOOD). The presence of Elisha Cook Jr. is another of Le Borg’s nice casting coups. And there’s Rhodes Reason – younger brother of Rex, with the same general facial features and voice, who later played Andrew in THE BIG FISHERMAN. But it’s a bad film. ‘Unrewarding,’ as Orson Welles would say.

Back to THE BLACK SLEEP. On the DVD, the film is preceded with a disclaimer from MGM/Fox, stating that they used the best materials available. Yet there was nothing wrong with the print quality. I guess they were just protecting themselves, but they needn’t have bothered.

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2 Responses »

  1. It’s nice to see a review for this film–saw it for the first time a few years ago and enjoyed it. I think you hit the nail on the head with the comparisons to Val Lewton (Bedlam). I was also surprised to see that it was a interesting precursor to the Hammer Frankensteins, with Rathbone’s characterization of the doctor similar to Peter Cushing’s baron. Nice to know it’s finally out on DVD!

  2. Sadly this is a ‘made on demand dvd-r’ and also not its correct aspect ratio of 1.66…hopefully one day we can see a restored version of this film.

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