Tuesday, April 19, 2011

THE BLACK SLEEP

Like Warner Brothers and several other studios, MGM has recently entered into the "Manufacture-On-Demand" arena with the "MGM Limited Edition Collection" of high-quality, burned-to-order DVD-Rs of niche films previously unavailable on home video. Already, a great number of titles have been made available in the line, in a variety of genres. One long-anticipated cult favorite, 1956's THE BLACK SLEEP, is among this month's wave of new releases.

Dr. Gordon Ramsey (Herbert Rudley) is about to be hanged for a murder he didn't commit, when he is visited in his cell by his mentor, Dr. Cadman (Basil Rathbone, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, THE BLACK CAT), who offers him a sedative to calm him before his execution. The sedative turns out to be a powder that simulates death - "the Black Sleep" of the title - and the authorities release the "corpse" into Cadman's care for burial. Soon revived, Ramsey discovers that Cadman needs his help in conducting experimental brain surgeries, surgeries that have so far resulted in a castle filled with dangerous, deranged maniacs - portrayed by such classic horror stars as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine... and Tor Johnson!

As directed by B-movie veteran Reginald Le Borg (THE MUMMY'S GHOST, DEAD MAN'S EYES, VOODOO ISLAND), THE BLACK SLEEP is a surprisingly good - and clearly low, low-budget - throwback to the Gothic horrors of the Forties, with a cobwebbed castle complete with secret passageways, laboratories and dungeons, an "all-star" cast of charismatic creeps (even if both Lugosi - in his last completed performance - and Chaney play mutes), surprisingly graphic special effects, and a spooky score by Les Baxter (THE HOUSE OF USHER, TALES OF TERROR, etc.). It's not a classic horror film, by any means, but it is quite enjoyable, with strong, textured performances by Rathbone and Rudley (an experienced stage actor), a script that almost seems a template for Hammer Studios' Frankenstein films, and brisk, efficient direction by Le Borg. Sure, it's cheap, and it is kind of sad seeing the physical deterioration of genre legends Chaney and Lugosi... but it's also great Late Show/Shock Theater-type entertainment, and ghoulishly good fun.

The "MGM Limited Edition Collection" disc presents THE BLACK SLEEP on a high-quality, professional-grade DVD-R in a B&W non-anamorphic, 1.33:1 "full frame" transfer. According to the IMDb, the correct theatrical aspect ratio for the movie is 1.85:1, which (along with the ample headroom in the frame) indicates that this an open-matte presentation. It looks remarkably good, however, with no missing visual information evident. The source material appears nearly pristine, with no notable damage or debris visible. Contrast and detail are also good, with nice, solid blacks. Audio is a simple, but clear, Dolby Digital Mono. The only extra is the theatrical trailer.

I've read about THE BLACK SLEEP in film reference books for years, and now that I've seen it for myself, I have to say: it's better than its reputation. Fans of classic horror films (and/or Famous Monsters magazine) should definitely check this one out. It's a fairly typical B-movie Gothic romp, but the novelty of having Rathbone, Lugosi, Chaney, Carradine and Johnson all in one film makes it something special - especially since it was Lugosi's last appearance in the genre.

BUY: The Black Sleep