I am embarking on a writing project (a screenplay) that is going to require a lot of research. Luckily for me that research mostly involves watching a whole bunch of old movies. And I’m talking b-movie schlock horror. Mad scientists, monsters, screaming girls, crumbling castles, fog, lightning, all that good stuff. As I’m watching them I figured I might as well share some of the great old movies with you, starting with The Black Sleep from 1956.
It was released in America as a double feature alongside The Creeping Unknown which, if you live in the UK, you might not have heard of. Over here it was called The Quatermass Xperiment.
The Black Sleep was so scary to audiences back in 1956 that the parents of Stewart Cohen tried to sue United Artists and the Lake Theatre for negligence after their nine year-old son died of fright. He was so afraid that he ruptured an artery.
Written by John C. Higgins, (who also wrote a film called Robinson Crusoe on Mars starring Adam West, which I’ve only discovered in writing this introduction and is going straight to the top of my to-watch list), The Black Sleep is about a mad scientist who is trying to cure his wife’s brain tumour by experimenting with people’s brains.
It stars Basil Rathbone as Dr Joel Cadman, the mad scientist of the movie. The quality of the movie is heightened by two supporting cast members, legends of Universal Monster movies; Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi.
Dr Gordon Ramsey, played by Herbert Rudley, is in prison the night before he is due to be hung for murder when he gets a visit from his old mentor, Dr Cadman. Cadman tells Ramsey that he believes he is innocent but is unable to help. He offers Ramsey a sedative to make the hanging easier. This is a lie. The powder he pours into Ramsey’s drink is an East Indian drug known as The Black Sleep which induces a deathlike state of anaesthesia.
Ramsey is pronounced dead in his cell and so avoids the noose. The body is turned over to Cadman. When safely inside Cadman’s abbey home, Ramsey is revived. Cadman explains that he needs Ramsey’s talents to help him revive his wife, who is in a coma due to a deep-seated brain tumour.
They get to work on examining the brain of a corpse. Ramsey learns that the “corpse” they had experimented on was alive and was now being kept in a basement dungeon where more living victims of Dr Cadman’s experiments were being kept, including Curry; the very man Ramsey had been accused of murdering.
Curry is played by Tor Johnson who you might recognise as the big guy from the infamous Ed Wood movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Lon Chaney Jr. plays Mungo, who walks with a dragging leg and torments Laurie Monroe (played by Patricia Blair). It turns out that Mungo is her father, Dr Monroe. He was a lecturer at the medical college who suffered a brain disease that Cadman said he could cure. Instead, his experiments turn him into a mindless leg-dragging monster.
The Black sleep was Bela Lugosi’s last movie (unless you count Plan 9 from Outer Space, which he was in but died before the film went into production. They used test footage of Lugosi in the finished film).
Lugosi plays Casimir, a mute servant. I loved him in this film. He has so much presence in every film he’s in and I’m always pleased when he pops up.
During production Lugosi was unhappy that his character didn’t have any lines so, to pacify him, the director, Reginald Le Borg, filmed some dialogue scenes with the actor and then just didn’t put them in the movie.
The film is great. They really put the effort in to make it creepy and atmospheric. They even got a real neurosurgeon in for the close-ups of the brain surgery to make it more believable.
I’m working on a screenplay that will be a homage to the old b-movies of the 40s and 50s. I love these old films and I think more people should go out there and rediscover them. The Black Sleep is available to watch on Amazon Prime and so are many other classics (including The Quatermass Xperiment, which is also great).